Recently, the American media lost a giant, John Johnson, the chairman of Johnson Publishing Co. Thousands of mourners, including a former U.S. president, former heads of state from Africa, and leaders from business, civil rights and religion, attended his funeral a week ago Monday, recognizing him as an authentic America hero.
But his passing was practically ignored by the networks. Unlike the news coverage accorded to those who make a difference in society, there was no news special on Mr. Johnson. This is patently unjust, a spasm of neglect that can only be explained by ignorance about how John Johnson altered the American landscape. Sadly, this oversight also bears more credence to the recently released study by the National Urban League Policy Institute called Sunday Morning Apartheid, which highlights the absence of black hosts, analysts and guests on the Sunday Morning news talk shows.
Born the grandson of slaves, in his 87 years, John Johnson lived in the Deep South’s Jim Crow segregation and then in the deeper, subtler segregation of Northern life. As a young man with nothing but education, vision and ambition, and $500 borrowed on his mother’s furniture, John Johnson started the publications?”Negro Digest, Ebony, Jet and Black Stars?”that transformed the face of America, ending 326 years of an era when it was illegal to print enlightened stories about blacks because the images had to correspond with the law and image of us being 2/3 human.
Back then we were Aunt Jemima, Amos and Andy, Little Black Sambo. We were the popping eyeballs, the exaggerated lips, the grotesque stretched-out fingers and legs. We were the minstrels, the jesters, the babbling idiots.
Those demeaning, degrading images were everywhere?”except John Johnson’s magazines. In those slick images, week after week and year after year, we saw beautiful black people who were successful and living well. Through these images, the black consumer market was born. John Johnson put a human face on black people, one that the nation’s rulers at last could not deny, could not avoid. 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. Now Madison Avenue sees the multi-billion dollar influence of the African-American consumer market.
Through John Johnson’s publications, we saw ourselves, our culture, and our potential. When white culture had Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas, we saw their equal in our own Billy Eckstine, Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price. When white sports starred Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, we saw our own stars in Jesse Owens, Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson.
From Malcolm to Martin to Mandela, from Thurgood Marshall to Muhammad Ali, from Mahalia Jackson to Queen Latifah, John Johnson’s publications showed us the agents of change who would reshape our destiny.
And he brought us the news of our world: the black obituary columns, the weddings, the social events. Through his magazines, his Ebony Fashion Fair shows and cosmetics, and his enormously successful radio station, WJPC, he brought us ourselves.
In this way, week after week and year after year, John Johnson changed our minds. We changed our minds about ourselves. We developed pride and aspiration. And we developed resistance, a condition of fierceness that could not be denied, as we saw the pictures and read the stories of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and so many others. The best chronicle that exists of America’s human-rights struggle lies in the files of Ebony and the Johnson Publishing Company.
Because that struggle has led to what is arguably the most fundamental social transformation of our lifetimes?”the recognition of the existence of basic human rights for everyone, everywhere?”its origins are of great importance to an understanding of the world we now inhabit.
In this moment of loss is contained the moment in which that radical change can and must be recognized, appropriately, in the place where John Johnson made his success: the media.
John Johnson helped incalculably to make our nation a more perfect union. He is in our hearts, and we are in his debt?”as is every journalist of our day. It is not too late to inform the American public about the dramatic life and accomplishments of John Johnson. I look forward to viewing that special coverage.
? Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.