The Icon

John H. Johnson controlled one of the nation's largest black business empires and used his wealth and power to raise the social and economic status of
African Americans

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 corporations 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 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 nation’s 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.”

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

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