JOHN H. JOHNSON
John. H. Johnson controlled one of the nation’s
largest black business empires and used his wealth
and obvious power to raise the social and econ-
omic status of all African Americans
by; Derek T. Dingle.
W E WANTED TO GIVE BLACKS A NEW SENSE OF SOME-BODY-NESS, A NEW SENSE OF SELF~RESPECT. WE ALSO WANTED TO TELL THEM WHO THEY WERE AND WHAT THEY COULD DO.”
IN SEPTEMBER 1955, JOHN HAROLD JOHNSON MADE A DECISION THAT FOREVER SHOOK THE WORLD. Not one to vacillate on any issue, he revealed to millions the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till , a Chicago youngster who had been bludgeoned and shot in Mississippi just for
reportedly whistling at a white woman. Readers found the heinous example of Jim Crow-brutality on the pages of JET Johnson’s 4-year-old weekly news digest. So, shortly thereafter, other black publications followed Jets lead in publishing the sad photos. It galvanized clusters of African Americans nationwide to protest such senseless acts of violence. In one bold move, the determined 37-year-old publisher
helped launch the civil rights movement.
That was but one example of Johnsons power. For six decades, he made full use of his wealth and influence to shape American history, while using his publications —primarily Jet and his flagship, Ebony—to cover the battle for civil rights and chronicle every major event that depicted the trials and triumphs of African Amer-icans.
In 1987, BLACK ENTERPRISE named Johnson our Entrepreneur of the Decade for forging one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses through sweat, intellect, and moxie . In fact, Johnson Publishing Co., the $498 million empire that controls magazines, radio and television programs, Websites, haircare and cosmetic products, and fashion shows, has been one of only a few companies to remain among the ranks of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses since the inception of our list in 1973 . When it first appeared on the list, JPC grossed $23.1 million.
Bu tJohnson was more than just a successful black businessman. He was one of the innovators who championed segmented marketing long before it became a part of the lexicon of American business. As a result, Johnson became the first publisher to demonstrate the clout of the black consumer market. His business acumen earn-ed him a spot on the boards of the world’s most powerful corporations. His political prowess repeatedly placed him in the White House as an adviser to nine U.S. pres-idents . His business and philanthropic ventures developed generations of black professionals and entrepreneurs in the media, advertising, and cosmetics industries.
It’s fair to say that every black-focused media-related business—from maga-zines like BE and Vibe to advertising agencies such as UniWorld and Spike DDB to entertainment companies including Motown, Def Jam, and BET —can trace its roots directly to the lucrative soil first cultivated by Johnson. But to limit his many accomplishments to his impact on black America, as mainstream media outlets did in covering the news of his passing, would he a grave disservice to his legacy.
The real truth is, Johnson inspired subsequent generations of black entrepre-neurs, hut he also changed and transformed American industry as a whole. Because Johnson successfully defied and debunked the conventional wisdom of marketing and media in the early 20th century—one message and one medium (all white) for all Americans—he made possible everything from Telemundo to Ms. Magazine. In fact, the very nature of media in the 21st century----including radio, magazines, television, and the Internet hinges on the concept of targeting specific, segmented niches of consumers, not only by race but by age, gender, lifestyle, and dozens of other demographic and psychographic characteristics. All of American industry, including the major multinational coporations which now face the challenge of designing, manufacturing, and marketing goods and services to a globally diverse
consumer base, owe a major debt to Johnson.
“I DON’T SEE, NEVER DID SEE, FAILURE AS AN OPTION.” Johnson, poured his energy into building his enterprise and legacy He was in his office almost every day until his last illness and was alert and active until the end,” says Linda Johnson Rice, his daughter and JPC’s current CEO. ‘He never stopped
dreaming dreams and climbing mountains.”
It was only fitting that Johnson, who died of heart failure in August, 2005, at age 87 in the 60th anniversary year of Ebony, would be honored in memorial services suited for a fallen head of state. More than 1,500 packed the cavernous cathedral of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for the titan’s funeral. Mourners included a former U.S. president, past and present members of Congress, African dignitaries, celebrities, captains of industry, and just plain folk.
“Out of this swarm of hardworking, family-loving men and women carving out their own version of the American dream, one man stood out because his dream was bigger and he had a vision for how to achieve it,’ eulogized former President Bill Clinton, who presented his fellow Arkansan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian award, in 1996.
The compact Johnson left huge shoes to fill . He was one of the select few with the resources to finance civil rights campaigns. “His support of the movement was beyond question,” says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Johnson was the key behind-the-scenes figure in major political campaigns, including Harold Washington’s historic election as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. “I agree to give my employees so much money and so many benefits, and they agree to give me so much work. Now if I cut their benefits or I cut their salary, they will quit. And if they cut their workload, I will fire them. That may be tough, but it’s fair and it’s the only way to survive.” J. Johnson could be best described as a rugged individualist, a self-possessed man driven to succeed regardless of seemingly impregnable obstacles. He decided early on to control his own destiny no matter what. In fact, this CEO, who personally signed every company check, defined his operating style as “hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped around management, in which you delegate freely and check up on people every day.”
Johnson admittedly earned the reputation of being one of the toughest bosses in America. For instance, he would occasionally sit in his lobby to ensure the punctuality of his employees. Once he fired an employee who told him Ebony would not succeed. And pray for the errant executive or editor who was sent to the give ‘em hell” room in his office. At the same time ,Johnson would make steak and lobster available to all employees in the company cafeteria for $1 and furnish valued per-sonnel with generous perks to stay in the JPC fold. His laser-beam focus on the advancement of his company didn’t allow for a board of advisers. It also left no room for requests that may serve as a distraction—including the offer of an ambass-adorship from the president of the U. S. “My mother had the greatest influence on my life . She gave me hope that one day, somehow, I would triumph.”
