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Kay Mills dies at 69; journalist and award-winning author

She worked for several major news organizations for three decades, including the Los Angeles Times, where she was an editorial writer and one of the first women on its editorial board. She also wrote five books.

January 15, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

Kay Mills, a widely respected journalist and award-winning author whose books reflected her deep interest in women's issues and the civil rights movement, died Thursday at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. She was 69.

The cause was a heart attack, said a close friend, Geraldine Kennedy.

Mills was the author of five books, including "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page" (1988) and "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" (1993).

"A Place in the News," her anecdotal history of women in American journalism, began with a personal story. When she applied for a job at Newsweek's Chicago bureau in 1966, the bureau chief told 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?"

Mills did not have a witty retort; nor did she get the job. But she worked on the staffs of several major news organizations over the next three decades, including The Times, where she was an editorial writer from 1978 to 1991. She was one of the first women on The Times editorial board and remained the only woman there for many years.

"She made it clear how important it was to her as a woman to be on the editorial board," said Alvin Shuster, a former Times editor, who hired Mills for the job. "She brought that dimension to the editorials."

Mills was driven to write "A Place in the News" because, she told the New York Times some years ago, "I was trying to sort out why this profession I cared so much about really didn't return the favor for women — and I might add, minorities — for such a long time." She believed that broadening newspaper staffs beyond "the same old interchangeable races running America's newsrooms" would improve coverage.

Born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 1941, Mills earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Pennsylvania State University in 1963 and a master's in African history at Northwestern University in 1965.

Her first journalism job was as a broadcast writer and editor for United Press International in Chicago from 1964 to 1967. She later worked for the Baltimore Evening Sun and Newhouse News Service as a Washington-based reporter. She also served as assistant press secretary to U.S. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D- Maine) in 1970-71.

Early in her career, she became fascinated by Hamer, a former sharecropper and Mississippi civil rights activist who gained national attention with a stirring speech about racism at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Mills recalled in a 1993 interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that she was riveted by Hamer's testimony about losing her plantation job and home after trying to register to vote and being jailed and beaten for her civil rights work.

Mills followed Hamer in the news for several years before she finally met her in the early 1970s. Her book — the first full-length adult biography of Hamer — earned good notices from critics, including Leon Dash in Washington Post Book World, who wrote, "Mills' well-written, well-research biography comes at an opportune time, for it is hard to believe that a generation has grown up almost ignorant of the work and lives of ordinary men and women like Hamer."

The biography won the 1993-94 Julia Spruill Book prize for the best book on Southern women's history from the Southern Assn. of Women's Historians.

A former Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Mills taught journalism and writing at a number of universities, including USC and Princeton, and was a founding board member of the Journalism and Women Symposium. She also chaired the biography jury for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her other books include "From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know about Women's History in America" (1995) and "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start" (1998).

Before she died, she was at work on a mystery novel set in France.

Mills is survived by four cousins. A memorial service will be announced later.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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