The governor of Illinois said that John Johnson’s life was “more than the American dream”it was an inspiration not only to African Americans, but those of us from the other side of town, with those long, hard names to pronounce.” Aug. 15 was a beautiful, sunny, mildly warm summer day, the day of John H. Johnson’s funeral and Gov. Rod Blagojevich proclaimed it “John H. Johnson Day” in Illinois.
The mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, described Mr. Johnson as a friend, confidant and adviser. He reflected on Johnson’s friendship with his father, Richard J. Daley, and said, “He understood that every community in our nation has a story to tell. He made it his business to tell those stories to the world.”
Mr. Johnson’s wife, Eunice, was escorted into the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, by former president Bill Clinton. They were followed by his daughter, Johnson Publishing Company CEO Linda Johnson Rice, her husband Mel Farr and granddaughter Alexa Rice.
John Johnson and Bill Clinton are both natives of Arkansas, along with Cong. Danny K. Davis and County Board President John Stroger. Pres. Clinton recalled that Johnson had not been back to Arkansas in 53 years when he returned to serve as an advisor to the governor. “I met John Johnson in the 1980s when I was governor of Arkansas and John Johnson was part of the ‘good suit club.’ This was a panel of Arkansans who were asked to advise the governor on ways to improve the state,” Clinton said. “I liked the fact that he was proud of his own success without being arrogant about it, and he never sought to lift himself up by keeping somebody else down. John, your legacy will never die. It lives on because you became great by showing the greatness and the goodness in others. I liked John Johnson, I thought he was a wise, kind and straightforward man.” In 1996, Clinton awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Black Enterprise founder Earl Graves Sr., reflected on how Mr. Johnson came to his office and when he departed, they were friends rather then competitors. “It is safe to say there would be no Black Enterprise magazine today without the vision and tenacity of John Johnson. … Without making a big show of it, a big portion of the Civil Rights Movement was financed by him,” said Graves.
Although it had been announced all week that the funeral was open to the “public,” it did not include all of the public. Mostly the “elite public” were granted entry into the chapel. Many “non-elite” mourners had lined up early and stood quietly awaiting entrance to the chapel. But as dignitaries, celebrities, politicians and recognizable individuals arrived, they were escorted in while the “grassroots” public stood quietly waiting.
Doris Lewis, an activist and recently retired Chicago Public Schools counselor, said, “I’ve been [here] since 9:30 a.m. I came to pay my tribute to Mr. Johnson. They indicated initially that it was open to the public; however, about 50-75 from the public got in. Everyone else was a VIP or dignitary. They should have said that those would be the people they would allow to come in. The public did not have an opportunity to participate in the homegoing of Mr. Johnson and I’m very upset about this. The real subscribers to Ebony/Jet are standing outside, and I’m very upset the way this whole thing has been handled.
Dorsey Swanigan also felt slighted. “I’m very disappointed. He’s a Chicagoan. I’m from Chicago. I supported everything Johnson has been doing all these years. They should have said not open. They kept saying the public is invited. I came to the wake and would not have tried to come to this if they were going to say just certain people could get in. What they should have had was a video for the public and that way we would have at least felt we were a part of this.”
The list of VIPs in attendance included Lerone Bennett, Ebony’s executive editor; Motown founder Barry Gordy Jr.; TV producer Suzanne de Passe; Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons; Minister Louis Farrakhan; Rev. Al Sharpton; Tavis Smiley; Fly Jock Tom Joyner; boxing promoter Don King; actress Dianne Carroll; former Ebony model Janet Langhart; Black Enterprise founder Earl Graves; comedian/activist Dick Gregory; George O’Hare; Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown; Rev. Marshall Hatch; Abe Thompson; Cong. Danny Davis; Cong. Bobby Rush; Cong. Jesse Jackson Jr.; former senator Carol Moseley Braun; U.S. Senator Barack Obama and wife Michelle; John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Capital Management; former comptroller Roland Burris; Rep. Connie Howard; Rep. Mattie Hunter; A&E’s Bill Kurtis; Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy; Ald. Dorothy Tillman; Cook County Board President John Stroger; Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Timothy Evans; BET founder Robert Johnson’ People’s Energy President Desiree Rogers; Rainbow PUSH Rev. Willie Barrow; Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn); Mr. Cub Ernie Banks; Hermene Hartman, publisher of N’Digo; Roland Martin, editor of the Chicago Defender; Rev. Al Sampson; Rev. Arthur Brazier; and Bishop T. D. Jakes.
Officiating was former congressman and current pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church of Philadelphia William H. Gray III. The benediction was given by Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. Musical selections were by Vickie Winans and Santita Jackson. Musical choir was from the Apostolic Church of God. Granddaughter Alexa Rice was the only family member who spoke. All mourners received a beautiful obituary booklet that celebrated the life of Mr. Johnson.
“Take The ‘A’ Train” was played during the recessional. Unity Funeral Parlors handled the arrangements and Ebony’s managing editor Lynn Norment handled the funeral planning.