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John Johnson

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Founder of Jet, Ebony, dies

John Johnson, 87, built empire



By ERNIE SUGGS

The names of John H. Johnson's two major publications were Ebony and Jet.

The roots of both words meant black, which was not coincidental. Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing Co., made it clear that his magazines would shed positive light on and provide truthful depictions of black people, to counter the stereotypical portrayals of blacks in white-owned newspapers and magazines.

Johnson died Monday in Chicago at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was 87.

Since their foundings in the 1940s and 1950s, Ebony and Jet became staples in black homes and businesses. The oversized Ebony --- with cover stories about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali or Aretha Franklin --- could sit on a coffee table in someone's home for years. The Jet Beauty of the Week was a weekly must-see, and blacks saw it as a sign of pride to have their wedding or anniversary featured in the pocket-sized Jet.

"He connected to African-Americans in a way that no other publication had done before," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend. "He gave us a mirror to see us as a people of honor and dignity."

Johnson was born Jan. 19, 1918 in Arkansas City, Ark., and moved to Chicago at the age of 15. In 1942, Johnson borrowed $500 on his mother's furniture to start Johnson Publishing and built it into a multimillion-dollar publishing and cosmetics empire that made him one of the wealthiest and most influential black men in the United States. In 2003 Johnson Publishing, the largest black-owned publishing firm in the country, garnered $488.5 million in sales.

"When we think of the media titans who have shaped our industry, the name John H. Johnson belongs in the same sentence as William S. Paley, Ted Turner, David Sarnoff and Henry Luce," said Roland S. Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper. "His publications celebrated our achievements, examined our problems, and shone light on our culture, our music, our history and our politics."

Johnson's first magazine was Negro Digest, a journal that condensed articles of interest to blacks and published the poems and short stories of black writers. In 1945, Ebony magazine arrived, followed in 1951 by Jet magazine.

Aside from Ebony and Jet, the company also has a book division and produces a line of hair care products and cosmetics marketed to black women. The company also annually holds the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that raises money for scholarships and charities.

Johnson's wife, Eunice, produces the Ebony Fashion Fair. His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, took over the day-to-day operations as president and CEO of the company in 2002. Ebony has a monthly circulation of 1,728,986; Jet's is 944,073.

Rice said her father, who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2004, remained active.

"He was in his office and alert and active until the end," Rice said. "He was the greatest salesman and CEO I have ever known, but he was also a father, friend and mentor with a great sense of humor who never stopped climbing mountains and dreaming dreams."

Following the model of Life magazine, Ebony set out to show the positive side of black life. Before "MTV Cribs," the fabulous homes of blacks were featured. Before "SportsCenter," the stories of Joe Louis and Wilt Chamberlain graced the pages. The magazines closely followed the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks' stand to Thurgood Marshall's appointment to the Supreme Court.

The magazines also featured the not-so-famous, from the annual listing of black college queens to everyday families who have overcome obstacles to succeed.

Even the advertising in the magazines depicted black people. "This was the first black photo magazine with pictures of successful black people. It really was the antidote to the negative press about crimes and criminals that we were getting," said Alexis Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World.

In an interview years ago, Johnson explained his reasoning behind the magazines' themes: "We try to seek out good things, even when everything seems bad. We look for breakthroughs, we look for people who have made it, who have succeeded against the odds, who have proven somehow that long shots do come in.'

"He ushered in a new era of journalism," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who was once named by Ebony as one of the country's best black preachers.

"They were first class in technical, editorial and distribution factors, and attracted a measure of revenue and readership heretofore unrealized in black publications on a national level."

--- The Associated Press contributed to this article.



© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Aug. 9, 2005
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