Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine, where he worked for 52 years, and arguably the 20th century’s foremost African American “people’s historian,” died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday in his Chicago home, a daughter, Joy Bennett, told Richard Prince’s Journal-isms.
Bennett was 89 and died of advanced vascular dementia, she said.
“He has authored books and short stories examining the history of Blacks in the United States — as well as Chicago — and their struggle for equality,” Cheryl Pearson-McNeil wrote in 2010 for the Chicago Defender. She was describing Bennett’s participation in a documentary about the story of black people in Chicago, where he lived for 35 years.
“His 1963 seminal work, ‘Before the Mayflower,’ traces Black history from its origins in Western Africa through the trans-Atlantic sojourn that would be slavery, the Reconstruction, and the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement,” Pearson-McNeil continued. A 2008 exhibit about Bennett at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History called him “the people’s historian.”
One of Bennett’s most controversial books cast Lincoln in less than a glowing light.
“The real Lincoln, the author says, was a conservative politician who said repeatedly that he believed in White supremacy,” according to the dust jacket of “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream,” published in 2000.
“Not only that: He opposed the basic principle of the Emancipation Proclamation until his death and was literally forced — Count Adam Gurowski said he was literally whipped —into the glory of having issued the Emancipation Proclamation,” which Lincoln drafted in such a way that it did not in and of itself free a single slave.”
“Forced into Glory” won the 2002 American Book Award.
Bennett also co-wrote 1989’s “Succeeding Against the Odds: The Inspiring Autobiography of One of America’s Wealthiest Entrepreneurs,” the story of John H. Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Publishing Co., publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines.
“We helped create the foundations of this [African American] struggle in the forties and fifties when the ground was hard and there were few laborers,” Johnson wrote in the book. “We anticipated the changes and gave focus and form to them. In 1959, for example, I detected a growing interest in Black history and authorized a pathfinding Black history series. The response was so enthusiastic that we published a book, Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower, which became one of the most widely read Black History books ever. This marked the beginning of the Johnson Publishing Company Book Division.”
Despite Bennett’s passion for writing history for the average person, he wanted journalists to be generalists. “I’ve always believed that you write history one day and you write entertainment the next,” he said in “Writing for a Black Publication,” (video) a 2010 interview with the Visionary Project.
Thus, his ‘Ebony’ would feature such purported people-pleasers as “Is It True What They Say About Twins?”
Bennett’s association with ‘Ebony,’ which he helped make the nation’s leading African American publication, ended in 2009 when the publication forced his daughter Joy from the editorial staff. Her father demanded that his name be removed from the masthead, where Bennett was listed as executive editor emeritus. The magazine complied, adding that “his wise counsel will always be appreciated.”
Bennett was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and grew up in Jackson. One of his proudest moments came in 2007 when he was honored by the Mississippi State Senate. He said he never thought he’d live long enough to see a black man so welcome in the state Capitol.
“ ‘I’m 78 years old. I thought I would die before I saw this,’ Bennett said. ‘Thank you for making it possible for me to see the great dream that could be realized in this state,’” Holbrook Mohr reported then for the Associated Press.
According to a 2002 profile by the HistoryMakers, “Bennett attended Morehouse College, earning a B.A. in 1949. He always considered Morehouse as the center of his academic development. After graduating, Bennett formally entered the world of journalism as a reporter for the now-defunct Atlanta Daily World. He became the city editor for the magazine and worked there until 1953, when he began his work as an associate editor at Jet magazine in Chicago, Illinois.
“In 1954, Bennett became an associate editor at ‘Ebony’ and he was promoted to senior editor of the magazine in 1958. Since then, his comprehensive articles have become one of the magazine’s literary hallmarks.” He retired in 2005.
At Morehouse, Bennett was a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr., Mohr wrote. Mohr’s story also said, “In 2006 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists.
“In February, Bennett’s footprints and those of 12 others were added to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame near the Atlanta church where King preached. The walk, established in 2004, now includes 50 pairs of footprints, marked in granite, from people who organizers call the ‘foot-soldiers’ of the civil rights movement.
“Former President Bill Clinton appointed Bennett to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. President George W. Bush appointed him to the Presidential Commission to study the proposed National Museum of African-American History and Culture, according to the Senate resolution passed in his honor.” He was too ill to attend the museum’s 2016 opening, Joy Bennett said, but he watched it on television.
“Though Bennett was born in Clarksdale, he moved with his family to Jackson at an early age where he was greatly influenced by teachers at Lanier High School,” the story continued.
” ‘I’m indebted first to the black teachers of Mississippi, who literally saved my life,’ he said. ‘The great black school teachers in Clarksdale and Jackson told me I could dream and do anything.’ ”
Bennett is survived by three daughters, Courtney and Constance Bennett of San Diego, Calif., and Alma Joy of Chicago. Their brother, Lerone Bennett III, died in 2013. Their mother, former Johnson Publishing Co. journalist Gloria Sylvester, in 2009. He also leaves three granddaughters. Arrangements are being handled by the A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home in Chicago, which is historic in its own right.
It cared for the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was abducted and killed in Mississippi in 1955.