Journalist, historian, writer
In a distinguished career that has spanned more than five decades, journalist and historian Lerone Bennett Jr. has eloquently and steadfastly documented African American life. Bennett, the author of a dozen books and the executive editor of Ebony magazine, is revered as a modern-day griot whose writings have educated scholars and the reading public about the black presence in the United States.
Bennett was born on October 17, 1928 in Clarksdale, Mississippi to Lerone Bennett, a chauffeur, and his wife, Alma Reed Bennett, a restaurant cook. The Bennett family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where the future journalist and historian became interested in writing and history while attending the city's public schools. In "Black America's Popular Historian," Bennett comments that he fell in love with "the word" before his tenth birthday and that he realized that it was a weapon that could save his life as well as the lives of other African Americans. In the same article, Bennett admits that he "hung around" Jackson's two African American newspapers: The Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Enterprise. Bennett's first newspaper editorial was published when he was eleven years old, and in high school, he edited his school's newspaper and yearbook. Bennett credits his high school history teacher, Mrs. M. D. Manning, with developing his interest in history; her dramatic teaching style made historical figures exciting as she encouraged her students to realize that history is more than names and dates and to become vicariously involved in historical events.
Bennett was also influenced by several male public school teachers and Jackson State College administrators. In Golphin's article, "A Distinguished Gentleman," Bennett remembers, "This was a terrible time with almost total violence against and oppression of black people, and these men tried to act like men, and walk and talk like men at a time when it was dangerous to be a black man." When Bennett realized that his role models had graduated from Morehouse College, the private liberal arts institution for African American men, he decided to enroll there. After graduating from high school in 1945, Bennett matriculated at Morehouse where Martin Luther King Jr. was also enrolled, and Benjamin E. Mays, esteemed educator, scholar, clergyman, civic leader, and orator, was president. According to Bennett, Mays' influence was omnipresent at Morehouse as the college transformed boys into men. Each Tuesday in chapel, Mays' talks with the collegians covered manhood, the struggle for their rights, excellence, manners, dignity, integrity, and books. Bennett further comments in "A Distinguished Gentleman, "Everybody who had the rare opportunity to listen to [Mays] and study with him in that campus environment was changed. He had one of the most profound influences on Martin Luther King Jr." While at Morehouse, Bennett edited the college's newspaper.
- Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on October 17
- Receives B.A. from Morehouse College; pursues graduate study at Atlanta University
- Begins his career as a journalist as a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World
- Serves in the U.S. Army; becomes first sergeant
- Promoted to city editor at the Atlanta Daily World
- Appointed city editor at Jet magazine
- Appointed associate editor at Ebony
- Promoted to senior editor at Ebony
- Publishes his first book, Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America
- Promoted to executive editor at Ebony
- United Negro College Fund's Humanitarian of the Year Award
- Salute to Greatness Award of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc.
- Delivers the commencement address at Morehouse College and is presented with Morehouse's Candle in the Dark Award; Before the Mayflower is selected by QBR: The Black Book Review as one of one hundred essential African American books
- Publishes controversial book Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream
- American Book Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award
- Carter G. Woodson Lifetime Achievement Award, Association for the Study of African American Life and History; Before the Mayflower is revised as the "New Millennium Edition" with three new chapters
Exceptional Career as Journalist
Bennett graduated from Morehouse in 1949. That same year, he pursued graduate study at Atlanta University and began his career as a journalist. Bennett was a reporter (1949–52) and later city editor (1952–53) of the Atlanta Daily World newspaper. During this period, Bennett served in the United States Army (1951–52) and was promoted to the rank of first sergeant. He began his association with Johnson Publishing Company when he assumed the position of city editor of Jet magazine (1953) before becoming associate editor (1954–57), senior editor (1958–87), and executive editor (1987–) of Ebony, where his articles have consistently ranked as the magazine's best writing. Although Bennett served as a visiting professor of history at Northwestern University (1968–69) as well as a senior fellow at the Institute of the Black World (1969) and has lectured at colleges and universities nationwide, tenure at an institution of higher learning was not his goal. Nor was Bennett interested in writing for white magazines and newspapers; in fact, he rejected job offers from mainstream publications. Bennett, early in his life, realized that he wanted to write for a mass audience of African Americans; writing articles for Ebony and writing books afforded him that opportunity. Bennett planned to retire as Ebony's executive editor in 2003, the year he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday; however, John H. Johnson, publisher, chairman and founder; and Linda Johnson Rice, president and CEO, encouraged Bennett to remain at Ebony.
