Lerone Bennett Jr., a historian and journalist who chronicled the African American experience in articles and books, including the landmark “Before the Mayflower” and a provocative study that charged Abraham Lincoln with being a white supremacist who had no intention of ending slavery, died Feb. 14 at his home in Chicago. He was 89.
The A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home in Chicago confirmed his death. Ebony magazine, where Mr. Bennett was a top editor for more than 50 years, said the cause was vascular dementia.
Mr. Bennett, who grew up in segregated conditions in Mississippi, joined Ebony in 1954 and helped make the magazine the country’s largest black-oriented publication, with a circulation at its peak of almost 2 million.
In addition to his work at Ebony, Mr. Bennett wrote books that highlighted the struggles and achievements of African Americans throughout history, beginning with his comprehensive 1962 historical study, “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962,” which has sold more than 1 million copies.
“He has reached many people that none of the rest of us have reached,” historian John Hope Franklin said in 1985. “He has done a great deal to advance the cause of Afro-American history.”
Mr. Bennett’s “What Manner of Man,” published in 1964, was one of the first major biographies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he had known since they were students together at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Mr. Bennett also helped direct Ebony’s coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contributing essays that helped capture the mood of the times.
“The basic fact of the Negro situation is shattered community,” he wrote in a 1965 book, “Confrontation: Black and White.” “Negro and white Americans do not belong to the same social body. They do not share that body of consensus or common feeling that usually binds together people sharing a common land.”
He was critical of the country’s white leaders but was also unsparing toward the black power structure, represented by the NAACP and Urban League, which he said was out of touch with the needs of working-class African Americans.
Mr. Bennett continued to publish far-reaching works of history, such as “Black Power U.S.A.” (1967), about the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, and “The Shaping of Black America” (1975), which examined the origins of slavery.
“Black people have been in the bone and marrow of this country,” he told The Washington Post in 1993, “part of George Washington, part of Thomas Jefferson, and there is no way to understand what this country is all about unless you understand their role.”
In 1968, Mr. Bennett published an essay in Ebony, with the bold title of “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” He took issue with the prevailing image of Lincoln — among both black and white Americans — as the Great Emancipator who freed enslaved people during the Civil War.
“No other American story is so enduring,” he wrote. “No other American story is so comforting. No other American story is so false.”
Lincoln called for black Americans to be resettled in Africa, Mr. Bennett said, used derogatory terms for black people and “shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries.”
Mr. Bennett expanded his ideas into a 652-page book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream,” in 2000.
“If Lincoln had had his way,” he wrote in one of the book’s more incendiary passages, “Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson Sr., Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks . . . and even Clarence Thomas would have been born in slavery.”
Some readers considered the book a welcome corrective to what they saw as a whitewashed view of Lincoln. Other scholars were harsh in their reviews, charging Mr. Bennett with willfully distorting historical evidence, omitting contradictory studies and ignoring key facts about Lincoln’s changing views.
“Bennett gets more wrong than he gets right,” James M. McPherson, a leading Civil War historian, wrote in the New York Times, citing Lincoln’s statements against the spread of slavery and favoring its “ultimate extinction.”
“The old canard,” McPherson wrote, “that the Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave, repeated by Bennett, could not be more wrong.”
Lerone Bennett Jr. was born Oct. 17, 1928, in Clarksdale, Miss. His parents divorced when he was young. His mother worked as a cook.
“Since I was a child, I was just fascinated by the printed word,” Mr. Bennett told the Miami Herald in 1985. He was 12 when he began writing for a weekly black newspaper in Jackson, Miss., where he attended a segregated high school.
He graduated from Morehouse in 1949, working his way through college by playing alto saxophone in jazz bands. He was a journalist in Atlanta before moving to Chicago in 1953 to work for Jet magazine. A year later, he joined Ebony, where he remained into his 80s.
His wife of 52 years, Ebony journalist Gloria Sylvester Bennett, died in 2009. A son died in 2013. Survivors include three daughters; and several grandchildren.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Mr. Bennett often witnessed violence directed to black citizens by the police and other authority figures.
“I got this mad idea that if I could just find out why Mississippi was what it was,” Mr. Bennett told The Post, “why racism existed, I would first of all be in a position to understand it, and secondly be in a position to maybe do something about it. This had nothing to do with academics. To me it was a question of survival: a matter of life and death.”
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