'Ebony', 'Jet' Founder John H. Johnson
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES, I'm Ed Gordon.
Sixty years ago, black Americans owned newspapers, some of which circulated far beyond their home bases, but when it came to mass communications, radio, movies, advertising, blacks owned very little. The African-American images most Americans saw reflected that lack of control. The debut of Ebony magazine changed all that. Over the years, the glossy mass market magazine Ebony and its sister publication Jet showed the world and reflected back to black America a successful, striving and deeply human race. The founder of those publications, John H. Johnson, died Monday at age 87. He began his publishing career during the Second World War with a magazine called Negro Digest, offering $2 annual subscriptions to 3,000 potential readers.
Mr. JOHN H. JOHNSON: It was a ray of hope. It gave them the feeling that there were black people in other cities and in other countries like themselves who were doing well and it inspired them to do better.
GORDON: That was John H. Johnson in an NPR interview three years ago. After more than 60 years, his company remains in family hands As Johnson was fond of saying, `Like a bumblebee that defies all the laws of aerodynamics, we flew and we're still flying.' Johnson's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, runs the company now. I recently spoke with her on this program. During our interview, she praised her father's business skills.
Ms. LINDA JOHNSON RICE: I think of what a terrific entrepreneur and pioneer my father was and he had the foresight to marry my mother, Eunice W. Johnson, who was smart enough to come up with the name Ebony. And, you know, they started the magazine in the basement of his building, you know, stuffing subscriptions and, you know, it's grown ever since.
GORDON: Author and social historian Lerone Bennett Jr. has worked for the Johnson Publishing Co. for 52 years. Ebony's executive editor emeritus shared his recollections of his friend John H. Johnson.
Mr. LERONE BENNETT Jr.: Because he lived, we love ourselves more. We appreciate our faces more. We appreciate our gifts more, and not only African Americans but Africans do. Archbishop Tutu tells the story everywhere. He was a little boy in Africa beaten down, oppressed, and he saw in the gutter one day a torn-up magazine. It happened to be the issue of Ebony with Jackie Robinson on the cover and he said he sat down and he read that and he looked at all the pictures of blacks in offices and in science, looked at black scientists. And he got up from there and he said, `They've been lying to me.' And he said from that point on, he was a transformed individual.
GORDON: Joining me now to remember this great pioneer are two other giants of the business world: Earl Graves Sr., publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, and Robert Johnson, founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Television.
Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us today.
Earl Graves, let me start with you.
Mr. EARL GRAVES Sr. (Publisher, Black Entertainment Magazine): It's good to be with you.
GORDON: Thank you. Based on the time and conditions that Mr. Johnson came up in, one can argue that he truly is one of the greatest businessmen of our time, not just black, but greatest businessmen of our time. Would you agree with that?
Mr. GRAVES: I think that's absolutely accurate. You know, he was a legend, visionary. He was ahead of his time as an American, not as an African American. What he did was unique in terms of marketing and advertising and editorial and positioning Ebony, which was his landmark magazine, and then he went on to obviously do Jet and be involved in many other business things.
GORDON: Bob Johnson, we can't minimize the importance of these publications particularly to black America, can we?
Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Founder/Chairman, BET): No, Ed, you can't. I think Earl is absolutely right. I mean, when Ebony and Jet came on the scene, it was the voice that we needed to be heard on a range of issues, those that sort of reaffirmed who we are in terms of our accomplishments, a voice that's told us the issues concerning the politics of the day, the civil rights movement, glorifying African Americans who were unsung and denied opportunities, the idea of being the first black and all of these things chronicled by Ebony and Jet was, I think, sort of the natural way that we kept connected during some very turbulent times.
GORDON: You both were friends to this man and certainly he mentored both of you to some degree in terms of the road that you took. One of the things that I found most interesting about him as I would speak with him is the perseverance, Earl Graves, the idea that he sent ad men to Detroit for 10 years before he was given ads from car companies. This is just one of the stories that he used to share.
Mr. GRAVES: I'm not clear exactly...
GORDON: Earl, the idea of the perseverance that this man had to become successful.
Mr. GRAVES: I'm just not hearing you well. I apologize.
