Why Millennials Could Prosper From Lerone Bennett Jr.'s History Lessons
A black scholar who moved the needle.
February 20, 2018 at 4:50 pm
If you’re a millennial trying to jump-start your plans for success, a Lerone Bennett Jr. history lesson might be just your ticket.
Bennett, the late historian and senior Ebony magazine editor, died on February 14, 2018 at his home in Chicago. He was 89.
His history scholarship holds a treasure trove of life-lessons. “History is knowledge, identity and power," Bennett once wrote in a February 1982 Ebony essay. "It orders and organizes our world and valorizes our projects."
Keep reading to understand how his philosophy influenced my early years.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Bennett attended Morehouse College in Atlanta in the 1940s, where one of his classmates was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King went on to study theology. Bennett began an illustrious career in journalism.
A prolific writer and, later, social historian, Bennett documented the American civil rights movement through a lens reflecting the wholeness of the black experience. His stories captured nuances, examples and explanations that offered crucial insights.
Bennett’s book titles include Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, and What Manner of Man, A Biography of Martin Luther King. One of his latest and likely most controversial books, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, was published in 2000. He worked for Ebony magazine for 52 years, producing numerous articles that recorded and analyzed black history.
Described in articles by scholars E. James West and Christopher Tinson, Bennett was a social historian unparalleled. “In life, Bennett had been an eloquent defender of black history and a strident advocate for black rights,” wrote West on February 15 for the Black Perspectives scholarly blog. “His ability to turn a phrase was as obvious on the page as it was on the stage. As the senior editor and in-house historian of Ebony magazine, Bennett’s incisive commentary helped to popularize Black history among millions of dedicated readers.”
Yet, as Africana studies scholar Tinson makes clear, and West agrees, Bennett’s impact goes way beyond the popularizing of history. “His record shows that far from watering down the African American experience in the United States, he sought to forge a reparative, justice-centric, visionary account of past human endeavor and the stakes of social disequilibrium,” Tinson wrote on March 16 for Black Perspectives.
“For Bennett, history looks backwards and forwards simultaneously,” Tinson continued. “A brief survey of Ebony issues over this period reveals several principal social concerns, including: African American struggles over rights, passionate interest in the decolonization of the African continent, the uncovering or rediscovering key contributors to Africana intellectual life and measuring the growing discontent with the prospects of American democracy.”
But Bennett held another place in history for me, an academic connection that transformed my life.
Decades ago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Bennett was one of few black professors on campus. As an undergraduate there, I was a student in his African American history course. Black students had urged the university to hire black scholars, and Bennett was among the first.
He was stellar.
“During Bennett’s visiting professorship in the history department, his lectures on African American history were packed, helping to put him atop the students’ wish list as a permanent professor and possible department chair,” historian Martha Biondi wrote in her book, The Black Revolution on Campus.
Later, Bennett served briefly as the first chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern.
Bennett was not only a popular social historian, but a masterful orator. He made history sizzle.
His passion for black history expressed itself in myriad ways, including his storytelling skills. At Northwestern, Bennett would illuminate the lives of African-American figures during lectures. If students were paying attention (and we were), it felt like we had been given a glimpse into his subject’s soul. What observers didn’t see, however, were the long hours that Bennett had certainly poured into research and reflection. The best orators work hard to precisely articulate thoughts and to express concepts. Like Bennett, they take nothing for granted.
I remember that students would remain seated in the Northwestern lecture hall, soaking in what they had heard, after Bennett had walked off the stage. No one rushed to leave.
As a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago decades later, I would see Bennett occasionally on downtown streets of Chicago near the Columbia campus. He was on the board of trustees of Columbia College. I would always thank him for his contributions to my understanding of black history.
Upon hearing of his death, I scanned a few of Bennett’s Ebony magazine articles, in a trip down memory lane. What I found were characteristics that marked his substance and style.
Bennett wrote with a certain rhythm and cadence, much like the pacing of his lectures at Northwestern. His Ebony pieces contain details that evoke feeling. The best writers hope to hit that mark. Bennett did so frequently.
Read aloud these words from his September 2002 Ebony piece on the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune:
“Courage comes in different packages and speaks different languages. There is a courage called defiance, and there is a courage called perseverance. There is a courage that shouts and a courage that whispers.”
Courage, Bennett continues, speaks loudest perhaps “in small acts performed far from the applauding crowd — in the face of doubt, ridicule and disparagement — by a great spirit who refuses to give in or give up.”
Then Bennett goes on to describe how Bethune, daughter of former slaves, started a college with $1.50 in her pocket “raised by selling sandwiches and cakes to railroad construction workers.” Years later, she organized the National Council of Negro Women, and became a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bennett, the scholar, understood the power of black history. As he stood on that stage at Northwestern University in front of young students, and as he penned those articles and books, no doubt he purposely determined to influence conversations, identities, and images for the better.
Without a doubt, he did so in my case.
Because of Bennett’s course in black history, I began to see myself in the context of historical figures who had paved the way for my success. I understood more clearly an obligation to open doors for others. Bennett adeptly pointed to both trials and triumphs in the lives of black historical figures he described. He wanted students to know that the road would not be easy, but that persistence makes the difference.
My confidence increased dramatically. At Northwestern, I was one of a handful of black students in the journalism program. I competed against students from across the nation who had already published articles and had edited high school news organs. I had not. During Bennett's course, however, I realized that I could succeed. Why? Bennett identified a cloud of historical black witnesses who had traversed difficult roads, but had thrived. It was an important lesson for an 18-year-old from East St. Louis, Illinois.
I worked hard at three journalism internships (two at my hometown newspaper and one at the Philadelphia Inquirer), and after graduation from Northwestern, I was hired as a reporter by the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. Later, I worked as a reporter for WKYC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cleveland. Today I teach at Columbia College Chicago. I have earned my Ph.D in Higher Education from Loyola University Chicago.
Bennett knew this for sure: None of us is free until each of us is free.
Bennett knew this for sure: To remain silent is to allow others to shape our place in history.
Bennett knew this for sure: History acts as a flashlight for the paths of our future.
"The past is not something back there; it is happening now," Bennett wrote in his February 1982 Ebony essay. "It is the bet your fathers placed which you must now cover. It is the internal urgency which makes you relate to people and institutions in a certain way. It is the web of relationships into which you were born and for which you must now answer."
Thank you, Lerone Bennett Jr., for your history scholarship, and so much more.
In 2010, during a National Visionary Leadership project, Bennett expressed gratitude for feedback he had received from blacks in varied walks of life.
“I’ve been so blessed,” he said during an interview. “So touched by the huge number, large number of brothers all over this country have said to me, thank you, man. When I was in the joint that book (Before The Mayflower), changed my life. “
Rest in peace, Lerone Bennett Jr. With the past as an indicator, your work will continue to transform the lives of future generations. Your work offers real-life lessons that stand the test of time.