Evelyn Cunningham, 94, journalist in civil rights era
NEW YORK — Evelyn Cunningham, a pioneering journalist who covered the birth of the civil rights movement and later served as an aide to Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, died of natural causes Wednesday at Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan. She was 94.
Ms. Cunningham was a reporter and editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper, from the 1940s through the early 1960s. She got the nickname “the lynching editor’’ for her reporting on lynchings in the segregated South.
She interviewed prominent civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and produced a three-part series on the King family.
In 1998, Ms. Cunningham and other Courier staff members accepted a George Polk Award for the paper’s civil rights coverage. In an interview with The New York Times at the time of the award, Ms. Cunningham recalled walking up to Eugene “Bull’’ Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner who had ordered fire hoses turned on civil rights workers, and asking for an interview. He used a racial epithet and walked away.
“Actually, I didn’t anticipate he would give me the interview,’’ she said. “But as a reporter, I had to give it a shot.’’
She also interviewed sports and entertainment figures.
When she visited Louis Armstrong at his home in Queens, she asked him about the classical music he was listening to.
“It’s Beethoven,’’ Armstrong said. “You know, I play a lot of it. You can learn a lot from them cats.’’
She served as an assistant to Rockefeller for community relations and followed Rockefeller to Washington when he served as Gerald Ford’s vice president.
“Evelyn was a visionary, and her good works touched many people,’’ said Jonelle Procope, Apollo Theater Foundation president and CEO.
She told the Daily News in a November 2009 interview that the election of Barack Obama to president was hard to believe.
“No, I did not see it happening,’’ she said. “I met him right here in this apartment. He came up to see me when he first visited the city. I adored him. He was a natural-born leader.’’
Ms. Cunningham’s four marriages ended in divorce. She told the Times, “Each one of my husbands tried to diminish my independence and my work.’’
She leaves her niece, Gigi Freeman, who served as her caregiver.