Cover image for Succeeding against the odds
Succeeding against the odds
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Warner Books, c1989.
Physical Description:
372 p. : photographs.
General Note:
"An Amistad book."

Includes index.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 921 JOHNSON 1 1

On Order



One of America's wealthiest entrepreneurs, John H. Johnson rose from the welfare rolls of the Depression to become the most successful Black businessman in American history; the founder of Ebony , Jet , and EM magazines; and a member of the Forbes 400 . Like the man himself, this autobiography is brash, inspirational, and truly unforgettable.

Author Notes

Lerone Bennett Jr. was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on October 17, 1928. By the age of 12, he was writing for the black newspaper The Mississippi Enterprise. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1949 and went to work at the black newspaper Atlanta Daily World. In 1953, he became an associate editor at Jet magazine. He moved to Ebony a year later and became the senior editor there in 1958. He eventually became an executive editor and worked for the magazine into his 80s.

He wrote several books including Before the Mayflower, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr., The Shaping of Black America, and Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877. He died from advanced vascular dementia on February 14, 2018 at the age of 89.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Black multimillionaire Johnson, assisted by Bennett, executive editor of Ebony magazine, recounts with simplicity, zest and humorous anecdotes how, as a 24-year-old from a small Mississippi River town, he parlayed a $500 loan into a publishing, cosmetics and insurance empire. Negro Digest , the first magazine he founded, was followed by Ebony (the first national black publication) and Jet . Thanks to success brought about by his sound social, business and political instincts, Johnson now enjoys a life spent ``going first class,'' including owning a Palm Springs mountain-top home; participating in corporate board meetings (where he is accustomed to being the only black); and hobnobbing with the likes of Michael and Jesse Jackson and Gorbachev. Credited by some with ``inventing'' the black consumer market, Johnson is proudest of his role in reporting and abetting the crusade of Martin Luther King Jr. And despite his successes, he contends, without bitterness, that his millions could have been billions were it not for the ``live wire of race.'' Photos not seen by PW. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

An enthralling and engaging autobiography from a world-class capitalist who happens to be black. Born 71 years ago in a Mississippi River town, the go-getting Johnson left for Chicago as an impoverished teen-ager. Once there, he finished high school, began attending college, and started work at a black-owned insurance company. On the job, Johnson gained a considerable measure of self-confidence and came up with the idea that led to a still-prospering career in magazine publishing. Borrowing $500 on his beloved mother's newly paid-for furniture, he launched Negro Digest in 1942. Building on this shoestring venture, Johnson (a millionaire at 31) went on to create a business empire encompassing Ebony, Jet, a cosmetics supplier, and the insurance company that gave him his start. Johnson's ascent was by no means effortless. He had to overcome racial barriers as well as the financial and operational problems encountered by almost anyone who aspires to run his or her own show. The enterprising Johnson (who unabashedly enjoys the things money can buy) persevered and prevailed, however, eventually earning entree into corporate America's inner circles. That rarity, an entrepreneur who can manage, Johnson pays close attention to the smallest details, noting the big things then take care of themselves, An accomplished diplomat as well as businessman, Johnson has served every US president since Eisenhower in some capacity. These commissions, plus the clout enjoyed by his flagship publications, have given the author a wealth of opportunities to meet (and appraise) the most important figures of the post-WW II era. Johnson also offers what he calls a ""bifocal appreciation"" of the civil-rights movement and other consequential events. While not without its sorrows, Johnson's success stoW (which he relates with notable gusto) transcends race in many respects. A winner's tale, then, and an immensely readable and inspiring one to boot. There are 16 pages of photographs (not seen). Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

According to Forbes magazine, Johnson is one of the 400 richest Americans. He is CEO of the Johnson Publishing Company, rated among the top 100 African-American-owned businesses. Born into poverty, Johnson was 15 years old when he moved from Arkansas City to Chicago. There he discovered the vast untapped potential of the black consumer marketplace, and in 1942, 24-year-old Johnson created his first magazine, Negro Digest , a phenomenal success soon followed by Ebony and Jet . By expanding into broadcasting, TV production, and cosmetics, Johnson has helped his company maintain a strong balance sheet. He has also held numerous diplomatic posts. Bennett, executive editor of Ebony, helps Johnson present his story within the broader context of post-World War II America. Highly recommended for most libraries. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates.-- Gary D. Barber, SUNY at Fredonia Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



