John Johnson's Legacy of 'Ebony' Black Beauties

Karen Grigsby Bates offers an appreciation of Ebony publisher John Johnson, who died last week at the age of 87. Johnson created a legacy by insisting that ads in Ebony feature black models.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Chicago today, there's a funeral service and eulogy for the man who created the popular and influential magazines for black Americans, Ebony and Jet. John H. Johnson died last week at age 87. There've been many appreciations of him in the past few days, but NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates hasn't heard mention of one legacy. Here is her appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

In an NPR interview a few years ago, publishing magnate John H. Johnson was asked how he'd managed for more than a half-century to keep his media empire intact. His reply was succinct.

(Soundbite of previous broadcast)

Mr. JOHN H. JOHNSON (CEO, Ebony): Well, it's very simple. You just don't sell any stock to anybody and you don't try to merge. I'm not for sale. I'm not for sale.

BATES: Although that didn't dissuade larger companies from asking.

When Mr. Johnson--that's what everyone called him--died last week, he was the CEO, president and founder of the nation's largest black media conglomerate. His flagship magazine, Ebony, was launched in 1945 and modeled on the popular weekly Life. Ebony and its sibling, Jet, were pulse points in the national black community. Ebony showcased black success and affluence; Jet, a news weekly, covered the issues of the day from a black perspective.

Both contained something in them that was revolutionary at the time: Ads that featured black people. In John Johnson's magazines, black teens were shown drinking Coca-Cola and black families gathered in spotless living rooms to watch programs on their Zenith TVs. Ken Smikle, president of Chicago-based Target Market News, a research service that tracks and analyzes black consumers, says Mr. Johnson's ability to persuade mainstream corporations to showcase black consumers in their ads was groundbreaking.

Mr. KEN SMIKLE (President, Target Market News): For many, many years, if not decades, Ebony was the primary voice for that change in the industry. He also created an opportunity for black advertising executives to come into being with their own firms because white ad agencies were not in the habit of putting together messages that resonated with black readers.

BATES: John Johnson grew up in segregated Arkansas, but he didn't let segregation limit his ambition or his reach. As a young child, he'd read secondhand copies of the great black news weekly the Chicago Defender when Pullman porters left them after their Arkansas layovers. Seeing black achievement in the Defender's pages made him want to duplicate that on a national scale.

Smikle says John Johnson was staying true to his own mission: To make black America visible to itself. Mr. Johnson's loyalty to black America was reciprocated. Ebony still holds pride of place on coffee tables in many black households across the country; Jet is still found in barbershops and doctors offices. Advertisers in both magazines are remembered when black shoppers take out their wallets. John Johnson's insistence on mainstream acknowledgement of the value of black consumers is now standard. Blacks have become commonplace in both print and electronic ads, and corporations have taken that template and expanded it to include Hispanic and Asian audiences. It's an astonishing legacy that, Ken Smikle says, has one lifelong source.

Mr. SMIKLE: I think it came out of a sense of respect. He commanded respect for himself and, by extension, for all those that looked like him, that shared his experience, that came out of that history.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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