I’ve been hearing many people of select status continue this uncomfortable conversation about the demise of the life-long brand of one of my mentors, John Johnson of the Johnson Publishing Company. The Johnson Publishing Company has filed for bankruptcy, its landmark building was sold, and the company’s current president (and daughter of the iconic, deceased founder John Johnson), Linda Johnson, literally gave the company away to an investment firm.
Okay, let me express how these occurrences have caused a tremendous outcry from the very community that the legendary publishing company once served.
The EBONY and JETpublications were institutions that have inspired more than six generations of Black people since its founding in the 1940s. Not only that, it was the only major magazine publication that profiled the best and the brightest of the Black community. Today, people are mad as heck about the possibility that the Johnson brand may no longer be in circulation.
The publishing giant was created by a man from the deep south who was not supposed to be who he had become — especially not during America’s most racist decades in modern history (1940s-1980s). The institution has withstood the test of America’s most racist years, but unfortunately, EBONY and JEThave not been viable magazines in nearly ten years — not the way that our parents and grandparents remember.
I remember my first encounter with Mr. Johnson; it was during a program at the Hilton Hotel. I crashed the event in order to see and hear from the man who motivated me to start my own publishing and media company. I saw him on stage accepting an award, and I knew that I would be the first person he would see when he walked off that platform. When he stepped down off that last step, he was face to face with Carl West.
He accepted my warm greeting and extended his card and instructed me to call his office. That was the handshake of a lifetime. As he welcomed me into his private sanctum, he kept it simple. Our times spent in his office were always short and precise. But the most powerful advice he shared with me is still embedded deep in my brain.
He said, “Son, if I built this institution — and an institution it is — during the 1940s when racism and bigotry were as normal as apple pie, then you and your generation can build new institutions that can last a lifetime. You can grow your magazine the same way that I grew EBONY andJET.” I have since lived off those beautiful words; I was destined to build a new institution!
That brings me to my point: we must honor the past while building for the future.
Let’s examine how upset people were that Bob Johnson sold BET at the height of its popularity as an institution showcasing Black lives. But, it was the right thing to do for himself — he built it, he can sell it! Bob also inspired a movement of people who have built new cable television or digital institutions and continued to tell the stories of Black people. Unfortunately, John Johnson never had the chance to place his company in good hands when it was at its height of success.
However, there are hundreds of other Black institutions in this country and globally that deserve our support. We should honor those iconic monuments that have given us life, liberty and a sense of freedom. It’s also extremely important that we focus on building new institutions that can become the next EBONY/JET, BET, DuSable Museum, Chicago Defender, Betty Shabazz International, ETA Creative Arts Foundation, Black Star Project and others of the sort.
Not that these current institutions should be replaced — heck no!
Let’s not feel bad about EBONY orJET’s demise, but let’s support and encourage new publishing institutions. We need to embrace new institutions erected by the newest generation of emerging leaders. These hungry men and women have the intellect, education and innovative vision to bring new elements to historic institutional landmarks.
I think about what Bill Garth, Citizen Newspaper Group, Inc., and John Johnson’s combined legacy has done for me. I followed the stories behind building their respective publishing institutions, and I’ve erected my own version for today’s times where the Digital Revolution dominates the art of communication. I’ve emulated their creative initiatives and gifts for delivering news and information to build an institution that will honor these men as well as others. Look at the newest institutions like Facebook, Google, Uber and YouTube. The founders of these companies used the examples of past institutions to help establish their own incredible versions of new institutions.
We must ignite excitement in the people who reside in our community in order to ensure that we continue the building of new institutions that can change our world.