Lerone Bennett's Lessons For Today's Black Intellectuals

“It’s hard to tell time by revolutionary clocks. Everything, including time, changes in a revolutionary time, and the clocks inherited from the old regime are usually too slow or too fast.” These words could have easily have been written in 2019, but they were published in August 1969 in Ebony magazine, written by editor, historian and public intellectual Lerone Bennett. That Bennett’s essay, “Of Time, Space and Revolution,” could easily have been written today about the tumult of the Trump presidency, Brexit, and the global resurgence of white nationalism illustrates how an intellectual such as Bennett can capture a virtually timeless mood.

Bennett viewed his role at Ebony as continually pushing and prodding African Americans to broaden their thinking about the nation and the world. African American intellectuals and pundits of that era, like today, tried to make sense of where Black America was and where it was headed.

Lerone Bennett was one of the leading African American intellectuals of the late-Civil Rights and Black Power eras. Working as editor for Ebony magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, Bennett tapped into a national hunger for African American history. As Civil Rights and Black Power dominated the headlines, Bennett used present-day stories to pivot back to African America’s past — crafting a history that gave lessons to modern activists and filled in the gaps of knowledge most Black Americans yearned to fill.

However, Bennett never shied away from intervening in modern debates about the state of Black America. In August 1970, Bennett participated in a roundtable discussion with major leaders in Black America titled “Which Way Black America?” The early 1970s were an era of exceptional growth in the number of African American politicians in North and South, and roundtable participants discussed the rise of Black Power and Black politics. What made the debate interesting was the three positions being argued: economist Robert S. Browne argued for separation, hewing closely to the position taken by numerous Black Power advocates; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Chairman Roy Wilkins, not surprisingly, argued for integration. But Bennett’s position of “liberation” may have the most to give to activists fighting and struggling in 2019. Bennett’s most forceful arguments focus on being tactically flexible and holding everyone — opponents and allies alike — to account.

Bennett was dissatisfied with the debate among African Americans about what to do next. “The proposition is liberation by any means necessary,” Bennett began his August 1970 essay, dismissing the argument about violence or non-violence as a tactical certainty. He desired to get away from the simple platitudes of “separation” or “integration,” looking for a more holistic response to the situation African Americans found themselves in after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “The either/or proposition,” continued Bennett, “is irrelevant because it is based on false premises.” Instead, the key to fighting for Black freedom in America was employing multiple tactics.

Bennett also believed that dividing between integration and separation was a tactical error because most African Americans — those Black “masses” as he refers to them — did not see a simple difference between the two forces. “Most Blacks are integrationists and separatists and pluralists — all at the same time,” he wrote. So, then, what was “liberation” to Lerone Bennett? “The liberationist concedes the power of the integrationist’s dream but points out that Black power is necessary to accomplish it.” For Bennett, liberation meant adopting a wide range of tactics, strategies, and alliances, to secure full freedom in America. And it wasn’t simply for the sake of Black America that this had to be done: “For what is at stake here is the meaning of America,” he wrote.

Bennett approached the general theme of “liberation” in many of his essays in the 1960s and 1970s, often utilizing different angles in his analysis. The need for African American unity was paramount. “We are one people,” Bennett wrote in his essay “The Betrayal of the Betrayal: The Crisis of the Black Middle Class,” “and we shall survive as one people, or we shall go, one by one, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Protestant, Republican, Democrat, middle class, lower class, to that white doom this society is preparing for all black people.” Bennett did not shy away from critiquing fellow African Americans in potentially abrogating their duties to one another. This is, again, a critical lesson for 2019 and beyond.

With electoral politics heating up once more for the 2020 presidential campaign, a willingness to criticize — albeit from a place of love and responsibility — will be necessary for African American activists and intellectuals alike.

Bennett was more than willing to be provocative to make a point, but never needlessly so. His analysis was hard-hitting, but not in a superficial sense of making headlines without substance. His 1965 essay “The White Problem in America” — which hit newsstands just as the Watts riots captured national headlines — was not only a stunning indictment of white America, but a powerful treatise on how the creation of race had permanently stained American society. “It was a stroke of genius,” Bennett continued, “for white Americans to Negro Americans the name of their problem, thereby focusing attention on symptoms (the Negro and the Negro community) instead of causes (the white man and the white community).”

Bennett’s use of history allowed him to craft an argument that we would now recognize as identifying the building of “whiteness” over time. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, who linked race and economics in the inability of white Southerners to unify with their Black counterparts for political and economic power in 1935’s Black Reconstruction in America, or Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent works on whiteness and American history, Bennett was unwilling to shy away from naming the maladies afflicting American society — and, in both the present day and historically, who’s responsible for those problems.

A mix of tactics, a desire to figure out where we should go from here animated Bennett’s writing, and is also at the heart of modern discourse among African Americans about life in Obama’s and Trump’s America. Black Lives Matter embraced disruption of a wide range of places — traffic stops, brunch locations, university campuses — all in the name of Black freedom and self-determination. The website devoted to the national organization buttressing Black Lives Matter has, for years, included a What We Believe section which shows how many modern activists see this struggle as tied to international movements for peace and justice, along with local movements for the rights of queer and other groups previously marginalized in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Bennett’s refusal to be tied to one particular ideology would prove worthy of examination again, as more activists today target members of both major political parties for both activism and political action. As Bennett finished his 1965 essay, citing the great writer Margaret Walker, he urged African Americans “to transform and to take control” of the system in which they lived. Such words and beliefs carry even greater weight in 2019.

About the Author

Robert Greene II is a PhD. student in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.