Bennett, Lerone Jr. 1928–
Lerone Bennett, Jr. 1928–
Writer and editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., glides gracefully between the worlds of scholarship and journalism, tackling with equal vigor the history of race relations in the United States and the current political environment in which African Americans continue to strive for equality. In his many books and articles, Bennett proves himself not merely an insightful observer of society’s racial injustices, but an activist articulating the ways in which people of color can overcome bigotry and a history of subjugation. Bennett has trained his sharp, analytical eye to spot lessons from history that others might overlook or dismiss narrow-mindedly. And he uses a spirited writing style laced with drama and punch to ensure that his insights enliven rather than depress the debate over the nature of race in America.
He was born in the fall of 1928, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of Lerone and Alma Bennett. After taking a bachelor’s degree in 1949 from Morehouse College—a predominantly black school in Atlanta about which he would later write and which he would always place at the center of his intellectual development—Bennett served as a reporter and then city editor at the now defunct Atlanta Daily World newspaper. In 1954, armed with a newsman’s crisp writing and golden sense of story, Bennett became an associate editor at Ebony, a picture and news magazine directed mainly at a black audience. Ebony had been founded in 1945 by pioneering black publisher John H. Johnson, who would always encourage Bennett’s book writing and academic forays. Except for a one-year visiting professorship at Northwestern University, Bennett has consistently used Ebony as his home base. In 1958 he became senior editor at the magazine, and his sweeping articles have become one of the publication’s literary signatures.
Out of a series of articles written for Ebony emerged Bennett’s first book, 1962’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America , 1619–1962, which, as he wrote in the preface, “is a history of ‘the other Americans’ and how they came to North America and what happened to them when they got here… The story deals with the rise and growth of slavery and segregation and the continuing efforts of Negro Americans to answer the question of the Jewish poet of captivity: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’”
With a reporter’s thirst for drama and an inclination to place the story in a big-picture context, Bennett sets the stage for the black experience in Before the Mayflower by
Born October 17, 1928, in Clarksdale, MS; son of Lerone and Alma (Reed) Bennett; married Gloria Sylvester, July 21,1956; children: Alma Joy, Constance, Courtney, Lerone III. Education: Morehouse College, A.B., 1949.
Atlanta Daily World, reporter, 1949–51, city editor, 1952–53; Jet magazine, Chicago, IL, associate editor, 1953; Ebony magazine, Chicago, associate editor, 1954–58, senior editor, 1958–87, executive editor, 1987—; visiting professor, Northwestern University, 1968–69; senior fellow, Institute of the Black World, 1969. Military service: Served in U.S. Army, 1951–52.
Selected awards: Book of the Year Award from Capital Press Club, 1963; Patron Saints Award from Society of Midland Authors, 1965; Literature Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1978; honorary degrees from Morehouse College, Wilberforce University, Marquette University, Voorhees College, Morgan State University, University of Illinois, Lincoln College, and Dillard University.
Addresses: Office—Executive Editor, Ebony Magazine, 820 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605.
invoking the landing of the first Africans on American shores. “A year before the arrival of the celebrated ‘Mayflower,’ 113 years before the birth of George Washington, 244 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, this ship sailed in to Jamestown, Virginia, and dropped anchor into the muddy waters of history,” he recounted in his book. “It was clear to the men who received this ‘Dutch Man of War’ that she was no ordinary vessel. What seems unusual today is that no one sensed how extraordinary she really was. Few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo.”
Before the Mayflower takes the reader on a historical journey through the American revolution, the Civil War, postwar Reconstruction, the birth of the Jim Crow laws that legally enforced segregation, and into the tumultuous 1960s—the era of the civil rights movement in the United States. With a characteristic mixture of optimism and pessimism, Bennett lauds black accomplishment and the promise for the future but bemoans the political and economic alienation of blacks in a country passing itself off as a great melting pot.
Bennett’s treatise, praised for its lucid writing, comprehensive vision, and masterful handling of both primary and secondary sources, sealed his reputation as a first-class popular historian. “Before the Mayflower does not purport to present information hitherto uncovered or to furnish new perspectives,” Benjamin Quarles wrote in American Historical Review. “But whether or not one is familiar with the book’s content, he may well be moved by its unusual ability to evoke the tragedy and the glory of the Negro’s role in the American past.”
In subsequent books, Bennett continued to document the historical forces shaping the black experience in America but offered more of a sociological perspective as well, concentrating on the emergence of the civil rights movement and its effect on the foundations of the American political system in the 1950s and 1960s. His 1964 book What Manner of Man, a biography of Morehouse classmate Martin Luther King, Jr., was welcomed as an even-handed analysis of the black leader’s life and his role in fundamentally changing the nature of racial dynamics in the United States. Paul Schlueter wrote in a 1965 Christian Century review that although the book on one level is a “sensitive account of the Negro-white confrontation of our time,” it also serves to dispel “claims that only active and overtly violent behavior can effectively change the course of history.”