GORDON: OK. Bob, let me turn to you. The idea that this man's perseverance was something that was really tantamount to his success, was it not?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Ed, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, having started a business where you had to convince advertisers of the worth of your product and the worth, more importantly, of the consumers who read your product, John was legendary in being the number-one salesperson for Ebony and Jet magazine. John had no qualms at all about picking up the phone and calling the CEO of a major company or the head advertising guy and just basically demanding, `How come you are not advertising to my readers?' And he was passionate about that. And you're right. He would send his staff people out to go after and get business, and when he got that business, that was John's business. He was not looking to share the ad dollars with any other publication. He used to tell me, Ed, that, `Look, if you're advertising in Ebony or Jet, that's enough. You don't need to do anything to reach any other black people.' So, no, he was dogged, he was determined, and he was as passionate a man about convincing people that the worth of his business model and the worth of his consumers that very few people withstood a telephone call from Mr. Johnson asking for the order.
GORDON: Earl Graves...
Mr. GRAVES: He often in his later years--let me just add on to that, and I can actually identify many times when he and I went out on advertising pitches together. About 10 years into the Black Enterprise--we're into our 35th year now--he came to see me and said, `Look, I want to be your friend. You have been very courageous in what you've done in starting Black Enterprise and you have not knocked my magazine as you started yours and I respect that.' He said, `And I think that together we can do some things.' He said, `You have some enormous resources in terms of the research you've done and the economics of what black people are doing. And if you take what you've done and what I've done and go out together, we should be able to do even better.' And that did happen. And so, Bob, you're right in terms of how tenacious he was about pushing everybody out of the way, but in years to come, years later, he softened and there was a different John Johnson, and I'm proud to say that obviously you and I were both his personal friends.
GORDON: Bob Johnson.
Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, he was a great friend. I mean, he was a great competitor, but I'll tell you he was a practical businessman. And like I said, I got to know him, as you said, over time. If you stayed around long enough, he'd accept you and you'd get to know him and his sense of humor and his just plain, you know, direct practicality about life was refreshing.
GORDON: Bob Johnson, there's also a reverence that's given to a man who stands by his vision and his dream. Ofttimes, particularly in the latter years, Ebony was criticized for being too feel-good, if you will, not socially responsible enough, but this man, John H. Johnson, suggested that this is what Ebony was going to be, the hope and dreams of black America and he stood to that.
Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely, Ed. John had up in his mind a business model that was necessary, a content message that was necessary, a vision that he wanted to paint of a people that was necessary at the time and he never wanted to deviate from that. And it served him well, and I think the fact that Ebony is still loved by millions of readers is because it has been consistent and constant throughout. I mean, obviously technology's changed and the technology impacted the way the book looks.
Mr. GRAVES: But we still haven't...
Mr. JOHNSON: The central message was always, `This is your story and all I'm doing is telling it in a positive light.'
Mr. GRAVES: Well, there's another aspect to John Johnson we need to speak to and, that is he was focused in terms of Ebony magazine but he also was focused on the African-American community and giving back. He helped finance a significant part of the civil rights movement. He only recently in the last couple of years--I'm a trusty of Howard University and have been now for about 20 years, and I came to talk with him with the president of Howard about three or four years ago and asked him would he support Howard because Howard wanted to name its school of communications John H. Johnson School of Communication. And John leaned back in the chair and he said to me, `I guess that's going to cost a lot of money, Graves.' And I said, `John, it's going to cost a lot of money.' And a lot of money is 4 or $5 million that he actually gave to Howard University and my sense is he would have done it whether they named the school after him or not.
But if you turn to the major civil rights organizations, the NAACP, the Urban League, SLC and the like and asked whether or not John Johnson was there, there were not many times he said no to those things that were important to the survival and the well-being of the African-American community.
GORDON: And, Bob Johnson, with about a minute to go, we should also understand the importance of his trailblazing aspect and thought in terms of diversification which at that time many blacks had not necessarily looked to.
Mr. JOHNSON: No, he is absolutely a pioneer as a business entrepreneur. What he accomplished against the seemingly insurmountable odds--I don't think an Andrew Carnegie, a Rockefeller or Bill Gates or anybody could take a higher claim to being a more dynamic and successful American businessman than John H. Johnson.
GORDON: Earl Graves, I'm sure you would echo that.
Mr. GRAVES: Absolutely. You know, he will be a part of history in this country not only for all that he has done for African Americans but for this country in general.
GORDON: Earl Graves Sr., publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, and Bob Johnson, founder and chairman of Black Entertainment Television, I thank you both for joining us to remember a great man.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.
Mr. GRAVES: Thank you.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.