It’s always hazardous to boil someone’s life down to a blog post. You can never be certain that you’ve really represented them properly. You can only be certain that you’re going to miss something important.
But knowing something about a person is definitely better than knowing nothing at all, and nothing at all is what I knew when I walked into the Hyde Park Post Office last year to buy some postage and walked out with a sheet of twenty Black Heritage John H. Johnson Forever stamps.
And that’s a shame, because it turns out that John H. Johnson was both a major American publisher and a key figure in the civil rights movement. His weekly news magazine, Jet, was the first nationwide magazine to publish the photographs of the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. (A smaller magazine, The American Negro: A Magazine of Protest, published the images first, but it didn’t have the broad reach of John H. Johnson’s Jet.)
According to Chris Metress, editor of “The Lynching of Emmett Till,” Johnson’s decision to widely publicize the brutal aftermath of a 14-year-old boy’s decision to whistle at a married white woman had a transformative effect on the African American community. Metress says that the images changed “the way [blacks] felt about themselves and their vulnerabilities and the dangers they would be facing in the civil rights movement.”
In a statement that will come as no surprise to anyone who read my opening paragraphs and who has ever glanced at my author photo over there on the right, Metress also goes on to say that those same photographs in Jet had a much less powerful impact on the white community at the time, because “white people didn’t read Jet.” If I had grown up reading Jet and Ebony, no doubt I would have known in a heartbeat who John H. Johnson was.
Publishing the images of Emmett Till’s death was just one of many remarkable moments in Johnson’s career. As he proved with the launch of the Negro Digest/Black World in 1942, Ebony in 1945, and Jet in 1951, Johnson was the rarest of all publishers in post-WWII America: someone who portrayed African-Americans in a positive light. As the civil rights movement grew in strength, Johnson expanded the focus of his best-selling magazine Ebony from describing the lives of the rich and famous in the black community to include accurate reporting on the issues of desegregation, discrimination, African-American militancy, civil rights legislation, and of course, the freedom rides and marches taking place across the nation.
Johnson broke ground on a personal level as well. He was the first African-American to develop and build a major building in Chicago’s Loop. Because African-Americans were barred from owning land in downtown Chicago at the time, Johnson hired a white lawyer who bought the land for him in trust. Built to appear staid and conservative on the outside so that it would match its Michigan Avenue neighbors, the Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 Michigan Avenue were anything but staid on the inside. As this 2013 article on the WBEZ91.5 website shows, the interior was an exuberant homage to the same elegant, fearless, afrocentric modernism that defined Johnson’s best-selling magazines. (The building has since been sold to Columbia College.)
As you might expect, Johnson won several awards during his lifetime. The honors came flooding in pretty early, starting with the United States Chamber of Commerce making Johnson the first African-American to be named Young Man of the Year in 1951. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him their Springarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, in 1966. In 1972, his fellow publishers named him Publisher of the Year.
Bill Clinton gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate, as did the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon University, Eastern Michigan University, and Wayne State University.
Johnson was the grandson of slaves. He was the son of a man who died in a sawmill accident, and of a mother brave enough to move her family from rural Arkansas to Chicago at the height of the Great Depression in the hope of finding work and to give Johnson a chance to attend high school. He was also the first African-American ever placed on Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
Clearly, John H. Johnson is a person whose influence on American culture and society can’t be summed up in a single blog post. If you’d like to know more about him, a good place to start may be his 1992 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman.
- Soul Survivor: A look at the intact and avant garde interiors of the Ebony/Jet building (Lee Bay, WBEZ91.5)
- How Photos Became Icon of Civil Rights Movement (New York Times)