(bright gentle music) (upbeat music) - Good evening.
This is Black History Month, and there is no better way to begin this month of celebration and reflection than with one of America's most widely known historians, Dr. Lerone Bennett.
Dr. Bennett is Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine and author of several books, among them, "Black Power U.S.A" and "Before the Mayflower".
We asked Bennett to give us his list of great moments in Afro-American history.
- The meeting of, first national meeting of Black people in Philadelphia.
The meeting organized by Richard Allen in the 19th century was the beginning of the great moments in our history.
So, Nat Turner's revolt, Rebellion, in Southampton County, Virginia.
There's another one.
Say the passage of the 13th Amendment.
The Niagara Movement, which I think was the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
Marcus Garvey's day of triumph in Harlem in the 1920's.
Asa Phillip Randolph's threatened March on Washington in 1941.
The Supreme Court decision on desegregation in 1954.
The beginning of the sit-ins in 1960s.
The March on Washington in 1963, and the Montgomery Movement, did I name the Montgomery movement?
I think those were among the greatest moments in our history.
There have been so many moments, but I think of those moments immediately when the question was started.
- You mentioned the Niagara Movement.
Would you tell us what that movement was all about?
Who started it?
- It's the movement started really by Monroe Trotter, W.E.B Du Bois, in the beginning of the 20th century, 1905, 1906.
It's a movement by a group of Black professional men, Black academics.
It's a movement to revive the spirit of the old abolitionists, to revive the spirit of Frederick Douglass, largely in opposition to the policies of Booker T. Washington.
And these men met at Niagara in 1905 and issued a proclamation demanding equal rights in America, demanding equal educational facilities, demanding respect for Black rights in this country.
And this was the beginning, I think, of the modern protest movement that created the foundations within NAACP, created the foundations for many of the things that happened in the 50s and in the 60s.
- [Listervelt] Was there any special reason that they met at Niagara near Canada?
Was there any significance to that or what?
- One reason I think Du Bois said is he wanted the men on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
And one reason was to maintain a certain amount of secrecy informing the movement because it was feared then that the opposition of Booker T. Washington and the opposition of whites in America might have made it difficult for some people to come.
Some people were afraid to be identified with the movement at the beginning.
And so Du Bois wanted to create an element of secrecy in meeting on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
- [Listervelt] There's a long list of great Black historical figures.
Let me run some names by you and get your impressions of them.
- [Listervelt] Frederick Douglass.
- I think he was the greatest, one of the greatest men produced in the United States of America.
Born in slavery, he educated himself, became one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century.
One of the great, great men of our tradition and one of the greatest Americans of all time.
- [Listervelt] Harriet Tubman.
- I think she was the greatest of all American women.
A woman made in a mold that is no longer, that no longer exists.
- [Listervelt] What made her special?
- Her heroism, her courage, her daring.
She escaped from slavery, returned to the south some 19 times, brought out some 300 slaves.
She did it alone.
It was her ingenuity, it was her organization.
She was never captured and she never, she said, lost a passenger on the Underground Railroad on the way to Canada.
I think all women everywhere ought to know her story, and I think Americans ought to put her at the top of the list of great women.
- [Listervelt] Would you say that she was ahead of her time insofar as the women's liberty is concerned?
It's a totally different area, huh?
(chuckles) - It's a very difficult question to answer because any number of Black women, since our arrival in this country, have been ahead of their times in the sense that they have been total persons in the sense that they have not been limited by any artificial idea what a woman can do and what a woman should be.
The Black historical tradition is filled with stories of great women who worked in the fields, who fought alongside men, who raised families, who refused to be held down by any artificial and superficial ideas about what a woman could or can do.
Harriet Tubman was made in that heroic tradition.
But the point I'm tryna make here is that there have been any number of Black women in this country, in South Carolina, in Mississippi, in the days of slavery and since the days of slavery.
Great women who could not be held down by any definitions of what men expected women to be.
- [Listervelt] That's Harriet Tubman.
Let's go on some more names.
- One of the great preachers produced in this country, Nat Turner was a preacher.
One of the great and prophetic voices against slavery in this country.
The Rebellion he led in Southampton County, Virginia, traumatized, I think, for all to see the evils and inequities of the system of slavery.
He helped to create a generation of crisis, which led, I think, to the abolition of slavery.
And he gave his life in that struggle.
And I consider him one of the great figures of our history and one of the great figures of American history.
- [Listervelt] What about white historians attempt to paint him as being a crazy maniacal fool?
- Oh, some historians have said that, some novelists have attempted to destroy him as a man and as a historical figure, but that attempt failed when it was tried a few years ago.
And I think it will continue to fail because the man had a great vision and a great idea, and he was forced by his times to seize an instrument he could find in order to destroy and in order to attempt to destroy the system of slavery.
And I don't think any attempt to degrade him will help others succeed.
- [Listervelt] Booker T. Washington.