Publications Defining the Black Experience
Decades earlier, Bennett's reputation as a prominent social historian was established with the publication of his first book, Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America (1963). The book began as a series of articles that were published in Ebony in 1962. Before the Mayflower was selected by QBR: The Black Book Review in 1999 as one of one hundred essential African American books, and it was revised in 2003 as the "New Millennium Edition" with three new chapters. His second book, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (1964) is one of the first biographies of the civil rights leader and consequently one of few King biographies published during his lifetime. Bennett's third book, The Negro Mood (1964), discusses the failures of white liberals and integration while Confrontation: Black and White (1965), Bennett's fourth book, analyzes the social problems affecting African Americans in the 1960s. Bennett's fifth book, Black Power, USA.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867–1877 (1967) focuses on African Americans and politics during a pivotal nineteenth-century decade. Pioneers in Protest (1968), Bennett's sixth book, discusses the contributions of twenty-two individuals, most of whom are African American and male, who dared to assert their rights. Bennett's seventh book, The Challenge of Blackness (1970), has been described as an important work from the Black Power era. Bennett's next book, Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (1971) is a four-volume collaboration with his Ebony co-editors. The Shaping of Black America (1975) is considered the companion piece to Before the Mayflower. Bennett's tenth book, Wade in the Water (1979) highlights important events in African American history while his eleventh book is Succeeding Against the Odds (1989), John H. Johnson's autobiography with assistance from Bennett. In his most controversial work, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (2000), Bennett opines that Lincoln's objective was to keep as many blacks in bondage until he could gain support for gradual emancipation and deportation of African Americans. Bennett has been hailed as a pioneer in the "writing of popular black history" and as one of Mississippi's most successful black writers of the twentieth century. He is also the author of short stories and poems that have appeared in a variety of anthologies.
Memberships and Awards
Bennett is a member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters; Phi Beta Kappa; Kappa Alpha Psi; Sigma Delta Chi; and the Presidential Commission, created in 2001, of the National Museum of African American history as part of the Smithsonian. He is a former member of President Clinton's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Bennett holds memberships on the board of directors of the Institute of Black World and the Chicago Public Library, and the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, Chicago Historical Society, Morehouse College, and Columbia College. He was a delegate to the Sixth Pan-African Congress, Tanzania (1974) and the Second World Festival of Black and African Art in Nigeria (1977). In addition, Bennett has served as an advisor/consultant to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
Bennett is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. His contributions as a journalist and historian have been acknowledged by his alma mater on two occasions; Bennett was awarded an honorary doctorate (1965) from Morehouse, and, on the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation, Bennett delivered the commencement address (1999). At that time, he was presented with Morehouse's Candle in the Dark Award for exemplifying the Morehouse tradition and for continuing to serve as an African American role model. Bennett has also received honorary degrees from such institutions as Wilberforce University (1977), Marquette University (1979), Dillard University (1980), Lincoln College (1980), University of Illinois (1980), Morgan State University (1981), Voorhees College (1981), Morris Brown College (1985), South Carolina University (1986), Boston University (1987), Rust College (1987), Lincoln University (1988), Tuskegee University (1989), Winston-Salem State University (1989), and Fisk University (2002). Among Bennett's additional honors are the Capital Press Club's Book of the Year Award (1963); Society of Midland Authors' Patron Saints Award (1964); Literature Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1978); Lifetime Achievement Award, National Association of Black Journalists (1981); United Negro College Fund's Humanitarian of the Year Award (1991); Salute to Greatness Award of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Inc. (1996); Trumpet Award, Turner Broadcasting System (1998); American Book Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award (2002); and the Carter G. Woodson Lifetime Achievement Award, Association for the Study of African American Life and History (2003).
Bennett married Gloria Sylvester on July 21, 1956. They are the parents of Alma, twins Constance and Courtney, and Lerone III. Although Lerone Bennett is the biological father of four children, his legacy may extend to generations of African American journalists and historians who consider Bennett as their literary progenitor.
"Lerone Bennett Jr." In Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. 2nd ed. Ed. Sharon Malinowski. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1994.
Dawkins, Wayne. "Black America's Popular Historian." Black Issues Book Review 6 (Jan./Feb. 2004): 12-13.
Golphin, Vincent F. A. "A Distinguished Gentleman." http://www.abouttimemag.com/nov00stoty.html (Accessed 25 January 2005).
"Lerone Bennett Jr." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 5. 1993. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (Accessed 23 February 2005).
"Lerone Bennett Jr." Contemporary Southern Writers, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (Accessed 23 February 2005).
Linda M. Carter