I know that I've been writing a lot lately about the need to inspire black and other minority teen-agers, to drag them away from the clutches of drugs, crime, ignorance, destructive sexual activity, hopelessness.
I ask you to bear with me one more time, because I've just gotten into the autobiography of John H. Johnson, the once-poor black kid from Arkansas who is now the publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines, the leader of a major insurance company and a firm that manufactures beauty products, a board member of several of America's great corporations -- and one of the 400 richest people in this land.
On a plane here from Washington I recalled how, almost half a century ago, a marvelous teacher made me read "Up From Slavery," the story of the life of Booker T. Washington. The dignity and bravery of this black leader, in a time of lynchings, Ku Klux Klan forays, black divisiveness hit me in ways that would mark my life. Even in the years when Washington was regarded by some as "an Uncle Tom" in comparison with the "more militant" W.E.B. DuBois, I admired him for rising above the system.
But the lesson I got from "Up From Slavery" pales against the more complex stories of instruction and inspiration that I find in Johnson's "Succeeding Against the Odds," just published by Warner Books.
I wish a million teachers would tell 30 million American kids, black, Hispanic, white or whatever, that they must read and turn in a report on Johnson's book. No Horatio Alger of any race ever exceeded the success story that Johnson and his longtime friend and assistant, Lerone Bennett, Jr., tell. Johnson's message to all poor kids who are struggling in school is, "Don't drop out. Believe in yourself. Just continue to drop one foot in front of the other and plod on and on toward success."
This black man, now super rich, with homes in Chicago's choicest area, and on a mountain in Palm Springs, Calif., next door to Bob Hope, was a "nobody" when his mother pawned her furniture so he could start Ebony magazine. When he was on the verge of bankruptcy because white businesses were not giving him desperately needed advertising, Johnson told his mother that he was a failure.
His mother said to him what millions of teachers and parents ought to be saying to disadvantaged youngsters today: "Failure ain't in your vocabulary!"
Booker T. Washington came up from slavery because he refused to accept indentured servitude. And because he knew that the more blacks learned to read, write, count, think, the further that word "failure" would be from their vocabularies.
Johnny Johnson is a rich, proud, powerful man today because he let his mother set the parameters of his dreams, and then his vision.
Teachers of every race ought first read Johnson's book. They might even want to dredge up copies of "Up From Slavery" to get some perspective as to how far America has moved in terms of racial justice in this century. Then the teachers will understand why they must hand out an assignment that says to the poorest kids in the land: Read Johnson's book and tell me why you must not accept defeat at age 13, 14, or ever. Why you must not accept defeat in the face of poverty, or bigots.
Johnson's story ought to be proof enough that, while not every black kid can beat the system, the stout-hearted can find a good life many safe miles away from the drugs and violence of the streets.