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2005-08-16

Media Giant John H. Johnson Paved the Way for Black-Owned Press

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On Monday, thousands mourned the death of publishing and entrepreneurial pioneer John H. Johnson. He founded Ebony and Jet magazines and seared the image of the brutalized Emmett Till into the nation’s consciousness. We speak with the editor of the Chicago Defender, the nation’s only black daily newspaper. [includes rush transcript]

On Monday, the funeral for African-American publisher and entrepreneur John H. Johnson was held in Chicago. Johnson, who died last week at the age of 87, was widely regarded as the most influential African-American publisher in American history and a pioneer in media and business. In 1942, Johnson launched the Negro Digest, which later became Black World. He took a $500 loan out on his mother’s furniture to start the magazine when banks refused to loan him the money. Three years later he started Ebony magazine, which was the first magazine to show the full range of African-American life. At a time when African-Americans rarely saw positive images of themselves in the media, Ebony celebrated the successes and achievements of black movie stars, athletes and businessmen while also chronicling the civil rights struggles of the time. The first issue of the magazine sold 25,000 copies, instantly making it the largest-circulated black magazine. It continues to be a top-seller today.

In 1951, Johnson started Jet magazine which became the largest African-American news weekly. Jet was known for its featured female centerfold but like Ebony, it was a forum for airing black issues and concerns. In 1955, Jet galvanized African-Americans throughout the nation when it published the battered and bloated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

Johnson continued to expand his publishing and business empire by buying radio stations, publishing books and producing television shows. In 1973, he launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which was designed for women with darker skin. Today, it is the largest black owned cosmetic company. Johnson was also the first African-American to build a major building in downtown Chicago where his publishing empire is housed. In 1982, he became the first African-American to appear on the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was a close friend of Johnson’s said to the Chicago Defender newspaper a day after his death, "The tallest tree in the history of African American journalism has fallen, but has fallen gracefully. The tree that stood tall for over 60 years and a tree that planted a forest, a tree with widespread limbs and full of fruit. He connected to Africa and African Americans. He shared the pain of Emmett Till, the development of Martin Luther King Jr., and was a source of information and inspiration. He was the number one black publisher for 60 years. His impact had been felt through the whole world of journalism."

  • Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender, the nation’s only black daily newspaper.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Roland Martin in Chicago, Executive Editor of the Chicago Defender. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROLAND MARTIN: Thank you so very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us. You were at the funeral yesterday of John Johnson. Thousands turned out. Can you talk about his significance and how he influenced you?

ROLAND MARTIN: Well, I think first of all, we need to broaden the scope of John H. Johnson’s influence. I do not consider him to be the greatest black publisher in the history of our industry. I consider him to be one of the greatest publishers. I think if there was a Mount Rushmore of the media magnates, I believe that John H. Johnson’s bust would be alongside Henry Luce, David Sarnoff, Bill Paley, Ted Turner, and the other icons of our industry.

For me personally, I had a chance to sit with him and his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who is now the C.E.O. of Johnson Publishing Company, a couple of months ago. I had an opportunity to talk with him, talk about his vision and how he built the company. But the first time we met was in 1990, when I was an intern at the Houston Defender, and it was interesting, when John H. Johnson came through the office, I mean, it was as if royalty was there, because that’s how so many people looked at him and held him with such high regard. Clearly one of the greatest giants we have ever seen in this industry, and his impact goes far beyond the pages of Ebony and Jet.

AMY GOODMAN: Jet, 1955, Emmett Till. It is a story we hear over and over again, how young people reading Jet that day saw the images of Emmett Till. Can you talk about John Johnson’s decision to publish this photograph?

ROLAND MARTIN: Well, it was interesting, a couple of things. There’s a direct intersection with Jet and the Chicago Defender. John H. Johnson worked closely with my newspaper, with Robert Abbott, when he launched, and Johnson since that, when he launched Negro Digest and then, of course, Ebony, as well. So, there was a sharing of resources. Ebony — Excuse me — Ebony_,_Jet, and the Chicago Defender shared some of those photos.

And so, it was so critically important to show that photo on the cover of Jet, to show it on the front page of the Chicago Defender, because it gave a real picture of a brutality of terrorism against African Americans in this country. Just a couple months ago, when they were exhuming Emmett Till’s body, I chose to run that same photo on our front page, because I wanted people today to see that photo. I talked to Tim Reid, a long-time director and actor, and he said, "The image of Emmett Till’s head will be seared in my mind until I die." And so, it was that photo that really galvanized the civil rights movement and caused people to say that if this is a level of brutality that whites will exact against African Americans, then we must fight this level of terrorism in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: What legacy do you think that John Johnson leaves for journalists, in particular, in this country, but in the United States population overall?

ROLAND MARTIN: Understand something, Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa, stated that when he was beaten up by a white mob, that he looked over and saw an issue of Ebony in the gutter; and he picked it up and he saw Jackie Robinson on the cover, and he saw black doctors and lawyers, and he really began to understand that he could go beyond simply the slums there in South Africa. John H. Johnson in many ways funded the civil rights movement. Those folks who were being bailed out of jail. Food was being sent, paying house notes and car notes. John H. Johnson, A.G. Gaston, they were writing those checks.

He also created the black consumer market. He also created — I mean, helped the bottom line of Fortune 500 companies. It is embarrassing, Amy, at the Wall Street Journal, the most that they have done on his death was a one-line sentence the day after. Yet here was a man who created an entire consumer market, who forced Fortune 500 companies to advertise in his magazine to respect the black consumer. And so, his impact goes beyond.

You know, Peter Jennings died the day before John H. Johnson, and there have been so many different accolades for Peter Jennings, and, trust me, I grew up watching Peter Jennings. But I think when you look at the impact of one individual who was able to connect Africa with African Americans, who was able to present a picture of African Americans that to the date was — at that point had not been seen, who founded Ebony on the basis of Life and Look, yet those two magazines are no longer in business, yet he is still the number one magazine in his industry. I mean, I — It is so difficult to capsulize John H. Johnson. And so it is so important that we know his history, we know his story. And he started the company with $500, borrowed against his mother’s furniture, and today that company generates $500 million annually. An amazing, amazing legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Roland Martin, the future of black-owned media in this country.

ROLAND MARTIN: Well, Amy, it’s a precarious future. I mean, the fewer and fewer that are owned by African Americans. I mean, he made sure that they were going to be 100% owned. Tavis Smiley said at the funeral yesterday he asked John H. Johnson, "Why did you never sell?" He said, "It never occurred to me that I should sell." And so, it is important for black media to respect their consumer, to respect their audience and to continue to put out quality products, to market them effectively and not simply fall back into the buffoonery that you sometimes see in so many of these different magazines. We must respect the reader, respect the advertiser; and if we do that, our readers will always be there. And so, I think there is a future there, but it’s incumbent upon the generation of folks like myself — I’m 36 years old — to assume the mantle of black leadership, to assume the mantle, to be like a John H. Johnson. That’s what we must do.

AMY GOODMAN: Roland Martin, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Executive Editor of the Chicago Defender, speaking to us from Chicago; and we will link to the Chicago Defender, which is continuing to do a special series on John Johnson.

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