Kay Mills: Remembering a Trailblazing Journalist


Sandra Fish

As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we reflect on a time when minorities and women struggled for equality in the United States.

King was the motivation and the spirit behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but many others did their part in the continuing efforts to bring about equality for all in America.

Kay Mills was one of those people. She was a friend of mine, and of hundreds of other women journalists for whom she helped blaze a trail. She died Thursday of a heart attack at age 69 in Santa Monica.

She began her career as a journalist in the mid-1960s after getting a master's degree in African history from Northwestern University. She recounted women's place in journalism in her book, "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page," but she also lived that history. The Chicago bureau of Newsweek didn't hire her in 1966: She noted that the bureau chief said to her "I need someone I can send anywhere, like to riots. And besides, what would you do if someone you were covering ducked into the men's room?"

Instead, she wrote broadcast news for United Press International, then went to the Baltimore Evening Sun. After a stint working for U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, she worked in Newhouse Newspapers' Washington bureau. In 1978, the Los Angeles Times hired her as an editorial writer, one of the first women to serve on the board and often the only woman, according to the Times obituary.

But Mills' trailblazing went beyond her newsroom career. She lived her life in the spirit of Rev. King -- and in the spirit of those lesser known leaders of the movement. In 1991, she left the newsroom to write books and freelance, covering the issues of equality that were near and dear to her heart.

"This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,"
paid tribute to one of the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement. Hamer helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer and attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention as vice-chairwoman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a challenge to her state's all-white delegation.

As an Alicia Patterson journalism fellow in 1995, Kay worked on the project "Faces of Head Start," which later became part of her book "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start." And in "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television," she recounted the successful challenge to a Jackson, Miss., TV station's license for its failure to cover the civil rights movement.

"Kay was fearless," wrote Pat Sullivan, a longtime friend of Kay's and a Washington Post staff writer, in an e-mail. "She left a steady job because she believed there was an audience for serious nonfiction about women and civil rights figures, and she proved that to be true. She dug and dug, finding the untold anecdote, the unheralded pioneer and the unexamined trends in our common history. She then told those tales so that the rest of us could understand why it mattered.

"Her work took her to Montana Indian reservations, Mississippi sharecropper huts and inner-city Head Start programs in Los Angeles, not to mention the days spent in the National Archives warehouses in Washington, D.C., " Sullivan wrote.

Mills also served on the founding board of the Journalism and Women Symposium, organized in 1985 to support women in the industry. She wrote the "her-story" of the group, tracking its evolution from a small, social gathering to an annual professional weekend with plenty of time for sociability built in. As part of JAWS, Mills served as a kind and encouraging mentor to others -- from mid-career women to those just out of college.

"Kay paid forward her respect for her journalistic foremothers," said friend Glenda Holste. "First, Kay wrote them into history with 'A Place in the News.' Then, as an iconic leader herself, Kay reached out to the next generation of women to mentor, open doors and decode the mysteries of the Old Boys' Club."

Mary C. Curtis, one of my Woman UP colleagues, noted, "At the last JAWS conference, we shared a drink and conversation one evening, and she spent most of her time pushing me to reach higher and higher. I can't believe she's gone."

A few years ago, one of our JAWS panels was titled "We've Come a Long Way, Maybe." The conclusion that there's plenty more to do when it comes to women and minorities in newsrooms is borne out by the annual diversity survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In the 2010 survey, women made up only about 34 percent of newsroom supervisors -- virtually unchanged since 1999. Minority employment is 13 percent, up about 2 percent since 1999.

Kay Mills did her part to get us where we are today, but she also believed we still have a way to go. I'm among the women who've benefited from the trails Mills and her counterparts blazed.

With her loss, it's up to me and the women of my generation -- and the generations that follow us -- to work to preserve and honor Mills' legacy of fighting for equality and recognizing those who did so much of the hard work in the past.