NEW YORK — Evelyn Cunningham, a pioneering journalist who covered the birth of the 1960s civil rights movement and later served as an aide to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, died Wednesday. She was 94.
She died of natural causes at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan, said her niece, Gigi Freeman.
Cunningham was a reporter and editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper, from the 1940s through the early 1960s. She earned 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, 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, 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.
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“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. “Y’know, I play a lot of it. You can learn a lot from them cats.”
Cunningham also hosted a radio show on WLIB in New York before turning to government service.
She served as a special assistant to Rockefeller for community relations and was named director of the Women’s Unit of the state of New York in 1969. She followed Rockefeller to Washington when he was Gerald Ford’s vice president.
Cunningham was a Harlem fixture for decades and a supporter of cultural institutions, including the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“Evelyn was a visionary and her good works touched many people,” said Jonelle Procope, Apollo Theater Foundation president and CEO. “This is a great loss for the African-American community.”
Cunningham was appointed to numerous government task forces and commissions. Mayor Michael Bloomberg named her to the New York City Commission on Women’s Issues in 2002.
Bloomberg said in a statement: “With the passing of Evelyn Cunningham, all New Yorkers and all Americans who value our ideals of liberty and justice for all have lost a good friend and a fearless champion.”
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.”
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 is survived by her niece, Freeman, who served as her caregiver.