We were running. That's my first sharp memory. We were running for our lives, and every living thing around us - man, woman, and child, dog, cat, and chicken, Black and White - was running, too. The levee had broken, and the Mississippi River was on the rampage. This was the message that greeted my mother and me as we emerged from St. John Baptist Church on Sunday, April 24, 1927. We didn't know it then, but this was the beginning of the worst flood in American history, and more than 800,000 Americans were running with us. The first message said that the levee at Pendleton, twenty-five miles up the river from Arkansas City, had broken and that we should grab our pets and valuables and run to the Arkansas City levee. The second message, minutes later, said: Forget the valuables and the pets. Run for your lives! And now we were running and the water was coming behind us and dogs were barking and people were screaming and my mother was gripping my hand so hard I thought it would come off. Would we make it? Or would the rampaging water roll over us, as it was rolling over the mules and chickens behind us? For a terrifying moment, the issue was in doubt. Then my mother shifted into a higher gear, lifting me almost off the ground, and we scrambled up the slippery incline of the levee. Hands. I remember the hands - black, white, brown, yellow hands - reaching out to us, pulling us to safety. And I remember, as if it were yesterday, the shock as I opened my eyes on a scene of interracial bedlam. By this time, six or seven hundred people and almost as many dogs were huddled together on the ridge, integrated in muddy misery. From time to time rabbits, quail, deer, and even foxes emerged from the water and scrambled over the man-made hills of furniture and clothes. I stood for a moment, befuddled, shaking with excitement and fear. I was nine years old, and I was standing in deep water that defined, annealed, baptized, and washed away. But none of that was clear to me, or even relevant, as I lifted my face to the rain and willed a dry tomorrow. Survival. Above everything else, above dignity and happiness and the future of Arkansas City, was the question of survival. Personal survival. We were two - a Black boy and a Black woman - against the tide, and battalions of hostile men were arrayed against us. Would we - could we - survive against such odds? And what would happen to me if my mother and I were separated or - God forbid - if she suffered some mishap? The question was a nightmare that pressed in on me, like a load of sandbags, and interfered with my breathing and made the ground shake beneath my feet. There were other fears, more immediate, more pressing. The fear, for example, I shared with almost everybody, the fear of the big nasty slithering snakes - moccasins and blue runners - that oozed out of the water and hid in the bundles and tents, waiting for someone to step on their tails or heads. This was one side of the coin. The other side - the lure of excitement and adventure - also pressed in on me. And I soon perceived that there were things to be seen on this levee that a nine-year-old boy had never seen. With the help of Blacks and Whites, who paid no attention to our color, we settled on the island of the levee, where we lived for six weeks. On one side was "Ol' Man River," not the romantic river of the song but an arrogant monster, constantly probing and looking for a weak spot in the circle of sandbags. On the other side was a new body of water where Arkansas City used to be. From the vantage point of the levee, I watched the water cover the tin roof of our home. It is one of the peculiarities of the mind that it magnifies trivialities in moments of tragedy. I was overwhelmed at that moment by the thought that my favorite toy was gone and that I would never see it again. It didn't occur to me until later that we were naked in the world and that everything we owned - our clothes, our furniture, and the few dollars we'd saved - was gone. This, then, was the beginning of a new beginning. We were new people in a new world, Noahs without arks. I looked around and wondered what tomorrow would bring. So did Frederick Simpich, a writer for the National Geographic magazine . "At noon," he wrote, "the streets of Arkansas City were dry and dusty. By 2 o'clock, mules were drowning in the main streets of that town faster than they could be unhitched from wagons. Before dark the homes and stores stood six feet deep in water." Another and more poetical witness was singer Bessie Smith, whose "Backwater Blues" was recorded during the Great Flood of 1927. When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night, When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night, Then trouble's takin' place in the lowlands at night. Back-water blues done caused me to pack my things and go. Back-water blues done caused me to pack my things and go. 'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more. Before it was over, twenty feet of water covered Arkansas City, and parts of seven southern states were inundated in what Herbert Hoover called "the greatest peace-time disaster in our history." Red Cross officials rushed to the scene in motorboats and seaplanes, bringing shovels, tents, bedding, No. 2 cookstoves, food, drinking water, and medical supplies. They distributed the supplies without regard to race. This made me a permanent fan of the American Red Cross. (Continues...) Excerpted from Succeeding Against The Odds by John Johnson Copyright © 2003 by John Johnson Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.