Publisher of Ebony, Jet showed power of the black community

Published August 13, 2005

By the time I began paying attention to such things, it was easy to take them for granted.

Landing in my dad's mailbox each month during the mid '70s, Ebony and Jet magazines were comfortable repositories of mainstream black culture. Filled with stories of black achievement, celebrity and middle class wealth - along with occasionally corny feature stories and the cheesy bikini centerfolds which still grace the pages of Jet - John H. Johnson's legendary publications were as constant and traditional as the plastic covers on your parents' living room furniture.

But as we contemplate the life and legacy of Johnson, who died Monday of heart failure in Chicago at age 87, it is obvious now that his magazines also were revolutionary in their own way - proving the viability of the black consumer market while inspiring a legion of black entrepreneurs, media figures and middle-class professionals.

Ebony came first, founded in 1945 as a black version of Life magazine by Johnson, a former insurance company executive who had years earlier founded Negro Digest, a black version of Reader's Digest. From the beginning, it had two missions: countering the deluge of demeaning racial images in the mainstream press while persuading advertisers they could profit by pitching their products to black people.

Jet, a steno-pad-sized, newsier product, came in 1951, helping build a family-owned media and cosmetics empire now worth an estimated $500-million. Through it all - a landmark Jet issue featuring the battered body of lynching victim Emmett Till and an Ebony article by activist Angela Davis written from jail - Johnson emphasized black empowerment through entrepreneurial success and positive media images.

With hip hop culture now used to sell everything from hamburgers to new cars, it is hard to imagine an era when white businesses didn't think they could make money off black consumers. Johnson exploded those misguided prejudices, secretly paying friends to buy up early copies of Negro Digest so that distributors and advertisers would give it a chance.

Now Johnson's vision of black-owned success seems as dated as those vinyl furniture covers, with black moguls once inspired by his success - Black Entertainment Television's unrelated founder Robert Johnson is the most notable example - selling their creations to white-owned conglomerates for huge sums. Others claim that, just because some black folks are among America's most wealthy and powerful people, Ebony and Jet are passe.

As the testimonials to Johnson's legacy pour in, it seems the greatest tribute may be for black journalists to keep telling their stories and black entrepreneurs to keep ownership of their businesses.

Because, in the end, Johnson proved that no one can tell black America's story better - or deserves to profit more from the tale - than a dedicated black American.

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com