Johnson, Robert Edward

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Johnson, Robert Edward

(b. 13 August 1922 in Montgomery, Alabama; d. 27 December 1995 in Chicago, Illinois), pioneering black journalist and longtime associate publisher and executive editor of jet magazine.

Johnson was the son of Robert and Delia (Davis) Johnson, about whom little personal information is known today. He had at least three brothers and one sister. The family moved from Montgomery to Birmingham, Alabama, during Robert’s youth. In his early years, Johnson spent his spare time selling black newspapers to passersby in busy sections of Birmingham and by founding his high school newspaper, the Westfield Trail Blazer. By pursing these two endeavors, Johnson acquired an interest in black-oriented publications and skills in editorial work that would serve him throughout his life.

Following high school, Johnson, known as “Bob” to his friends, served in the U.S. Navy Reserves (USNR) from 1943 to 1946. While stationed at the Treasure Island Naval Base, Johnson actively sought and later received appointment as the first black editor of the installation’s newspaper, the Masthead, because he wanted to turn it away from racist policies and cartoons.

In 1948 Johnson received a B.A. degree from historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta. While at Morehouse, he studied under the legendary educator Benjamin E. Mays, and he matriculated with future civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Meanwhile, Johnson edited the Morehouse student paper, the Morehouse Maroon Tiger, and worked as a stringer for national newspapers.

Also in 1948, Johnson joined the staff of the Atlanta Daily World and married Naomi Cole. The couple would have three children. Johnson earned an M.A. degree in journalism from Syracuse University in 1952. At the Atlanta Daily World, Johnson rose from reporter to city editor in only two years.

Johnson’s service at the Atlanta Daily World caught the attention of John H. Johnson (no relation), founder of the mass-circulation Negro Digest (1942), Ebony (1945), and Jet (1951) magazines in Chicago. John H. Johnson hired Robert E. Johnson to work at Jet headquarters in Chicago in February 1953. While at Jet, Johnson rose from associate editor (1953–1954), to assistant managing editor (1954–1954), to managing editor (1954–1963) and finally to executive editor and associate publisher (1963–1995). Meanwhile, Jet magazine rose in circulation from 964,000 to 7.8 million within three decades. Johnson played a prominent role in making Jet one of black America’s most widely read publications. By giving increased attention to social, cultural, and sporting events within the black community, Johnson was widely credited by journalists and nonjournalists alike for guiding Jet to this pinnacle of success.

Johnson’s forty-three-year career with Jet propelled him into the ranks of nationally known black journalists. Starting with his on-the-scene coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, sparked by Rosa Parks’s defiance of city bus segregation laws, Johnson continued to give national attention in the pages of Jet magazine to racial issues throughout his career. Perhaps Johnson’s greatest legacy to civil rights resulted from his being one of the first black journalists to chronicle the career of Martin Luther King, Jr., from King’s ascendancy as a civil rights leader in Montgomery during the bus boycott to his tragic assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Johnson connected King with Jet’s black readership through the copious use of photographs.

During his life Johnson maintained friendships with civil rights leader and political activist Jesse L. Jackson and with entertainers Duke Ellington, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby, with whom Johnson coauthored Bill Cosby: In Words and Pictures (1986). In 1972 Johnson was the only black journalist to travel with President Richard M. Nixon to Russia, Poland, Austria, and Iran, and in 1979 Johnson was one of the few senior journalists accompanying U.S. ambassador Andrew Young on a trade-mission tour of Africa. As with his other trips to Europe and Asia, Johnson related these experiences to his readership through columns, articles, and pictures in Jet magazine. In 1994 President Bill Clinton invited Johnson to participate in a White House ceremony for noted leaders of the 1960s civil rights era. The following year Johnson interviewed the controversial boxing figure Mike Tyson in prison in Indiana and became the only journalist allowed to accompany the former champion on his return to Harlem upon release from prison. The ensuing interview that Johnson conducted for Jet/Ebony remains a classic journalistic exposé of Tyson’s tormented inner self. The Tyson interview coup capped the dynamic career of Johnson, who fell gravely ill shortly thereafter from prostate cancer, with which he was originally diagnosed in 1988.

Johnson died at his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago at the age of seventy-three. Johnson’s family held services for him at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, where Johnson had been a member of University Church of Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ. Notables at the service included Dillard University president Samuel DuBois Cook, Morehouse College president Walter E. Massey, comedian and activist Dick Gregory, Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, and longtime colleague and Jet publisher John H. Johnson. In his eulogy, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson captured the spirit of Johnson’s life when he characterized him as a “modern-day Griot… one of the great communicators of our time.” Johnson is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

Throughout his professional life, Johnson had been active in numerous civil rights and professional organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Upward Bound, Operation Push, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, Alpha Kappa Delta, Sigma Delta Chi, Alpha Phi Alpha, the Chicago Association of Black Journalists, and the National Association of Black Journalists. Johnson was a trustee of Dillard University and received honorary degrees from Dillard, Morehouse College, Miles College, and Texas College.

Jet magazine is a good source for information on and articles by Johnson. John H. Johnson, Succeeding Against the Odds (1989), includes information about Robert E. Johnson’s years at Jet, while Fred Powledge, Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It (1992), provides a good backdrop to the critical events shaping Johnson’s journalism while at Jet. Obituaries are in the Detroit News and Chicago Sun-Times (both 28 Dec. 1995).

Irvin D. Solomon