Bob Johnson - Influential Black Leaders
Early life and education
Johnson was born in 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi, the ninth out of ten children to Edna and Archie Johnson, His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a farmer. His parents moved the family to Freeport, Illinois when he was a child. He was an honors student in high school. Johnson graduated from the University of Illinois in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in social studies. While at the University of Illinois, Johnson became a member of the Beta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He received a master's degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in 1972.
After graduating from Princeton, Johnson found a job in Washington, D.C., that introduced him to the television industry. He served as the public affairs director for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In this position is where he learned of the power and untapped potential of television. Around the same time he also worked as the director
of communications for the Washington, D.C. office of the National Urban League. Johnson worked as a press secretary for Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy. He later became vice president of government relations at the National Cable and Television Association. In 1980, Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television, which became a full-fledged channel in 1983.
Johnson with President George H. W. Bush in 1990
President George W. Bush sits with Johnson during a meeting to discuss the economy with small business owners and community bankers in 2006
President Donald Trump watches as Johnson addresses his remarks at the Roosevelt Room of the White House in 2018
Johnson left NCTA in 1979 to create Black Entertainment Television, the first cable television network aimed at African-Americans. When the network launched in 1980, it only aired for two hours on Friday night. BET first turned a profit in 1985 and it became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. In 1998, Johnson and Liberty Media bought all outstanding shares of the company. This purchase gave Johnson 42% of the company. Viacom acquired BET in 2000 for a reported $3 billion. Johnson remained BET CEO until 2006.
Johnson founded The RLJ Companies, a holding company with a diverse portfolio including hotel real estate investment, private equity, financial services, asset management, automobile dealerships, sports and entertainment, and Video lottery terminal gaming. The RLJ Companies is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.
By January 2009, Ion Media had another subchannel network, Urban TV, in the works with him targeted to African-Americans.
As of 2013, Johnson was a member of the board of directors for RLJ Lodging Trust, RLJ Entertainment, Inc., KB Home, Lowe's Companies, Inc., Strayer Education, Think Finance, Inc., NBA Board of Governors, The Business Council, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Johnson has also served as a member of the board of directors for several other companies and organizations, including US Airways, Hilton Hotels, General Mills, the United Negro College Fund, and Deutsche Bank's Americas Advisory Board.
Johnson became the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports league with his 2002 purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2010, Johnson sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Bobcats to Michael Jordan. In 2016, Johnson finalized a partnership agreement with AMC Networks through his RLJ Company after launching his own video on demand streaming service Urban Movie Channel in 2014. According to the agreement, AMC will use its programming and distribution clout to benefit Acorn and UMC. Additionally, the RLJ-AMC partnership will allow for greater investment in content from African-American creatives, Johnson emphasized. The agreement called for AMC to provide RLJ with a $60 million loan on a seven-year term and $5 million on a one-year term. AMC has received warrants to purchase at least 20 million shares or the equivalent of 50.1% of the company. The time frame for exercising those warrants is open-ended, AMC said.
Johnson's founding, management and sale of Black Entertainment Television is covered in Bayer Mack's 2019 documentary, No Lye: An American Beauty Story, that chronicles the rise and decline of the black-owned ethnic beauty industry.
In 2011, Johnson worked with Morgan Freeman to raise funds for hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas. Johnson released a neckwear line in coordination with PVH and The Ella Rose Collection, the RLJ Ella Rose Africa Tie Collection, in 2012 to benefit the charitable organization Malaria No More.
In 2007, Johnson created the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund with a $30 million investment. The fund provides credit for Liberian entrepreneurs.
In January 2008, Johnson became the target of criticism for remarks he made to supporters of Hillary Clinton about Barack Obama. Johnson said, "As an African-American, I'm frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that I won't say what he was doing, [but] he said it in his book."This statement was widely interpreted as a criticism of Obama's acknowledged use of marijuana in his youth. The Clinton campaign denied this, submitting that the comments were referring to Obama's work as a community organizer. In subsequent days, Johnson was roundly criticized for his comments as hypocritical given the prodigious glorification of drug use and sale by artists prominently featured on BET. On January 17, 2008, Johnson sent Obama the following apology:
I'm writing to apologize to you and your family personally for the un-called-for comments I made at a recent Clinton event. In my zeal to support Senator Clinton, I made some very inappropriate remarks for which I am truly sorry. I hope that you will accept this apology. Good luck on the campaign trail.
On April 14, 2008, Johnson made comments to the effect that Obama would not be the Democratic Party's leading candidate if he were not black, in support of the prior statement made by Geraldine Ferraro. He also went on to say "I make a joke about Obama doing drugs (and it's) 'Oh my God, a black man tearing down another black man."
Johnson married Sheila Johnson in 1969. They divorced in 2001 and have two children. Johnson began dating Lauren Wooden, who is 33 years his junior, in 2010. As of 2016, Wooden was pursuing an international business-management doctorate in Paris. They married in May 2016; Greg Mathis officiated.