About 50 people remembered Kay Mills at a Washington, D.C. memorial service Feb. 8 as an unpretentious and influential writer who shone a bright light on the unfinished job of justice in American society.
She was “a trail blazer, but also a trail clearer,” said Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She was “an unwavering voice … (who) hated injustice” and who “made things happen,” for the good of a wide range of people.
Mills, who died January 13, 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., had a productive career as a wire service, newspaper and freelance journalist and author of five published books.
Her editorials in the Los Angeles Times on the Equal Rights Amendment, the gender gap, the Family Medical Leave Act and many other issues that drew little attention from the East Coast media gave those issues a legitimacy, helping activists push forward with their efforts to improve conditions for women, children, minorities and the poor, said Kathy Bonk, co-founder and executive director of the Communications Consortium Media Center.
“She had a phenomenal impact on public policy,” said Ralph G. Neas, former chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Mills, a careful writer and superb reporter who would go undercover to expose substandard education for minority students, believed in the separation of journalism from activism. She was nonetheless an activist within her own newsrooms, said longtime friend and colleague Cheryl Arvidson. “She was part of a self-appointed delegation of young Turks who got a meeting with the (Baltimore Evening Sun) editors to urge better coverage of race” only a few days before the riots that broke out following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, Arvidson noted, quoting Mills’ former Evening Sun colleague and lifelong friend, Dean Mills. She was “a terrific reporter, doggedly pursuing the facts and fearlessly standing up for herself against challenges that could have easily cowed a lesser spirit,” Arvidson noted.
Later in life, “Kay and Eileen Shanahan and I basically invented beats on the national women’s political movement in 1971-72 when lots of new groups were founded,” said JAWS member and former AP reporter Peggy Simpson. “The very idea of a “women’s movement” was a laughing matter for some – including, you remember, President Nixon, who used a White House press event to rib Helen Thomas and Fran Lewine about the first meeting national women’s political caucus….about those women who wore trousers. Nixon’s ridicule helped put the Caucus on the map.”
Kay loved good humor, not the ridiculing kind, and her stories, her competitiveness on the tennis court, her enjoyment of good wine and food, and her role as a friend and mentor also sparked reminiscences at the event.
“She could make good transitions between the best French meals and Mississippi River catfish,” Edelman recalled. Kay once firmly instructed Edelman to stop introducing her as a member of the LA Times editorial board, preferring to simply be known as a writer.
She could be counted on as a friend for advice, ideas and career strategizing, and often managed to turn difficult personal experiences into positive results, such as when Karen Mulhauser, who once led the National Abortion Rights Action League, testified before Congress about her own experience as a victim of sexual assault. Kay’s thoughtful editorial put her experience in context of the law and public policy and urged Congress to make needed changes in the law.
Her cousins, as Kay’s closest surviving family members, were unable to attend but they sent a statement that was read at the event, recalling Kay’s earliest years.
The evening ended as it began at the National Public Radio meeting room, with music, food, drink, stories, and suggestions as to how best put into action some of the ideas on which Kay was working.
A West Coast memorial service for Kay Mills will be held Feb. 27 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, 1260 18th St., Santa Monica, CA 90404. For more information and a parking permit, please send your name to firstname.lastname@example.org.