John H. Johnson

J ohn Johnson was my friend. I know this was true because he told me so—and John Johnson always meant what he said. He didn’t always consider me a real friend. Some 30 years ago, we were competitors. He was the publishing legend behind Ebony magazine. I was the upstart with a young BLACK ENTER-PRISE. And while I always considered John Johnson to be a legend and an inspiration, to him I was little more than a thorn in his side. Back then, you see, advertising dollars were scarce enough for one national African American publication, let alone two. John wasn’t about to cede any ground without a fight.

Then one day, he called me and insisted on a meeting. He came to my office. “Graves,” he said, “I want to be your friend.” I started to protest that we already were friends, but he said no: “When I walked in here I wasn’t your friend. When I leave, I will be your friend.”

He went on to explain that from the moment BE was first published. he saw it as an encroachment on Ebony’s circulation and ad dollars. In meetings with potential advertisers, they’d ask him about BE and he’d tell them it wasn’t serious or that that Graves character was running numbers on the side—whatever he could to dis-courage their interest . Then they’d turn around and say, “Well, we had Graves in here yesterday and he says Ebony is a fine publication and John Johnson walks on water.

So, he came to my office, olive branch in hand. We became friends—true friends — that very moment and remained close the rest of his life. John and I spoke often about business and sought each other’s advice in times of uncertainty and crisis. We worked in collaboration whenever possible. In the final analysis, John Johnson made it possible for two African American businesses to evolve past being mere competitors to build on each other’s strengths.

The John Johnson I knew set the standard for integrity. What you saw was what you got . If he liked you, you knew it. If he didn’t like you, well ... there was no confusion about that, either. He worked hard. If you didn’t, well then you didn’t exist. On the flip side, he never forgot his roots—or his responsibility to others. Without making a show of it, John financed a good portion of the civil rights movement, contributing to key organizations in that struggle. More recently in my role as trustee, I remember sitting down with John and Howard University President Patrick Swygert. The result of that discussion was John’s $5 million gift and the establishment of the John H .Johnson School of Communications at Howard University.

That kind of commitment takes vision—and we all know John Johnson had vision to spare. Consider that when he started out in the 1940s, he had the vision to imag-ine a communications empire that would reveal and honor the lives of African Americans, in all our diversity, depth. and dignity. Ebony was the centerpiece of that vision. In it, he saw an African American magazine that could stand proudly alongside Look and Life , the premier general interest magazines of that time. It had never been done before, but he did it.

In doing so, he opened the eyes of Madison Avenue to the multibillion-dollar influence of the African American consumer market. By showing the profitability of using black models and black-themed campaigns. he literally changed the way American companies market their products to black consumers. It’s safe to say that there would be no BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine without the vision and tenacity of John Johnson. And his vision lives on—stronger than ever. Here it is, the year 2005, and Look and Life are history. Ebony is still making history!

But as much as I respect and revere John Johnson’s vision, it is his friendship that fills my heart—a friendship built upon the traits that John and I valued most: honesty and mutual respect.

John, my friend, I will miss you.

(Signature) Earl G. Graves, Sr.


These remarks were given by Earl G. Garves , Sr.

                                                   at the funeral services for John H. Johnson on

                                                   Aug. 15, 2005, at the University of Chicago’s

                                                                                            Rockefeller Chapel.



October, 2005. (Pgs. 98-104)

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