- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

Lost in the memorial tributes to ABC News anchor Peter Jennings last week was the death of another American press icon, John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co. Inc. and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

Mr. Johnson, or “Mr. J” as he was known at the glossy, picture-driven Ebony and Jet magazines, died last week in Chicago at the age of 87 after a heart ailment.

Said Mr. Johnson, “We want to give blacks a new sense of somebodiness, a new sense of self-respect. … We believed then — and we believe now — that blacks needed positive images to fulfill their potentialities,” according to an item referenced in Alexandria-based writer Richard Prince’s “in-journalisms” column on www.maynardije.org.

On Sunday, so many appreciative mourners lined the streets outside the publishing headquarters in Chicago where his body lay in state that the viewing hours were extended, according to the Chicago Defender, which published a rare extra edition to honor Mr. Johnson’s passing.

This self-made millionaire’s greatest legacy is that he refused to accept failure in achieving his lifelong mission to portray positive images of blacks, first through the exemplary example of his own life.

Mr. Johnson filled a critical void that is still sorely lacking in mainstream American journalism even today as it collectively continues to show disproportionate examples of negative black stereotypes in its news and entertainment programming.

I was sadly reminded of the sordid image of blacks that pollutes the global communications network while traveling through Europe this summer. One of our Australian traveling companions asked my daughter and me, “Where’s you guys gold?” He’d surmised from misguided music videos that, “Don’t most blacks wear gold?”

I curtly informed him that I didn’t know a single person like the fake, stereotypical black rappers on MTV or BET.

“If I believed everything I see on TV, I’d have to ask you where your Crocodile Dundee boots and whip are,” I said.

Mr. Johnson, though sometimes criticized for the fluff, would have none of that negativity. Historian and Ebony editor emeritus Lerone Bennett told Black Entertainment Television that when “mainstream America was telling blacks they could do nothing, Mr. Johnson told them they could do everything.” The cable network will air a special program, “Citizen Johnson: A Man and His Empire,” beginning this week.

The story is now legendary how Mr. Johnson, the first black on the Forbes 400 list, persuaded his mother to put up her furniture as collateral on a $500 loan to start his first publication, the Negro Digest. The white banks refused to lend him money to start a business, so Mr. Johnson said the money was for a vacation.

With a current circulation of 1.6 million, piles of new and vintage Jet and Ebony can be found in magazine racks or on the coffee tables in most black households, barbershops, beauty parlors and businesses.

As a child, attending integrated schools where whites-only role models were taught, I remember the anticipation and excitement of going home to leaf through lots of larger-than-Life and -Look-type color photographs of black achievers in politics, science, education, business and, of course, sports and entertainment. Those pictures backed up my grandmother’s words: “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” If you wanted to learn black history then, reading the estimable research of Mr. Bennett was always an eye-popping treat, too.

Even now, if you really want to know who’s hot or not among blacks, or what the hot-button issue is, the Johnson publications are a must-read. “Did you see in the Jet this week that …” starts many a cookin’ conversation.

Although Ebony unabashedly celebrates material wealth among black stars, celebrities and public figures as role models, it also presents provocative political stories and features.

“We’re trying to inspire people … but we didn’t ignore difficulties and harsh realties,” Mr. Johnson once said.

Inspire, he will continue to do. The Washington area can be thankful that in 2003 the publisher donated $4 million to Howard University’s School of Communications, which was renamed in his honor. His family also suggests that donations in his name be given to the university or to the United Negro College Fund.

Mr. Johnson gave jobs to aspiring black journalists when mainstream news organizations would not hire them. It was not until the Aug. 13, 1965, riots in Watts and the subsequent Kerner Commission report that white news outlets thought they needed to hire black reporters to cover the black communities that they no longer could ignore.

Odd that Mr. Johnson’s death comes with the 40th anniversary of those riots in Los Angeles. As Mr. Prince’s column notes, the Los Angeles Times had to instantly promote a black advertising messenger to cover the “burn, baby, burn” so-called “rebellion” because, like many other mainstream papers, it did not have a single black reporter on its staff. Recently, Dean Baquet was the first black to be named the paper’s editor.

We owe John H. Johnson a great debt. His name may not have been known to every household in America, but his 60-year-old publications had an important and unmistakable effect on American history and culture, and not only for the countless blacks, like yours truly, he inspired.

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