An appreciation of John H. Johnson

Ebony and Jet have been decorating the furniture in African American living rooms and offices for many years. John H. Johnson, one of the wealthiest African Americans in the country and founder of Ebony, Jet and the Johnson Publishing Co., died on Aug. 8. His funeral a week later drew an overflow crowd, ranging from personalities like former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to throngs of ordinary people who came to pay their respects. What was the essence of the contribution of John H. Johnson to the struggle for social progress?

The African American community is multi-class. Though the working class is the largest segment of this community, there are also classes of small and large Black business people as well as other strata. The African American struggle seeks the unity of those various class forces and strata toward advancing the fight for justice and equality for the African American people, and the general advancement of democracy in our country overall.

For a people to summon all of their strength and courage in the face of brutal, vulgar distortion and degradation of their history, culture, and place of origin, they must come to know who they really are. They must be armed with the truth of their history and culture. Confronting a dominant culture which said that Black people were not only inferior, but ugly, stupid, culturally backward, and less than human, John H. Johnson rose in opposition.

Though Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and thousands more resisted, and lived lives representing the glory of African American humanity, it was not until John H. Johnson that the pudding representing the proof was regularly available in nationally circulated popular print. Through Ebony and Jet, Black people could read about other Black people who, mostly against the odds, became civil rights leaders, politicians, doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers, artists, sports figures and business people. They could explore a more accurate truth about the history, sociology and culture of the Black experience in America and Africa. Lest we forget, this was vitally important information at a time when Black membership in the human species was still in question. The faces and causes of important leaders were recognizable to African Americans not because of television or Look and Life magazines, but because of Ebony and Jet.

At a time when the dominant culture was committing widespread lynching of Black flesh after church on Sunday and of the Black soul and spirit every day of the week without fail, the significance of the emergence of John H. Johnson and the realization of his vision is undeniable. It was through the pages of Ebony and Jet that Black people got the news of what was really going on and who was doing, accomplishing and achieving what in the African American community. It was the horror of the lynching of young Emmett Till captured on the front cover of the Sept. 15, 1955, Jet magazine that helped to promote the uprising of Black people in the fight for the rights of citizens that shook the nation. Ebony and Jet not only chronicled but also made a contribution to advancing the civil rights movement.

John H. Johnson, the son of a sawmill worker and a washerwoman, is also credited with making major donations to Black colleges and universities and the campaigns of some African American political candidates, and helping to financially sustain budding leaders and movements. The truth that wealthy African Americans also experience racism is revealed most poignantly by one story from Johnson’s life. When he wanted to buy a building in Chicago’s downtown area to house his publishing company, Johnson, an African American, could not make the deal. In order to purchase the building he had to buy it through his white lawyer.

John H. Johnson may not have walked as far as we must walk and he may not have thought all the thoughts we must embrace, but he made an indelible mark on the side of the fight for social progress, and that merits being recognized and applauded.

Dee Myles is a Chicago educator.