Earl Graves Farewell To Ebony To Publisher Johnson

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To Eunice, Linda, and the rest of the Johnson family -- the Graves family extends to you our loving support and deepest sympathy.   John Johnson was my friend.  I know this was true because he told me so—and John Johnson always meant what he said.   He didn’t always consider me a friend.  Some 30 years ago, we were competitors.  He was the publishing legend behind Ebony magazine.  I was the upstart with a young Black Enterprise.   And while I always considered John Johnson to be a legend and an inspiration, to him I was little more than a thorn in his side.  Back then, you see, advertising dollars were scarce enough for one national African American publication, let alone two.  John wasn’t about to cede any ground without a fight.   Then one day, he called me and insisted on a meeting.  I knew he was serious but I didn’t know what he wanted to discuss with me.  We made the appointment.  He came to my office.  We sat down, exchanged the usual pleasantries.  And then he got down to business. “Graves,â€? he said, “I want to be your friend.â€?   I started to protest that we already were friends but he said no.  “When I walked in here I wasn’t your friend.  When I leave, I will be your friend.â€? He went on to explain that from the moment Black Enterprise was first published, he saw it as an encroachment on Ebony’s circulation and ad dollars.  In meetings with potential advertisers, they’d ask him about Black Enterprise and he’d tell them it wasn’t serious or that that Graves character was running numbers on the side, whatever he could to discourage their interest.  Then they’d turn around and say, well we had Graves in here yesterday and he says Ebony is a fine publication and John Johnson walks on water. So, he came to my office, olive branch in hand.  John Johnson was a hard-nose competitor, but he was class all the way.  We became friends, true friends that very moment and remained close the rest of his life.

John and I spoke often about business and about the state of things.  We sought each others advice in times of uncertainty and crisis.  We worked in collaboration whenever possible, whether it was to advance a worthy cause or to bring about positive changes in our industry. In the final analysis, John Johnson made it possible for two African American businesses to evolve past being mere competitors to build on each other’s strengths.  The John Johnson I knew set the standard for integrity.   What you saw was what you got.  If he liked you, you knew it.  If he didn’t like you, well there was no confusion about that, either.  It’s one thing to say “he didn’t suffer fools gladly.â€?  John didn’t suffer fools period.  He worked hard.  If you didn’t, well then you didn’t exist.   On the flipside, he never forgot his roots or his responsibility to others.  Without making a show of it, John financed a good portion of the civil rights movement himself, contributing to key organizations in that struggle.  More recently in my role as trustee, I remember sitting down with John and Howard University President Patrick Swygert, who is also in attendance this morning.  The result of that discussion was John’s $5 million gift to Howard and the establishment of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University. That kind of commitment takes vision and we all know John Johnson had vision to spare.
Consider that when he started out in the 1940s, he had the vision to imagine a communications empire that would reveal and honor the lives of African Americans, in all our diversity, depth and dignity.  Ebony was the centerpiece of that vision.  In it, he saw an African American magazine that could stand proudly along side Look and Life, the premier general interest magazines of that time.  It had never been done before, but he did it.   In doing so, he opened the eyes of Madison Avenue to the multibillion dollar influence of the African American consumer market.   By showing the profitability of using black models and black-themed campaigns, he literally changed the way American companies market their products to Black consumers.  It’s safe to say that there would be no Black Enterprise magazine without the vision and tenacity of John Johnson. And his vision lives on stronger than ever.  Here it is the year 2005 and Look and LIFE are history.  Ebony is still making history!   And with his daughter Linda now at the helm, a long and glorious future for Johnson Publications is assured. John Johnson’s vision continues to inspire, to inform, to entertain,  to enlighten, to open doors of opportunity.   But as much as I respect and revere his vision, it is his friendship that fills my heart this day.  It was a friendship built upon the traits that John and I valued most: honesty and mutual respect.  John, my friend, I will miss you.

Earl G. Graves is the founder and publisher of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine.

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