Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Honoring a "Race Man's" Values

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Column originally posted Aug. 11, 2005

Ebony Jr. and Black World, formerly Negro Digest, were John H. Johnson creations.

More than 2,000 at John H. Johnson Services

There were the anecdotes, there were the well-known names, there were the people - a number exceeding the 2,000-capacity of the chapel - and there were the values.

And in the end, the funeral in Chicago Monday for John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines who died Aug. 8 at age 87, was most of all about reaffirming values. That affirmation seemed particularly relevant in light of the relatively scant coverage of Johnson's life in the mainstream media since his passing. Speaker after speaker seemed to remind the audience that Johnson's philosophy was that life in the American mainstream can be fickle; stay focused on family and community and you can't go wrong.

Former president Bill Clinton took the audience back to the roots in Arkansas they both shared, and told how Johnson's move to Chicago in 1933 was part of the Great Migration of blacks north.

Bill Gray, former congressman and onetime chair of the United Negro College Fund, noted that Johnson and his wife, Eunice, had been married for 64 years, that Johnson once said that he believed in "education as a highway of opportunity," and that he vowed to stay on the board of the UNCF until the day he died.

Longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr. noted that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a monthly column for Ebony, and Earl Graves Sr., the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, said that "without making a show of it, John Johnson financed a good portion of the civil rights movement in this country by himself."

"He was unapologetically black," commentator Tavis Smiley said, and added, to the applause of the audience, that Johnson once told him that the thought of selling Johnson Publications never occurred to him.

Held in the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, a Gothic-revival building built in 1928, it was an event where one could see Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan sitting next to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., and the Rev. Al Sharpton in a place of honor behind the casket, or, outside, watch activist Dick Gregory pose beside boxing promoter Don King.

Attendees received a 12-page four-color program, and 200 silver-robed members of the Sanctuary Choir of the Apostolic Church of God set the mood as they took their places behind arrangements of roses that seemed to stand 10 or 12 feet tall.

VIPs with roles in the service included Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; Clinton; Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; John H. Stroger Jr., president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners; Howard University President Patrick Swygert; Playboy Enterprises Chief Executive Christie Hefner; radio personality Tom Joyner; the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; Jackson's daughter, Santita Jackson, and singer Vicki Winans.

Ebony and Jet magazines were the mainstays.But there were also Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television; Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records; Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons; Vernon Jordan, who once led the National Urban League; former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen; the Rev. Willie Barrow of Operation Push; the Rev. T.D. Jakes; Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.; former Chicago newscaster Bill Kurtis; Hermene D. Hartman, publisher of Savoy magazine; Monroe Anderson, Savoy editor; venture capitalist John Rogers, founder and president of Ariel Mutual Funds; Roland S. Martin, editor of the Chicago Defender, and Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, among others, including many Chicago journalists.

The speaking parts went to those who most echoed Johnson's values.

"To escape Egypt and oppression, you cannot print or photograph the oppressor's view on your own people," said Gray, in the most direct reference to Ebony's philosophy of "good news" journalism. "He knew that crime . . . was not the main event in the black community. The majority did not do drugs, and poverty and educational failure" resulted from "a lack of educational opportunity."

Blagojevich noted that Johnson started Ebony in the 1940s, about the same time as Richard Wright's novel "Native Son," set in Chicago, was published. Its main character, Bigger Thomas, dared not dream of flying planes, as a white boy did in the novel. He declared the day John Johnson Day in Illinois.

Daley applauded the only black man said to own a downtown building in the city and who started his own cosmetics company when firms in that field refused to advertise to African Americans. "His philosophy was don't join them, beat them, and he did."

Daley praised Johnson as "deeply involved in Chicago," said he considered Johnson a confidant, and said the publisher was one who "understood that every community in America has a story to tell - we are better off telling those stories."

Clinton recalled how, as Arkansas governor, he invited Johnson back to the state for an exhibit on persistence of the spirit - one that "could have been [about] John Johnson's life. He never gave up. John had a dream of black people as successful and smart and beautiful."

