John H. Johnson, RIP

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The Wash Post and elsewhere are carrying obits of black publishing magnate John Johnson, who created Jet and Ebony and who died yesterday at age 87:

He launched a journal of black thought, Negro Digest, in 1942. Johnson enjoyed being provocative, and the publication included a feature called "If I Were a Negro." Among the contributors were Eleanor Roosevelt and Orson Welles….

He knew what would get his publications into black homes and consciousness. "We wanted to see Dr. Charles Drew and Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson and the other men and women who were building the campfires of tomorrow," he said. "We intended to highlight black breakthroughs and pockets of progress. But we didn't intend to ignore difficulties and harsh realities."

There would be many debates over the years about what Ebony and Jet did ignore, how the magazines were soft and flashy, how the fluff could overshadow the writings of historian Lerone Bennett Jr., which gave them a respectability, and the signature centerfold in Jet of a lovely in a bathing suit or brief attire, but people didn't put them down.

When the magazines were right, they earned a place in history. When Johnson published the grisly photographs of Emmett Till, the black youth murdered in Mississippi in the 1950s, people said later their lives were changed. They better understood all the stories passed down about lynchings and midnight murders, and they were energized to fight a modern fight against hatred. Years later, the medical experiments on black men, the Tuskegee syphilis cases, were given exposure in his magazines, as was the drug scourge, right up to the ecstasy threat.

The achievements Johnson celebrated had resonance around the world. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie once complimented him on his stories about black progress. And Johnson himself became an ambassador-at-large on presidential goodwill tours. He was one of the most visible black businessmen of the last century.

Whole thing here.

NEXT: All Hot and Sweaty

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  1. What does “building the campfires of tomorrow” mean?

  2. Joe,
    That was the precursor to “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

  3. Despite its rather tame current state, Johnson Publishing used to be on the cutting edge of Black journalism, especially in it’s initial, pre-Kennedy era “Negro Digest” form. Its historical legacy remains firm, even if its current periodicals are inept and intellectually laughable.

    Sometime in the 1970s EBONY stopped being the premier magazine of alternative Black journalism and became the coffee table brik-brak of choice for middle class Black American’s with big incomes and little brains.

    Most black Gen-Xers like myself wouldn’t be caught dead reading or subscribing to EBONY after the early 1980s, leading to the creation, by one of my former college mentors among others, of the now-defunct EMERGE magazine. I used to laugh at white students at Ohio State who would take a “Black Studies” course, and then write reports full of Ebony and Jet magazine articles as references.

    JET ceased to be a serious digest in the 1970s as well, serving only as pre-Internet soft porn for pubescent black males looking for the “Jet Pin-up Girl” in the middle of the magazine. At times it bordered on the ridiculous, becoming the black American version of “Weekly World” (“Interracial babies born to black couple!”)

    But in many ways, Mr. Johnson was the Muhammad Ali of black publishing, setting an example of entrepreneurship for many generations, and for that he’ll always have my respect.

  4. JET ceased to be a serious digest in the 1970s as well, serving only as pre-Internet soft porn for pubescent black males looking for the “Jet Pin-up Girl” in the middle of the magazine.

    Rant all you want, but leave page 43 out of this.

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