August 8, 2005

Black magazine publisher John Johnson dead at 87

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Magazine publisher John Johnson, who
jolted the mostly black readers of Ebony and Jet with violent
images that lent visibility and momentum to the civil rights
movement, died on Monday, his office said.

A publicist at Johnson's Chicago-based publishing company
would not immediately give a cause of death. He was 87.

A multimillionaire who in 1982 became the first black
American to make Forbes' list of the richest Americans, Johnson
said his magazine philosophy was to reflect the "happier side"
of black American life, and that "deep down, at the end of the
day, we're trying to give people hope."

But from the early days of the civil rights movement in the
1950s and 1960s, readers of Ebony and Jet saw vivid images of
the tumult over school desegregation, police beating blacks and
the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

But readers also read about black celebrities and absorbed
hints on accumulating wealth, which led to charges Johnson
neglected the pressing problems facing many of his readers.

Copies of Jet's historic photograph of the mutilated body
of teenager Emmett Till in his casket helped galvanize the
civil rights movement. An all-white jury later acquitted two
white Mississippians of the 1955 murder of the 14-year-old
Chicagoan killed for whistling at a white woman.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who once worked on
Johnson's loading dock, said Till's photograph inspired Rosa
Parks to spark the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.

Johnson's magazines became must-reading for many blacks --
Ebony's circulation grew to nearly two million, Jet to nearly
one million -- leading to the oft-heard adage in the black
community: "If it wasn't in Jet, it didn't happen."


"He gave African Americans a voice and a face, in his
words, 'a new sense of somebody-ness,' of who they were and
what they could do, at a time when they were virtually
invisible in mainstream American culture," President Bill
Clinton said when awarding Johnson the Medal of Freedom in

Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson was 6 when his
father was killed in a mill accident.

After the family moved to Chicago, Johnson was attending
college and working at an insurance company when he borrowed
$500 using his mother's furniture as collateral. He sent offers
for $2 subscriptions to the firm's clients, using $6,000 in
proceeds to create "Negro Digest," modeled on Reader's Digest.

Borrowing the look of Life Magazine, Johnson began Ebony in
1942. Jet was launched in 1951.

Unable to line up advertisers for a magazine created by and
for blacks, Johnson started his own mail-order beauty products
firm and ran its ads. He created his own line of cosmetics
suitable for the black models appearing on his pages. He later
bought and sold radio stations.

Recounting his story in a 1989 autobiography, "Succeeding
Against the Odds," Johnson would write, "One of the sweetest
emotions in the world is watching scorn turn into awe."

Johnson defended his magazines against charges of being
lightweight by saying: "Whenever I got sick, my mother gave me
castor oil. And I'd run and hide and squeal and holler. Finally
she got smart. She gave it to me in orange juice. And it was
more acceptable then.

"I tell people all the time, we run a lot of entertainment,
but it's orange juice. If you look inside, there's always
castor oil."