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John H. Johnson: Publishing icon’s stamp unveiled

By// Avis Weathersbee

The lobby of Johnson Publishing Co. on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago was at capacity Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012 for the ceremony unveiling the John H. Johnson Forever Stamp on its first day of issue.

A rousing performance of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, set the tone for the event in which dignitaries paid tribute to Mr. Johnson’s countless contributions to Black life and culture through the media empire he created via signature publications like JET and Ebony magazines.

It was a proud day for Linda Johnson Rice — daughter and, as company chairman, keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy. She tells JETmag.com that it’s fitting that the U.S. Postal Service bestowed this honor to her father, who died in 2005. “The Postal Service’s distribution of the publications helped bring the stories my father knew needed to be told into African-American homes and businesses.”

Mr. Johnson had observed the total absence of publications that showcased the full complement of Black endeavors and achievements; in fact, as he points out in his biography, the only reports on African-Americans in mainstream media were found in the police blotters. So with $500 borrowed against his mother’s furniture, he set out to shake up the status quo and launched his first publication (Negro Digest) devoted to giving voice to the Black experience. The rest, as they say, is history.

As master of ceremonies at the morning event, Johnson Publishing Company’s CEO Desiree Rogers ushered first the Columbia College Choir onstage followed by a host of dignitaries who recalled with humor and reverence both John H. Johnson and the impact his business model had on the city and the nation.

Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. noted, in a light moment, that Mr. Johnson had the power of life and death: making his list of 100 most influential African-Americans gave you life, and, until your obit appeared in JET, you hadn’t officially died.

Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley recalled Mr. Johnson’s frank counsel — telling him when he did something right and when he did something wrong. Daley, also fondly reflected on Mr. Johnson’s ability to make things happen: when businesses along Michigan Avenue, from Oak Street to Roosevelt Road, did not have driveways, Mr. Johnson somehow got his own. Daley laughed, saying he always asked Mr. Johnson, “How’d you get that driveway?”

Congressman Bobby Rush recalled selling JET at L stations as a youth, while Congressman Danny Davis invoked lines from the poem House By the Side of the Road to reflect on Johnson — a friend to man.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel also paid tribute to Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the city and his efforts for social justice.

Rice also is struck by the significance of her father’s stamp getting its closeup at this particular moment. “I think my father would be very proud to have his life’s work recognized by the USPS, especially during Black History month to be in the company of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, who all have been honored with Heritage Stamps.”

The John H. Johnson Forever Stamp, purchased at today’s 45-cent rate, always will be honored at the first-class one-ounce rate in effect. This, too, Rice says, is fitting: “The stamp, like his legacy, is timeless.”//