Jean M. White, Post journalist who covered civil rights and reviewed mysteries, dies at 87

July 17, 2012

Jean M. White, a retired Washington Post journalist who covered civil rights in the 1960s and later carved a specialty reviewing mysteries for the old Book World section, died July 14 at her home in Washington. She was 87.

She died of complications from anemia and sodium deficiency, said a cousin, Mary Lou Whitehead.

Ms. White spent nearly 30 years writing for The Post before retiring in 1982. In the 1960s, she became one of the first women to join the national desk, and she wrote extensively about civil rights. She recalled getting pelted with eggs when covering school desegregation in New Orleans in 1960.

In addition to reporting on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial and racial unrest in Detroit and Milwaukee, Ms. White also wrote about civil rights from the policy and administrative level in Washington.

She noted the “explosive potential” of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report to President Lyndon B. Johnson that addressed the increase in out-of-wedlock births among African American families and its affect on black advancement.


Jean M. White was a retired Washington Post journalist who covered civil rights in the 1960s and later carved a specialty reviewing mysteries for the old Book World section. (The Washington Post)

In 1969, Ms. White became cultural editor in the newly created Style section. Her responsibilities included editing reviews of film, theater, art, music, dance and television.

“Not that I was an expert on any of these fields,” she later wrote in an autobiographical statement. Rather, with reporting and writing experience, my job was to assure that reviews, sometimes esoteric, should reach out to the general public.”

After three years as an editor, she returned to writing as a general assignment reporter in Style and also contributed to the Book World section before and after her retirement in 1982. She considered one of her greatest achievements persuading the book editor to launch regular coverage of mystery novels. “As a mystery reviewer at The Post,” she wrote, “I received far more letters from readers than I did as a reporter.”

Jean Marie White was born June 18, 1925, in Williamsport, Pa. She served in the Navy Waves at the end of World War II and entered college on the GI Bill. She was a 1950 summa cum laude graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., with a bachelor’s degree in English and chemistry. She received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s journalism school in 1953.

That year, she became a city desk reporter at The Post and gravitated to cultural stories whenever possible. In the early 1960s, she wrote about the Louvre museum in Paris loaning two of the world’s best-known paintings — “Mona Lisa” and “Whistler’s Mother” — to the National Gallery of Art.

Ms. White never married and has no immediate survivors. She was a founder of Literary Friends of the D.C. Public Libraries, which sponsored readings by authors and other programs.