John Harold Johnson, the grandson of slaves, rose to become one of the greatest African American entrepreneurs. Mr. Johnson was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company and became the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400. This businessman and publisher created the most important media source for the black community ever. It is an honor for me to pay homage to Mr. Johnson for his devotion to the African American community and the pride his publication instilled.
In my view, his greatest and most important accomplishment occurred in 1955 when he made the profound decision at Emmett’s mothers request to publish young Emmett’s open casket photograph mangled and brutally beaten. If it had not been for Mr. Johnson’s JET Magazine, the world would never have known of this horrific murder. I will give thanks to him because it was this decision that sparked the modern civil rights movement.
Born in the south but after a visit with his mother to the Chicago World’s Fair, they decided that opportunities in the North were more plentiful than in the South. Facing poverty on every side in Arkansas during the Great Depression, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1933 to try to find work and for Johnson to continue his education.
Johnson endured much teasing and taunting at his high school for his ragged clothes and country ways, as he encountered something he never knew existed: Middle-class blacks. At DuSable High School, his classmates included Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, and future entrepreneur William Abernathy. This only fueled his already formidable determination to “make something of himself”. Johnson’s high-school career was distinguished by the leadership qualities he demonstrated as student council president and as editor of the school newspaper and class yearbook. This would prove to be valuable later in his life.
Johnson began as an office boy at Supreme Life and within two years had become Pace’s assistant. His duties included preparing a monthly digest of newspaper articles. Johnson began to wonder if other people in the community might not enjoy the same type of service. He conceived of a publication patterned after Reader’s Digest. His work at Supreme Life also gave him the opportunity to see the day-to-day operations of a business owned by an African American and fostered his dream of starting a business of his own.
Once the idea of The Negro Digest occurred to him, it began to seem like a “black gold mine”, Johnson stated in his autobiography Succeeding against the Odds. He remained enthusiastic even though he was discouraged on all sides from doing so. Only his mother, a woman with biblical faith and deep religious convictions, as well as a powerful belief in her son, supported his vision and allowed him to use her furniture as collateral for a $500 loan. He used this loan to publish the first edition of Negro Digest in 1942.
Johnson expanded his business interests to areas other than his magazines. He became chairperson and chief executive officer of the Supreme Life Insurance Company. He developed a line of cosmetics, purchased three radio stations, started a book publishing company, and a television production company, and served on the board of directors of several major businesses, including the Greyhound Corporation.
Johnson Publishing Company also has a book division and employs more than 2,600 people, with sales of over $388 million. In addition, Johnson Publishing owns Fashion Fair the world’s number one makeup and skin care company for women of color, and Supreme Beauty products such as hair care for men and women, and is involved in television production and produces the Ebony Fashion Fair the world’s largest traveling fashion show, which has donated over $47 million to charity. The show visits more than 200 cities in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
On January 31, 2012, the United States Postal Service honored John H. Johnson with a commemorative stamp as the newest addition to its Black Heritage Series. The John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University is named in his honor. Therefore, I send the highest praise to this great champion of the world.
Your publishing the open coffin pictures of little Emmett Till opened the eyes of the world to the brutality inflicted upon our people was the spark that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. If I may speak for all African American’s – thank you, Sir, for having the vehicles that uplifted and inspired us all with so much pride. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…