CHICAGO (CBS) — Former Mayor Richard Daley looked vibrant and chipper in his first public appearance since the funeral for his late wife, Maggie Daley, last November, as he helped honor Ebony and Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson, who was commemorated with a postal stamp on Tuesday.
As WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports, Daley was among the dignitaries on hand as the U.S. Postal Service officially issued a stamp honoring Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines.
In a ceremony at Johnson Publishing headquarters in the South Loop, the U.S. Postal Service announced Johnson would be honored with the 35th stamp in the Black Heritage series. Previous honorees include civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., baseball player Jackie Robinson and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports
As CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports, Johnson’s life was the most American of success stories: rising from poverty to privilege to build a business empire that began with a $500 loan from his mother.
Johnson’s daughter Linda Johnson Rice, who is now chair of Johnson Publishing, said, “He always told me that he had a mother who believed in him and that, even though they came from rural Arkansas, she knew that he was destined for greatness.”
Johnson was his class valedictorian at DuSable High School in 1936. That same year, he got a job at Supreme Life Insurance, headquartered at 35th Street and Michigan Avenue, as a law library clerk.
Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, said Johnson “got exposed to creating for them a newsletter that would go to their insurance policyholders. And the newsletter became so popular, that the light bulb went on in his head.”
First, Johnson published Negro Digest, modeled after Readers Digest. Then he created Ebony and Jet magazines.
His success helped him become a counselor to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He also counted Daley and his father, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, as supporters and friends.
The younger Daley said Tuesday that Johnson gave voice to the voiceless and put a face on the invisible – the African American community in Chicago and across the nation. He said Johnson helped tell the nation stories that had not been heard before.
“All those wonderful stories and, specifically, stories about the African American community that you did not read for many, many years,” Daley said.
Daley also noted that, as Johnson acquired readers and revenue, he acquired power and was hardly shy about sharing his insights.
“After my father died, he called upon me and he started giving me advice. And when I was (Cook County) State’s Attorney, he gave me advice; and running for mayor,” Daley said. “And then running for mayor, he would give me this advice and counsel continually, what I was doing right, or what I was doing wrong.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Johnson was a man who changed a city and a nation through his work as a pioneering entrepreneur and publisher.
“He was a pioneer in publishing, providing African American writers a canvas and African American culture a showcase,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel also noted it was Johnson who, in 1955, published the casket photos of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body after he was slain in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman. The photos of Till’s body provided some of the impetus to the subsequent civil rights movement.
“My dad wanted to make a statement. From Oak Street, all the way to Roosevelt Road, there was never a driveway,” Daley said. “When he built this building (Johnson Publishing headquarters at 800 S. Michigan Av.) there was a driveway.”
That office tower opened 40 years ago and made Johnson the first black man to own a Michigan Avenue building. But the downturn in magazines hit Ebony hard.
The building has since been sold to Columbia College.
“My father’s legacy is bigger than a building. It really is a tremendous business that he’s built,” Rice said. “So, at some point you have to move on.”
Johnson Publishing is moving to leased offices at 200 S. Michigan Av. The Johnson Publishing building has more than 100,000 square eet. Their new offices will comprise just 11,000 feet over two floors.
The company is hoping to expand its online presence to lure new readers and new advertising dollars.