Lerone Bennett Jr., who wrote influential books on African-American history and resilience and chronicled key events in the civil rights movement as a journalist and top editor at Ebony magazine, has died at 89 in Chicago.
He had vascular dementia, according to Ebony, where he worked for approximately half a century.
Among his books are “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America” and “The Shaping of Black America.” They have been reprinted multiple times and translated into many languages. And they were treasured in countless African-American homes.
His death prompted an outpouring of appreciation and respect on Twitter.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said, “his was a pen that mattered. As historian, author of ‘Before the Mayflower’, editor of Ebony magazine, the most read voice of the freedom struggle, his impact will long be felt.”
Mr. Bennett “Set the standard that I and my generation of black journalists strove to reach,” said Alfred A. Edmond Jr., executive editor at large at Black Enterprise.
National Urban League president Marc Morial called him “the great author and editor of Ebony.”
Young Lerone grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He worked on the student newspaper at Lanier High School. He described a turning point in his life to Ebony.
“There were several men in Jackson, Mississippi who had attended Morehouse [College in Atlanta]. I was very impressed with them simply because of the way they responded as men to an intolerable racial situation. They carried themselves as men. . . .I decided at 13 that I wanted to go to Morehouse. . . .My mother told me we could handle college within the state or within the city but not somewhere else. I told her I didn’t want to go anywhere else unless it was Morehouse. While at Morehouse I went to school with people like Martin Luther King.”
He went on to edit the Morehouse student newspaper. And he would write a book about the civil rights martyr, “What Manner of Man, a Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
In 1949, Mr. Bennett became a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World. He joined Jet magazine, and later, Ebony, the creation of Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson.
“Lerone worked side by side with my father in establishing Ebony’s voice,” Ebony CEO Linda Johnson Rice said. “Lerone was not just essential in the formation of Ebony’s historic trajectory, he was a pillar in the Black community.”
He co-wrote Johnson’s book “Succeeding Against the Odds,” with many tasty anecdotes, like the time Johnson met the emperor of Ethiopia while he was seated on a throne, “flanked by two lions held securely by two huge men.” Johnson said Haile Selassie “congratulated me on the job Ebony was doing in letting the people of the world know about the progress of American blacks. He said he was an avid reader of Ebony but was having trouble with his subscription. I told him that I would take care of it.”
Mr. Bennett spoke of how lucky he felt to be a witness to history at the March on Washington in 1963. “The hustler from Harlem, the intellectual from Harlem, the money man from Chicago, for one moment in time, for one moment in time, they were one…that was an attempt to capture that, the joy of a great triumph.”
After 1960s protests at Northwestern University to advance black-history studies, the university brought Mr. Bennett on as a visiting professor. In the 1980s, he served on the Chicago Public Library board. In 2000, he spoke at a City Council hearing on reparations for slavery, saying, “African-Americans worked from sunup to sundown, six days a week for 205 years. … We’re not talking about welfare. We’re talking about back pay.”
He was a friend to Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer prize for poetry. In a eulogy at her funeral, he called her “a Chicago institution, like Michael Jordan and the lake.”
National leaders tapped his expertise. In 1994, Mr. Bennett was named to President Clinton’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He served as an early adviser on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
His footprints are in the pavement at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta for being a “foot soldier” in the movement.
Mr. Bennett also wrote “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream;” “Black Power USA: the Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877,” and “Confrontation: Black and White.”
His wife Gloria, a Jet journalist who covered the story of Emmett Till’s lynching, died in 2009. His son Lerone Bennett III died in 2013. He is survived by his daughters Joy T. Bennett, Courtney Jean Bennett and Constance Joan Bennett and three grandchildren. A wake is scheduled at 10 a.m. Feb. 24 with services at 11 a.m. at St. Columbanus Church, 331 E. 71st St. Burial is private.