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Black History Month In Focus: Lerone Bennett Jr

This is part of The Shadow League’s yearly Black History Month In Focus series celebrating Black excellence in sports and culture.

On February 14th, Lerone Bennett Jr., a giant of black literature and intellectualism, passed onto greet the ancestors at the age of 89. 

Bennett Jr. was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on October 17, 1928, but his family would move to Jackson, where he attended segregated schools, including the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Later, Bennett would say how this phase of his life was instrumental in helping him become his true self.

After finishing up his graduate studies, he became a journalist for Atlanta Daily World in 1949. Afterwards, Bennett would move on to work for legendary publisher John H. Johnson over at Jet magazine, serving as city editor until 1953. He later moved on to become associate editor of Ebony magazine, later taking on the role of executive editor in 1958.

While at Johnson Publishing, Bennett released a catalog of articles on Black history, even compiling and publishing some of them into collections and books.

His 1954 article, Thomas Jeffersons Negro Grandchildren, was considered very provocative and, according to mainstream ideology, apocryphal to the widely recognized image of the former president and slaveholder. As many of our readership are aware, Jeffersons white descendants, as well as mainstream historians, denied that he and Sally Hemings, a slave, had any descendants.

Alfred Edmond Jr on Twitter

I just learned of the passing of Lerone Bennett Jr., the intellectual activist and long-time editorial leader at Ebony Magazine, who set the standard that I and my generation of black journalists strove to reach. May God comfort the Bennett family. #blackexcellence #blackmenexcel

However, works published in the ’70s and ’90s challenged that mainstream viewpoint.  A 1998 DNA study demonstrated that Hemings and Jefferson did have descendants, four of whom survived into adulthood.

Back when black journalism was respected in our communities, and seen as integral to educating and informing people of African descent in America, Bennett pushed the dialectic forward with a steady stream of groundbreaking historical books, each moving the barometer of truth past what America was willing to admit, then and now. 

Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America:  1619 to 1962 was required reading for my classmates and I in high school. 

In 2000, Bennett continued that tradition of questioning the standard worldview with Forced into Glory; Abraham Lincolns White Dream in which he questioned historys remembrance of him as a Grand Emancipator. As is usually the case, mainstream historians and academics lambasted the work.

However, we know that is the modus operandi of the defenders of mainstream thought. Like their attacks on the legitimacy of Sally Hemings’ descendants, the mainstream may ultimately awaken to a day in which the controversial will be accepted as actual fact. 

Reading his books, knowing his legacy, and long aware of his works, I’m still amazed at how much this man has crafted me; from my worldview and way of thinking, to my style of writing. Every black journalist should say a prayer, pour out libations, bend a knee or put their lighters in the air for this great, influential man who was pivotal in helping to reveal many truths. 

“His was a pen that mattered,” Jesse Jackson wrote of Bennett, adding that when he was editor of Ebony, it was “the most-read voice of the freedom struggle” and that Bennett’s “impact will long be felt and remembered.”

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