Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1928, Lerone Bennett Jr. was one of the most prolific authors describing African American history and its place in contemporary struggles for justice. He was most famous as a senior editor and executive editor at Ebony magazine and as the author of numerous books on history and civil rights.
After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bennett went to work as a journalist first at the Atlanta Daily World, then at Jet, and then at Ebony, where he served as a contributor and editor from 1953 to 2005. The Chicago publication has long been a central institution for African Americans, and Bennett wrote countless essays that connected contemporary issues with African American history.
Bennett’s historical essays in Ebony became the basis for his first book, Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1618–1962 (1962), published by John H. Johnson, who was also the publisher of Ebony. With a title that emphasized the fact that African Americans’ presence in North America predated the Pilgrims, Bennett wrote to show “the depth of involvement of Negroes in the American experience.” His books stress the continuity of African American struggle; many of his writings take a broad historical view that shows the deep roots of self-determination and protest. History mattered in whatever he discussed: as he wrote in The Challenge of Blackness (1972), “History is everything; it is everywhere.” In Confrontation: Black and White (1965), he emphasized that fighting back defined African American history, and he did the same with his choice of subjects in Wade in the Water: Great Moments in Black History (1979)—Richard Allen, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, African American Civil War soldiers, political leaders in Reconstruction South Carolina, Jack Johnson, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, the Brown decision, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro sit-ins, and the March on Washington. Bennett made clear the political implications of his work. When the term Black Power became a point of controversy in the mid-1960s, Bennett situated it as part of a long legacy by titling his 1967 history of southern Reconstruction Black Power USA.
As an author and activist, Bennett was involved in many struggles. He taught for a year at Northwestern University in the early days of its Black Studies Program, and he served on numerous boards and in consulting positions. But he was surely most notable for his willingness to lead and write about confrontation. Like many activists who use the phrase Black Power, he criticized white Americans who take the roles of heroes of liberalism. In The Negro Mood (1964) Bennett took to task whites who wished blacks well but did not address issues of power. In “Have We Overcome?,” a 1978 talk at the University of Mississippi, Bennett argued that the civil rights movement had not overcome injustice. Despite its many successes, the struggle for freedom had taught four lessons: reform is a long and hard process, reformers have to force change from their oppressors, real change relies on “a fundamental transformation of institutional structures,” and “the problem of race in Mississippi, and in America, is a white problem.” His 2000 book about Abraham Lincoln pictured the president as a white supremacist not particularly interested in African American freedom and clearly opposed to African American equality. Subsequent discussions of the issue of reparations as “back pay” returned Bennett in his chosen position as a leader of confrontation.
Lerone Bennett Jr. died in 2018 at age 89.
- Lerone Bennett Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000)
- Lerone Bennett Jr., The Shaping of Black America (1975), in Have We Overcome?, ed. Michael Namorato (1978)