February 10, 2009
John H. Johnson: The Icon
We wanted to give blacks a new sense of somebody-ness, a new sense of self-respect. We wanted to tell them who they were and what they could do.â€
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 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. Shortly thereafter, other black publications followed Jet’s lead in publishing the 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 Johnson’s 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 Americans.
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.
But Johnson 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 earned 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. presidents. 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 magazines 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 accomplishments to his impact on black America, as mainstream media outlets did in covering the news of his passing, would be a grave disservice to his legacy.
The truth is, Johnson inspired subsequent generations of black entrepreneurs, but 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