Also in 1964, Bennett published The Negro Mood, a collection of essays that demonstrated a sharper editorial bite than his previous works. Probing such issues as the failed integration of blacks into American life and the ways in which blacks are denied the fruits of society, Bennett takes aim at the white liberal establishment for ignoring the accomplishments of African Americans and for just mouthing the words of racial justice rather than performing the actions that might remedy it. He argues that white liberals have not changed the political system they repeatedly label as unfair, and that their reaction to black violence, for example, dramatically illustrates the dangerous hypocrisy of their political positions. “White violence, though deplorable, is endurable, and white liberals endure it amazingly well,” Bennett wrote. “But Negro violence creates or threatens to create a situation which forces white liberals to choose sides; it exposes their essential support of things as they are.”
But Bennett is equally critical of the black establishment. In his 1965 publication Confrontation: Black and White, the author points to the mixed messages of various black leaders—ranging from support of nonviolent social action to the promotion of more aggressive black power tactics— as a source of divisiveness in the black community. In addition, he criticizes the leadership of the black power structure—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League—for being out of touch with the black masses who experience daily the prejudice and institutional discrimination that the organizations were ostensibly created to combat. Bennett also rebukes the “talented tenth” theory that an elite core of African Americans can lead the rest; instead, he argues for large-scale political organization, embracing people of color from all economic and social stations, to effect meaningful social change.
As much as Bennett’s clarity of thought and precision of analysis make him, according to Harry Hansen in the Saturday Review, “a master of exposition,” what gives his work spark is the liveliness of the writing, the talent he has for putting faces and personalities behind names, for capturing. the spirit of an event or person, for using anecdote and setting to highlight the drama of the unfolding of history. For example, in describing Nat Turner, the slave who led a violent revolt against whites in Virginia in 1831, Bennett wrote in Before the Mayflower: “A mystic with blood on his mind, a preacher with vengeance on his lips, a dreamer, a fanatic, a terrorist, [he] was a fantastic mixture of gentleness, ruthlessness, and piety. Of middling stature, black in color, in demeanor commanding and bold, Nat was five feet, six inches tall, a little dumpy perhaps, running to fat around the middle, with a mustache and a little tuft of hair on his chin. Early in life, Nat came to the view that God had set him aside for some great purpose.”
Underlying the literary texture and suspense that grace his books and magazine pieces is the talent Bennett has for finding a good story and tapping it for all its worth. That is what drew him to the case of black sprinter Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves who at the 1936 Berlin Olympics squashed German leader Adolf Hitler’s boasts of Nazism by beating Germany’s premier Aryan athletes. “Thirty-seven years later,” Bennett wrote in Ebony, “a panel of major sports writers would call Jesse Owens’ Olympic triumph the most important sports story of the century. But this story, which will be told as long as men and women celebrate grace and courage, was more than a sports story. It was politics, history even, played out on an international stage with big stakes riding on every contest. “Bennett added that when Owens died in 1980, his golden moment of 1936 “became a living memorial, giving imperishable testimony on the limits of tyranny and the swiftness and grace of the human spirit.”
Throughout Bennett’s work is the proposition, either implicitly or explicitly stated, that African Americans will enjoy equality and triumph over discrimination only if they understand the lessons of history. The author contends that is in the suffering and also the accomplishments of yesterday’s blacks that youths of today can find the self-confidence to withstand the vicious stereotypes of discrimination. So in listing the ten most dramatic events in black history for an Ebony article, Bennett covers the sadness— the forced importation of blacks into this country, the assassination of Dr. King—but focuses mostly on the successes: the 1954 Brown us. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which rejected the separate but equal defense of segregated public education; the Montgomery bus boycott that was forged by the heroic actions of Rosa Parks; the emergence of brilliant leaders like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois; the founding of the first black newspaper; and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 statement of freedom for all slaves, which Bennett called “a downpayment on the redemption of the American soul.”
Blacks and whites, Bennett wrote in The Negro Mood, must turn their backs on racial stereotypes and celebrate the contributions blacks have made to the United States despite the odds. “America would not have been America without the Negro and America cannot become America until it confronts not only the Negro but the gifts the Negro bears. What is required now is an act of the spirit. We must abandon our shallow trenches and confront each other as co-inheritors of a common land, which is to say that we must meet and know each other as brothers in a marriage of visions, as co-conspirators in the making of a dream, as fellow passengers on a journey into the unknown.”
Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America,1619–1962, Johnson Publishing Company, 1962.
The Negro Mood, Johnson Publishing Company, 1964.
What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson Publishing Company, 1964.
Confrontation: Black and White, Johnson Publishing Company, 1965.
Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867–1877, Johnson Publishing Company, 1967.
Pioneers in Protest, Johnson Publishing Company, 1968.
The Challenge of Blackness, Johnson Publishing Company, 1972.
The Shaping of Black America: The Struggles and Triumphs of African Americans, 1619–1990s, Johnson Publishing Company, 1975, reprinted, Viking Penguin, 1993.
Wade in the Water, Johnson Publishing Company, 1979, reprinted as Great Moments in Black American History.
(With John H. Johnson) Succeeding Against the Odds, Amistad Press, 1993.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962, 4th edition, Johnson Publishing Company, 1969.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr., The Negro Mood, Johnson Publishing Company, 1964.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr., What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson Publishing Company, 1964.
American Historical Review, July 1963.
Christian Century, September 22, 1965.
Ebony, September 1988; November 1990; February 1992.
Saturday Review, October 16, 1965; March 23, 1968.
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