In another sign of the passing of an era, noted civil rights reporter Evelyn Cunningham died April 28 in Manhattan. She was 94.
“We keep losing people,” said fellow Black Press reporter Moses Newson, who covered civil rights and related stories such as the Little Rock Nine for the AFRO during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The retired journalist pointed to the recent deaths of former NAACP Chairman Benjamin Hooks and civil rights heroine Dr. Dorothy Height.
Newson said Cunningham was a respected journalist who “left her mark” and had a byline that many readers looked forward to seeing in her 20-year career with the Pittsburgh Courier. “The kind of work she did, in the interest of bringing about change, took courage,” he said.
Called the “Lynching Editor” for her fearless coverage of those heinous killings in the South as well as desegregation in Alabama and other major stories of the civil rights era, Cunningham was a rare female presence in a mostly-male profession that often relegated women reporters to the “soft news.”
In a PBS documentary, Cunningham reveled in the fact that she never had to cover “weddings,” but instead fought for and secured the tough assignments, and conducted often revealing interviews with such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
“It’s what I wanted to do with my life from the get-go,” Cunningham said of her profession in a PBS documentary. “You know, I just wanted be a journalist and it was terribly exciting.”
In one such exciting moment, the pioneering press woman interviewed King soon after his house was firebombed in January 1956.
“I dashed over to Dr. King’s house and, sure enough, the front of the house was demolished. He was not hurt. His wife was not hurt,” she recalled in the documentary. “There was only one child at that moment, but, ah, you have no idea the impact of standing there watching this young man plead with these hundreds of people who were standing in front of his house with Coke bottles and pipes getting ready to go into town and beat up somebody, to watch him tell them to be calm, to be calm, that was not the way, it was a no-win situation to take the bottles and the pipes and go start a fight, you could not do it that way.”
For that and other stories, Cunningham was one of five former Courier reporters to receive the prestigious George Polk Award in 1998 for their civil rights coverage.
Though a longtime Harlem, N.Y. resident, Cunningham was born Jan. 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C, to a taxi driver and a dressmaker. She excelled after moving to New York, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University.
In the late 1960s she was named as a special aide to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, heading an office on women’s affairs and later advising him when he became President Gerald R. Ford’s vice president.
One of her final public appearances was at the Apollo Theater when presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared there during his campaign in 2008, the Amsterdam News reported, which gave her a chance to see the fruition of the issues she covered.
“This is quite incredible,” she said of Obama’s chances. “I never thought I’d live to see such a possibility.”