Born in 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson—a grand-son of slaves—gained his relentless drive from his late mother, Gertrude Johnson Williams. His father was killed in a sawmill accident when “young Johnny” was 8 years old. But his mother was determined not to let poverty, Jim Crow, or any other circumstance diminish the aspirations she held for her only child.
“His mother was his great example,” says Ebony Executive Editor Emeritus Lerone Bennett Jr. ‘She taught him to dream and to dare and to believe in himself . She provided, of course, the first $500 in collateral, but then she insisted that he get an education. She refused to believe in failure and she passed that on to him.”
In 1936, a chance meeting placed Johnson on the path to his destiny. He met Harry Pace, president of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co., the largest black-owned bus -iness in Chicago at the time, at an Urban League luncheon, and Pace offered Johnson a part-time job to defray college expenses. By 1939, Johnson quit college to accept a full-time position as editor of Supreme’s employee magazine. The job required him to write a summary of events in black America each week and, after showing the publication to friends eager for such information, Johnson came up with the notion of creating his own version of Reader’s Digest.
“Entrepreneurship is personal. It is what you can do almost by yourself. When I started out, I did not see the company the way it is today. And I think if I did, I probably would have been so overwhelmed with my meager resources that I wouldn’t have started it.”
At the time, Johnson did not have a nickel to invest in a magazine startup. Unable to get a bank loan, Johnson turned to his mother for the necessary funds. In a story that is now legend, she put up her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan to start pro -duction of his publication . Johnson also got help from Pace, who let him use the Supreme’s mailing list of 20,000 policyholders to solicit $2 subscriptions. He was able to raise another $6,000 in capital.
On Nov. 1, 1942, Negro Digest (later renamed Black World) was launched. In the early days, JPC’s staff consisted of Johnson and his wife, Eunice. Despite re-sistance from newsstand retailers and Jim Crow laws in the South, Johnson grew circulation from 5,000 to 50,000 within eight months by developing a network of salesmen who sold the publication on buses, streetcars, and even in cotton fields. He scored an editorial coup when he convinced First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dictate a column on race relations.
In 1945, with the end of World War II and GIs returning home, Johnson saw new opportunities in publishing. Through informal research, he discovered that large numbers of blacks bought Life, the popular pictorial magazine. Why couldn’t there be a counterpart to Life, a publication that celebrated the milestones of African Americans? On Eunice’s suggestion, Johnson called the magazine Ebony, after the fine, dark wood from tropical trees. The publication became an instant hit as many readers swarmed newsstands to read about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line or Lena Home’s big splash in Hollywood.
Up until the emergence of Ebony, images of blacks in popular culture consisted of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima. “Gently, but relentlessly, he pushed aside the image of servitude, the mean and ugly face of Jim Crow, the centuries of images that reinforced race supremacy and race majority,” says the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights activist who grew up reading the pages of Ebony. “Through John Johnson’s publications, we saw ourselves, our culture, and our potential.”
As his publications wrote about discriminatory practices, Johnson, too, had to contend with the same racism as his readership. When he purchased his first building, Johnson hired a white lawyer to handle the transaction while he disguised himself as a janitor to inspect the property. “We had to persuade people that it was in their best interests to reach out to black consumers in a positive way. It was like trying to get them to put money in a foreign market.”
By 1946, the Audit Bureau of Circulation revealed that Ebony’s paid circulation now exceeded 300,000, making it the most widely read black publication in the world. Ebony, however, grew too fast and created a cash flow crunch for the up-start publisher. Subscription sales and novelty items weren’ t enough to maintain the company s long-term growth. He needed advertising.
Johnson’s approach to gaining advertising may seem commonplace today, but it was truly revolutionary in 1940s America. He became the first publisher to try to convince advertisers of the value of segmented marketing. Using Ebony as a bully pulpit, he wrote that “big advertisers of consumer items failed to recognize the immensity of the Negro market,” which was greater than $10 billion at the time.
After repeated rejections, Johnson made a breakthrough. When he discovered that Eugene McDonald. the CEO of leading radio manufacturer Zenith, was obsessed with polar exploration, Johnson tracked down Matthew Henson, the African Amer-ican who was the first man to reach the North Pole. He obtained Henson’s signature on a copy of his autobiography.
After receiving the book from Johnson as a gift, McDonald placed Zenith ads in Ebony and he called the chairmen of Amour Food Co., Swift Packing Co., and Elgin Watch Co. to tell them to do the same. By 1948, the magazine became pro-fitable, gaining such key advertisers as PepsiCo. Colgate, Beechnut, and Seagram------all convinced by Johnson that they would increase revenues and market share by reaching black consumers. Even with the challenges of securing these ads, he in-sisted that the creative material included black models.
Johnson was innovative enough to create product extensions of his flagship brand. In 1958, he and his wife launched Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that exposed African Americans to elegance and style, promoted the magazine, and raised millions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund and other black charities.
Through his inventiveness, Johnson managed to achieve a feat that eluded many entrepreneurs, black or white: He was a millionaire before the age of 35. “I’ve never let the inability to get capital keep me from growing and surviving. If you believe in something, to have the commitment is really more important than having the money.
Johnson began to expand his publishing empire by launching a myriad of publications, including Jet in 1951. I think of all of the successful African American entrepreneurs—especially those in media—he took more risk than anyone. We give him credit for establishing Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet, but the fact of the matter is that he started 13 publications. There was Black Stars, Ebony Man, Ebony Jr., Ebony South African, and a little-known magazine that was similar to Jet, Hue magazine,” says Kenneth.
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