BOB GARFIELD: [GUITAR MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The news this week also included the death of John H. Johnson, the publishing mogul behind both Ebony and JET Magazines. Johnson, who died Monday at the age of 87, will be remembered not only for the long-enduring magazines themselves, read and remembered by so many, but also for those magazines' impact on Black America. When young John Johnson founded Negro Digest in 1942, with 500 dollars borrowed against his mom's furniture, Condoleezza Rice wasn't close to being born, and Jim Crow wasn't close to being dead. For Black Americans, racism wasn't an insidious lingering vestige, it was an explicit, degrading, often violent daily reality. And in that environment the 24-year-old entrepreneur decided to do something radical and revolutionary. In Negro Digest he was determined to make being a Negro normal.
JANETTE DATES: And what he was reflecting was that people were leading ordinary lives. They were going to work every day, coming home, feeding their children, you know, doing the things that other people did.
BOB GARFIELD: Jannette Dates is the dean of Howard University's John H. Johnson School of Communications.
JANNETTE DATES: And the normalcy of it was a part of the appeal, so that you didn't feel the awkwardness of constantly being held up as someone who was different. That was a part too. So there were all sorts of messages that were conveyed by his publication over--almost 60 years.
PAMELA NEWKIRK: That may not sound like a monumental achievement, but given the times it really was.
BOB GARFIELD: Pamela Newkirk, author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, says that long before the civil rights movement, the Black power movement of the sixties and the identity politics of later generations, Johnson recognized the political, cultural and not incidentally commercial implications of Black self image.
PAMELA NEWKIRK: You know, I don't know if you recall Dr. Kenneth Clark. On--as part of the Brown v. Board decision, they used his doll study. And what that doll study showed is that most Black girls preferred white dolls over black dolls. And, you know, it's almost not worth arguing that part of the reason of that were the normal portrayals of African Americans at that time, the normal portrayals of what is beautiful. So these ideals that were firmly set, in both Black and White minds, was something that Johnson went a long way towards dismantling.
BOB GARFIELD: The heart and soul of Johnson Publishing Company is Ebony, introduced in 1945 as a sort of Black Life Magazine. It was fluffy, non-confrontational and bourgeois, filled with celebrities and hokey aspirationalism. And it was very quickly a cash cow, financing the 1951 start-up of Readers Digest-like JET Magazine, not to mention a distribution company, a vast direct mail operation, the Fashion Fair cosmetics subsidiary, and a book division. Ebony also, over the years, became a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, immersing itself in middle class ideals for a burgeoning Black class that didn't at first behave like a middle class, until it coalesced as one under the unabashedly commercial values John H. Johnson helped cultivate. But if Johnson was first and foremost a businessman, he understood he was in the journalism business. And he made sure he delivered. Phillip Dixon is chair of the Journalism Department at Howard.
PHILLIP DIXON: Before there was a BET, before there was an Internet, before long distance phone calls were cheap, the only way--if you were to ask an American, and you didn't get the Pittsburgh Courier in those newspapers--to stay on top of and understand what was happening to African Americans around the country and what kind of progress people were making or not making, was to read his publications.
BOB GARFIELD: In the sixties and seventies, some bristled at the essential optimism of Ebony and JET, deeming it irrelevant or worse. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribute was one of them. But he has since reevaluated.
CLARENCE PAGE: The younger generation, my generation--I was in college at the time, in the late sixties--would make fun of Ebony and JET for being so bourgeois and being so middle class, in other words, expressed the values of our parents. Ha-ha-ha, I still secretly dreamed that someday Ebony would choose me as one of their Bachelors of the Year because the bachelors of the year were cool; these were guys who had their own homes, their own Jaguars, good jobs, were living a great life. But they were also going to church, they were leading roles of leadership in their communities. These were very positive stories. And this was at a time when the mainstream headlines were talking about riots in the streets, Black power militancy.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, as a consumer product, heavy politics didn't particularly sell. Johnson's maiden publication, Negro Digest, eventually evolved into Black World, a magazine of commentary that Johnson had to fold in the mid-seventies due to fatal unprofitability. Ed Lewis, publisher of Essence Magazine and long-time Johnson friend, recalls how that decision did not sit well among certain Black activists.
ED LEWIS: And he tells the story that when they protesting outside the Johnson building about his decision to close the magazine, he called some of the protesters in and listening to them about why he should keep the magazine going. And then he said stop. He asked some of the persons there, he said I want to know your names. What he did was then tap into his computer with respect as to whether they were subscribers. They were not subscribers. You know what he told them? "You can leave my office."
BOB GARFIELD: Johnson showed them the door. He might have instead shown them his archive. Of special interest might have been a 1955 issue of JET, featuring the open casket photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till who had been murdered after supposedly whistling at a White woman outside a Mississippi grocery. That shocking image, seen in nearly a million Black homes because JET was so assiduously mainstream, is widely credited for helping galvanize the civil rights movement. But if one photograph 50 years ago was for millions of Americans a defining moment of grim confirmation, it wasn't an especially surprising act of magazine journalism. It did what courageous journalism does, by shedding light on the ills of society. And it created such an uproar that it reversed what was then a decline in JET's circulation. It was, in other words, in publishing terms, absolutely normal.