As I’ve written before, the late 1960s were an era of considerable intellectual ferment among African Americans. During this time period, many African Americans invoked the Reconstruction era of the 1860s as a template for both the potential and peril for the late 1960s. It was an obvious era for comparison, considering that both periods were marked by the rise (or in the case of the 1960s, the return of) Black political power across the South. In this brief essay, I’ll take a look at just a few examples of African Americans calling forward the memory of the Reconstruction era for the present-day battles of the 1960s. In order to do this, I’ll be looking at several print publications prominent among the African American community during the years 1965 until 1972, which will serve as the temporal parameters for my pieces. Today I’ll give space to one particularly eye-opening piece from 1965 in America’s most prominent Black publication.
Ebony magazine, of course, has to be included here. In November 1965, the magazine published a long piece by historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. Searching the Ebony archives from this era, you’re bound to find numerous works by both Bennett and John Hope Franklin. The era was an excellent time for African American historians writing for a larger audience, considering that the hunger for Black history had grown leaps and bounds from Carter G. Woodson’s early efforts in the first half of the 20th century. In this particular article, Bennett’s focus was on African American political power during the Reconstruction era. Ebony itself noted the reason for their commissioning the series on Reconstruction due to the seeming irony of events in both eras: “The period is remarkably similar to our own, and Ebony presents this series in the belief that an understanding of the first Reconstruction is indispensable for an understanding of the Second Reconstruction we are now undergoing.”
The comparisons Bennett makes in his essay are, for historians today, probably not surprising. Still, they are worth discussing here, because Bennett makes an argument to his readership that the Reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s was on par with other world-historical moments. “As it was in Paris and Boston in the eighteenth century, so it was in Charleston, South Carolina, on the day in the nineteenth century when the first official Western assembly with a black majority held its first session.” Bennett would go on to argue for interpreting Reconstruction not as the traditional “presidential” and “Congressional/Radical” Reconstruction, but rather as “white” (from 1865-1866) and “black” (1867-1877) reconstruction eras. I’d argue that this was not only an attempt by Bennett to tie Reconstruction to larger revolutionary currents of the 19th century, but also to put the 1960s Black Freedom struggle in dialogue with the radical currents of events in the 1950s and 1960s, such as decolonization in the Third World and the ongoing ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In essence, Bennett argued that what happened to African Americans in both the 1860s and 1960s affected the world, and should be remembered as such.
By now, you’ve also noticed that the piece was titled “Black Power.” And yes, the date is correct: November 1965. Eventually Bennett would produce a book titled Black Power: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877 in 1969. The term “Black Power” seems appropriate for the point Bennett was trying to get across in his essay. Yet I wonder if that alone sparked the term, or if he was inspired to title his essay “Black Power” after, perhaps, reading Richard Wright’s treatise on newly forming nations in Africa? It’s only natural, of course, to wonder if Stokley Carmichael read this piece in the months leading up to this invocation of the term “Black Power” in July 1966. I’d be surprised if he didn’t. Of course, the serendipity of all this led to Bennett himself writing an important profile of Carmichael for Ebony in 1966, before the future Kwame Ture coined the phrase.
Back to the article itself. Bennett argued, also, that the so-called “Black” period of Reconstruction saw something else that had never before, or since, been seen in American political history. He stated, “the Radical coalition—the only indigenous radical group to ever obtain real power in America—moved swiftly, seizing control of Reconstruction and cementing an alliance between the Freedom movement and the forces of rampant industrialism.” Again, Bennett isn’t just commenting upon the radical upheaval of the post-Civil War era. He’s also making a point about the 1960s, critiquing the modern political structure of his day. A yearning for radical power isn’t just argued for here; Bennett shows that it had happened before and, perhaps, it could happen again in the United States. Throughout the piece Bennett also notes the large crowds of African Americans that gathered in South Carolina and elsewhere to listen to politicians, debate the political issues of the day, and perhaps most importantly, show that the former slaves were well aware of the potential of their newfound political power.
One last point. The piece written by Bennett was part of Ebony’s Twentieth Anniversary issue. It was as good a time as any, both from a political standpoint of the time and an editorial one, to begin this series by Bennett about Reconstruction. As the founder and publisher of Ebony, John H. Johnson, wrote in the same issue, their audience was a diverse one. The magazine, Johnson wrote, could be “found in homes ranging from the slum dwellings in Negro ghettos where it is often the only reading matter to the mansions of members of the power structure where it is often the only Negro publication those readers have ever seen.” Looking at African American print culture, and the public sphere, of the tumultuous 1960s, can yield gems such as the Bennett piece I’ve written about here. Understanding the use of memory among African Americans of the 1860s, to give sense to their battles in the 1960s, is key to a critical appraisal of intellectual and cultural debates among, and about, African Americans. I’ll continue the dialogue next week.
 “Black Power,” Ebony, November 1965, p. 28.
 Lerone Bennett, “Black Power,” Ebony, November 1965, p. 28.
 Bennett, p. 32.
 Wright, Richard. Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. (New York: Harper, 1974 reprint)
 Lerone Bennett, “Stokley Carmichael: Architect of Black Power,” Ebony, July 1966.
 Bennett, “Black Power,” p. 35.
 John H. Johnson, “Publisher’s Statement,” Ebony, November 1965, pg. 27.