I don’t remember everything that John H. Johnson, the pioneer black publisher, said when he was honored by the National Association of Black Journalists back in 1987. But I don’t think I will never forget his three words of advice:
“Make yourself indispensable.”
It’s hard to find three better words that sum up the successful business philosophy of John Harold Johnson, who died Monday at age 87.
To black Americans of my generation, Johnson’s publications —Ebony, Jet and the late Negro Digest — were indispensable reading matter, offering a brighter and more prosperous vision of black America than most of the mainstream, also known as “white-owned,” media provided.
To advertisers, Johnson’s pioneering publications broke through the myth that the black consumer market was not worth targeting through black-owned media. Today newsstands are filled with magazines niche-marketed to blacks or Hispanics, but that really began with Johnson back in the 1940s.
And to journalists, particularly us black journalists, Johnson’s publications provided employment, a training ground and a model for how people of color might be covered in a more complete fashion than simply through crime, sports or show business stories.
His 1989 autobiography, “Succeeding Against the Odds” (Warner Books, Inc.), reads almost like a business-school series of case studies in how to solve whatever problems life throws up at you.
When Arkansas refused to educate black children in his area past the eighth grade, Johnson’s mother, Gertrude Johnson Williams, a cook and domestic worker, saved for two years to move her family to Chicago in the 1930s.
Young Johnnie was working days at a black-owned life insurance company and studying at night at Northwestern University when he started up Negro Digest in 1942 with $500 that his mother raised by borrowing against the family furniture.
When its circulation stalled at 50,000, a few months later, Johnson persisted in requesting a guest column from Eleanor Roosevelt until she agreed, immediately boosting circulation to 100,000.
In 1945, Johnson launched Ebony, a picture-oriented magazine. Its initial press run of 25,000 copies was completely sold out. Pocket-sized Jet magazine began in 1951. Jet helped launch the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when it published open-casket funeral photos of the mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was savagely murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi.
Despite its annual special editions focusing thoughtfully on major black political and economic issues, we black journalists, among others, often ridiculed the sugarcoated emphasis that Ebony and Jet put on the upwardly-ambitious black middle class. Yet we also understood Johnson’s reluctance to put out negative news about black life, since there was so much of that in the mainstream media.
The bourgeois flavor of Johnson’s publications was a minor criticism in the life of a man who overcame tremendous hardships to fill an important vacuum in black life and become one of America’s wealthiest businessmen.
With that in mind, his “make yourself indispensable” speech had special resonance. Speaking to an audience of predominately young and aspiring print and broadcast journalists, Johnson offered us the example of Matthew Henson, the black man who helped Adm. Robert Peary reach the North Pole in 1909.
Henson was not hired under any affirmative action plan or out of the goodness of Peary’s heart, Johnson pointed out. Henson was hired because he had taken the time to learn the language of the Inuit people, who were indispensable guides on the journey.