U.S. Intellectual History Blog

African Americans, the Black Public Sphere, and Ideas of Reconstruction(s)

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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?[4] 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.[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.

[1] “Black Power,” Ebony, November 1965, p. 28.

[2] Lerone Bennett, “Black Power,” Ebony, November 1965, p. 28.

[3] Bennett, p. 32.

[4] Wright, Richard. Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. (New York: Harper, 1974 reprint)

[5] Lerone Bennett, “Stokley Carmichael: Architect of Black Power,” Ebony, July 1966.

[6] Bennett, “Black Power,” p. 35.

[7] John H. Johnson, “Publisher’s Statement,” Ebony, November 1965, pg. 27.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This quote from Bennett jumped to my eye: “…on the day in the nineteenth century when the first official Western assembly with a black majority held its first session.”

    I am intrigued by the use of the word Western here, since there was already the case of Haiti almost a century before. Is this a mere slip or did Bennett locate Haiti outside the West? I would guess the first one, but it is still interesting. It makes me wonder about the role of Haiti in the historical memory of African American intellectuals in the 1960s, as well as how they related to the Duvalier regime and its négrisme-based authoritarian politics.

    • Good point Kahlil. The Haitian Revolution is so often overlooked as a key Atlantic history event.

    • I wondered this as I was writing the post. I don’t have an answer yet, but it’s something I’m going to investigate. It caught my eye too, because I’d assume someone like Bennett would know a great deal about Haiti. I’m thinking it was a mere slip. Considering the long history of Haiti within African American memory, though, it’s a little surprising he forgot. But no one’s perfect.

      As for potentially locating Haiti “outside the West”, that’s also possible. But somehow I think it simply slipped his mind.

  2. Robert–
    Interesting post. To what extent did Bennett and other black intellectuals with a larger public readership draw from the work of academic historians–not only people like Franklin, but also, say, Kenneth Stampp? Stampp’s _The Era of Reconstruction_ was published in 1965, and represented a first culmination of Reconstruction revisionism that had begun within the mainstream of academic historiography in the 1950s (I think Foner’s _Reconstruction_ is probably the ultimate culmination of the anti-Dunning school). Were Bennett and others looking back to DuBois, or were they taking up themes articulated in more recent scholarship? For instance, did Stampp also identify the Civil Rights era with Reconstruction? I guess the larger question I have about this is the extent to which African-American intellectual life was distinct from contemporaneous trends in American thought writ large. Even as black power pushed toward black nationalist conceptions of an independent culture in the mid-1960s, is it more fruitful to see the ways in which African-American history was conceptualized as a variant of American thought, or as a fundamental challenge to it?

    • These are some excellent questions, and what you’ve asked in regards to how African American scholars fit within the larger American narrative is something I’ve been trying to figure out since I began writing on this blog. I’d say, at the very least, they can’t be completely separated from those larger trends. The sense I got from the article (and by the way, just as a FYI all the old Ebony issues can be read online thanks to Google Books if anyone is interested) wasn’t that Bennett was really harkening back to Dubois. Both, of course, made the case that Reconstruction was an important moment for American history, but Dubois was far more focused on the economic and class lessons of the era. Not that Bennett shies away from that; in fact he also makes an argument in his essay that African American leaders, more so than their white counterparts in the Republican Party, knew that economic power would be needed for Blacks to endure political travails down the road. But, to me at least, I didn’t read it as a Marxian critique as much as it was a critique of 1960s political debates about, as King would later put it, “Where do we go from here?” in regards to African Americans in American society.

      So I’d say he’s closer to the Stampp argument, but I’m going to read Stampp’s book this week just to get at a deeper analysis. The question of where Black historians lay within the larger historical discourse is, I’d argue, linked to questions of where Black activism was linked. It’s become fashionable to look at African American activists as being tied to activists all over the world, which is very much true (just look at Matthew Linton’s recent review of “Colored Cosmopolitanism”). But there’s still much to be said about how these activists were also tied to larger American trends, whether it’s historical scholarship or activism. This post is just one attempt from me to get at these questions, but I’ll be using next week’s post to get at these questions once again.

      This is why I think Reconstruction memory is so important for African American activists. Seeing how it was remembered among African Americans, how the history of that era was disseminated by Black historians to a larger reading public, AND looking at how activists used these lessons to make points about current political issues; all of these issues I’m trying to address in this post and the next several. All the questions asked today have sparked me to dig even deeper.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post Robert. With your interest in the links between historical memory and political activism you would likely enjoy Margot Minardi’s book Making Slavery History if you haven’t come across it yet. Her analysis stretches back to the revolutionary era and she argues that the agency of figures such as Wheatley and Attucks is not fixed but is determined by how others use their memory. In the case of revolutionary era abolitionists, they served as important symbols and examples for antebellum figures such as the black historian William C. Nell.

    You mentioned the extreme popularity of Ebony among blacks in the 1960s, do we have circulation figures for the magazine in that period?

    • I will definitely check that book out! As for circulation figures, I haven’t found any independent ones (yet) but John H. Johnson, in the editorial I quoted from above, mentioned “5 million Negroes and whites” reading the magazine each month. I still want to find the actual number, however.

  4. Robert, this is a really fascinating article to bring to light–as you say, a gem. Thanks!
    I was wondering if you think there’s something more to be said about Bennett’s periodization of Reconstruction, and how that might also map onto a potential reader from 1965’s interpretation of their own moment–did they, in other words, see their moment as parallel to “white reconstruction,” parallel to “black reconstruction,” or somewhere in between?

    • That’s a great question, and something I was wrestling with as I wrote the piece. I’ll expand upon this next week, because this article was only the beginning of a longer series, but I suspect that Bennett was arguing it had the potential to become “Black Reconstruction”, but that it was somewhere in the middle. I’m definitely reading the rest of the series to see what else Bennett has to say about the era.

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