Publisher Johnson ignored in death
A giant in American journalism, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other honors, died last week -- and attention was not adequately paid.
I speak of John Johnson, the visionary, generous and sometimes ornery founder of the company that has borne his family's name since the 1940s and has published, among other things, Ebony and Jet.
Johnson once said: "We wanted to give blacks a new sense of somebodiness, a new sense of self-respect. We wanted to tell them who they were and what they could do. We believed then -- and we believe now -- that blacks needed positive images to fulfill their potentialities."
He, like Wilbert Tatum of the Amsterdam News in New York, took issue with those of us who worked for the mainstream (a.k.a. "white") press. They challenged us in that tradition of the labor song, "Which side are you on?" Johnson is largely how many black editors, producers, corporate executives, civil rights activists, politicians, playwrights, novelists, entertainers, athletes -- even Bishop Desmond Tutu -- got to where we are by giving us that "sense of somebodiness," cultivating our dreams and celebrating our successes.
Perhaps because Ebony and Jet were always a part of my life -- and that of many black families and black barbershops and black beauty parlors -- I felt rather comfortable deconstructing it and finding it irrelevant during the time when I was full of myself at Columbia University Law School.
When I told Mr. Johnson -- and he was MR. Johnson -- that my law school classmates and I had tried to figure out how to take over his corporation, he laughed. He'd met many an idealistic fool before, and his standard answer was essentially a challenge: Start your own magazine.
While he was the ultimate race man, shining a spotlight on the positive among blacks that mainstream media seemed never to find, he was also the superb businessman. That $500 he borrowed to start his first magazine while working at an insurance company turned into a $500 million empire.
I recall running into him at a little grocery store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and he was using coupons. He knew how to make a dollar go far, raising tens of millions of dollars for scholarships, donating $4 million to a school of communications at Howard University, and presenting $1 million most recently to the state university of Arkansas, where he was born.
He was a proud man who when he built the Johnson Publishing Co.'s headquarters on Michigan Avenue included a cafeteria that not only provided wonderful subsidized food for his employees but, most important, assured that black folks -- entertainers, athletes, civil rights leaders and such -- could eat well and comfortably and not have to guess which white establishments might welcome them or turn them away.
Because of all that he did I am angry, though not surprised, that most of the mainstream American media did not pay attention to his death and life in a manner that it should have.
X E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.