After the migration, Clinton said, "for decades up until I was governor, people would board buses and go [back] home to dusty towns that most people would have long forgotten." But one of those migrants "stood out because his dream was bigger and he had a vision for how to achieve it." Clinton noted that he had given Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Obama said, "John Johnson was a 'good-news' man. He ignited the idea that maybe 'I, too' can do this. Maybe, maybe I too can run for mayor or governor or U.S. senator," he said to applause. "John Johnson once said that men and women are limited - by the size of their hope."

Graves touched on friendship, saying that after Johnson initially viewed Graves and his magazine as "little more than a thorn in his side," Johnson decided they should be friends. "He made it possible for two African American businessmen to pass by competitors and build on each other's strengths."

Swygert, who with Graves persuaded Johnson to donate $4 million to help fund a new school of communications at Howard University, named after Johnson, touched on loyalty. He recalled how he sold Johnson on the idea after relating how he sold Jet magazines out of a green-and-white satchel from 1955 to 1958, as Swygert was growing up in Philadelphia.

Hefner, after noting that she and Linda Johnson Rice run companies founded by their fathers, said "the magazine publishing industry owes John a debt. The way to repay the debt is to further diversity in our pages and in our boardrooms," as a tribute that "will never be forgotten."

Smiley and Joyner explicitly cited Johnson's role in keeping his business black-owned, leaving unsaid that other media properties, such as Essence magazine and Black Entertainment Television, have become part of media conglomerates. "As any black leader in this room knows, including you, Mr. President," Smiley said, drawing applause as he turned to Clinton, "leading black folks is an 'anyway' proposition." Despite the obstacles, you do it "anyway." The issue of Johnson's life "was commitment. The successes and failures were byproducts," Smiley said.

Joyner noted that he had worked at Johnson's WJPC radio in the 1970s, and said he considered Johnson his mentor. "He taught me not to expect the mainstream media to serve the needs of African Americans, to do business with black people first. . . . He never tried to dilute his message. It was always clear to everyone who his audience was," Joyner said. "My company, Reach Media, wants to be like Johnson Publishing. It has miles to go before it can ever be comparable. But when the challenge you try to reach has been set by a black man, that makes the challenge even sweeter," said Joyner, whose morning radio show airs in 115 markets.

In his benediction, Jackson noted that the mainstream media "portrayed us as less. We thank you for clear water and a clear mirror," he said, speaking of Johnson. A single piano struck up Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," the casket was raised and the crowd applauded.

Robert Wildeboer of Chicago Public Radio, who watched the proceedings in the press area, was impressed. "I'm from Canada, and didn't know a lot about American history, let alone black history," he told Journal-isms. "It's just the power of stories. It's a story with universal themes."

Others echoed his sentiment.

"It makes me aspire to have better dreams for myself and to be inspired by his lifestyle," Candace Lewis, a graphic artist at Johnson Publishing, said as she headed outside.

"I feel blessed that I knew and worked with Mr. Johnson," managing editor Lynn Norment said separately. "The best way I can honor his legacy is to continue to do my best at Ebony. Its dreams have been my passion and my life goal." She said that Ebony plans a special issue on Johnson for October.

"We didn't know who and what we were until Johnson," Bill Lucky, chief financial officer of KD International, a firm that is importing goods from West Africa, said standing outside the chapel.

"It was a glorious day," said Lou Ransom, managing editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier, "and what told me the most about today was when they brought out the casket and the folks who couldn't get in cheered. They sat out in the heat because they recognized this as something special."

"An amazing gathering. He singlehandedly created an industry, a genre and the black market," said the NABJ's Monroe.


Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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John Johnson

Growing up in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s and 70s, three things you could count on seeing in any black person's home: a picture or Martin Luther King Jr.; a picture of John Kennedy, and a copy of Ebony magazine on the coffee table. Need I say more.

Thanks Richard

Some how I missed the news of John Johnson's passing since I no longer have access to the wire services. Didn't see it on the cable channels. Thanks for your reporting.

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