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Black Magazine Publisher John Johnson Dead at 87

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CHICAGO -- Magazine publisher John Johnson, who jolted the mostly black readers of Ebony and Jet with violent images that lent visibility and momentum to the civil rights movement, died on Monday, his office said.

A publicist at Johnson's Chicago-based publishing company would not immediately give a cause of death. He was 87.

A multimillionaire who in 1982 became the first black American to make Forbes'list of the richest Americans, Johnson said his magazine philosophy was to reflect the "happier side" of black American life, and that "deep down, at the end of the day, we're trying to give people hope."

But from the early days of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, readers of Ebony and Jet saw vivid images of the tumult over school desegregation, police beating blacks and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

But readers also read about black celebrities and absorbed hints on accumulating wealth, which led to charges Johnson neglected the pressing problems facing many of his readers.

Copies of Jet's historic photograph of the mutilated body of teenager Emmett Till in his casket helped galvanize the civil rights movement. An all-white jury later acquitted two white Mississippians of the 1955 murder of the 14-year-old Chicagoan killed for whistling at a white woman.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who once worked on Johnson's loading dock, said Till's photograph inspired Rosa Parks to spark the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.

Johnson's magazines became must-reading for many blacks -- Ebony's circulation grew to nearly two million, Jet to nearly one million -- leading to the oft-heard adage in the black community: "If it wasn't in Jet, it didn't happen."

'A VOICE AND FACE'

"He gave African Americans a voice and a face, in his words, 'a new sense of somebody-ness,' of who they were and what they could do, at a time when they were virtually invisible in mainstream American culture," President Bill Clinton said when awarding Johnson the Medal of Freedom in 1996.

Born in Arkansas City, Arkansas, Johnson was 6 when his father was killed in a mill accident.

After the family moved to Chicago, Johnson was attending college and working at an insurance company when he borrowed $500 using his mother's furniture as collateral. He sent offers for $2 subscriptions to the firm's clients, using $6,000 in proceeds to create "Negro Digest," modeled on Reader's Digest.

Borrowing the look of Life Magazine, Johnson began Ebony in 1942. Jet was launched in 1951.

Unable to line up advertisers for a magazine created by and for blacks, Johnson started his own mail-order beauty products firm and ran its ads. He created his own line of cosmetics suitable for the black models appearing on his pages. He later bought and sold radio stations.

Recounting his story in a 1989 autobiography, "Succeeding Against the Odds," Johnson would write, "One of the sweetest emotions in the world is watching scorn turn into awe."

Johnson defended his magazines against charges of being lightweight by saying: "Whenever I got sick, my mother gave me castor oil. And I'd run and hide and squeal and holler. Finally she got smart. She gave it to me in orange juice. And it was more acceptable then.

"I tell people all the time, we run a lot of entertainment, but it's orange juice. If you look inside, there's always castor oil."

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