- Booker T. Washington is a difficult figure for me.
It's still a difficult figure in American history.
I think he was a great educator, a great organizer, one of the greatest speakers I think we have produced in this country, one of the greatest speakers this country has produced.
He said, I think, a great many good things.
I think he did a great many good things.
I have problems today with certain elements of his philosophy.
I have problems today with certain things I think he was forced to do by virtue of the fact that he was President of the school in Alabama at that time.
- [Listervelt] Such as?
One or two examples.
- I think living in Alabama at that time, he was forced to compromise, forced to say some things which I don't think he really believed in his heart.
I think the tragedy is that some people tried to make a philosophy out of some things he was forced to say, forced to do, in an attempt to maintain his institution, in an attempt to make conditions as helpful or hopeful as possible for Black people in the south at that time.
- [Listervelt] And the other part of this equation, W.E.B Du Bois.
- W.E.B Du Bois is one of my favorite people.
I think Du Bois had one of the largest minds produced in this country.
I think he was a prophetic voice years, decades, ahead of his time.
He was involved in the whole Pan-African struggle, organized several pan-African congresses.
He was involved in the founding of the NAACP.
He was involved in rewriting the history of this country.
He was involved in pioneering studies in sociology.
He was involved in every dimension of the struggle for the rights of the color people of the world.
And I think he was a figure who transcended America, became a world figure.
I still think he was one of the, I think he was the greatest mind produced on this land.
- [Listervelt] What about the changes that W.E.B Du Bois went through?
Many people feel that he was quote "More radical in his later years than he was in the earlier years".
How do you view that?
- I think Du Bois was always radical in a number of ways.
He changed the emphasis of his philosophy in different decades in order to meet different situations.
But I think the germs of his manure philosophy were there in the beginning.
He was saying the same thing about Africa in 1919 that he was saying the time of his death.
He was demanding throughout his life, even when he was a scholar in Atlanta, full rights for Black people in this country and Black people in Africa.
I think what we see in Du Bois is the inevitable development of a scholar and activist who changed his tactics in response to different situations.
But I think his strategy was clear from the beginning.
And he demanded from the beginning full and total recognition of the rights of the color peoples of the world.
- And we can't conclude this without mentioning Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
- Two great, great men who said different things which I think complimented and reinforced each other in different ways.
Martin Luther King Jr, I think was the greatest organized and the greatest spirit of the Black struggle, one of the greatest figures of the whole 20th century.
He did something for Black people, I think, that can never be fully captured in language in the sense that he made us realize, he made Black people realize, he made all people, I think, realize that all people, every man, every woman, every child is responsible for doing something to achieve his or her own freedom.
He said the very great thing once is you remember that "A man who won't die for something isn't fit to live".
He made us realize in the Montgomery movement and in the movements that followed Montgomery that individuals have a right and a duty to do something in their own name in order to defend their rights.
I think Malcolm X was a very, very great man, a very, very great activist who dealt at a depth levels with the problems of Black people in Harlem, and in Chicago, and in urban areas of America.
And who also dealt at the depth level with the problems of bringing together the struggles of Afro-Americans and the struggles of Africans.
And he made several pioneering steps in that direction.
I think America is poorer.
I think we are all poorer because we don't have the advice and the council of Malcolm X at this time.
And because we don't have the advice and the council of Martin Luther King Jr at this time.
- [Listervelt] What was it about Malcolm X that made him somewhat inscrutable, if you will, to a lot of Blacks in this country?
Say as opposed to Martin Luther King?
Why was there a greater attraction for Martin Luther than there was for Malcolm on the whole?
- I think the two men appealed to different things in different people.
If you remember, people remember that time Malcolm X electrified the Black people of this country.
He appeared on television, he appeared on lecture platforms, the man was just brilliant.
And I think he electrified all Blacks and I think Malcolm X, as he said himself, did not attempt to become a mass organizer in the same way Martin Luther King Jr was a mass organizer until the later years of his life.
I think that it limited his influence and his effectiveness as a mass organizer.
Whereas King was involved in mass organization in his own name from the very beginning.
Malcolm X I'm saying, was involved in organization in the name of the honorable Elijah Muhammad.
He was not his own man, in other words, whatever you think about the relations between the two men.
He did not become his own man until the latter part of his life.
And I think this naturally limited his effectiveness in terms of his mass organizational appeal.
But I think the man had an extraordinary impact especially on young people, especially on urban Black people in this country.
I think unfortunately his life was cut short before he could reach his full height.
And I don't think he began to do the mass organizing he wanted to do until the latter of years of his life, which again, limited the number of people he reached in the mass organizational way.
- If we can go to international politics for a minute.
As you know, there is a great human cry in this country about the declining role that America is playing in world affairs.
How do you see what is happening in this regard?
- Well, I think the fundamental fact of this hour, of this decade, is that the world has changed.
The world has changed.
We no longer live in a world dominated by Europe.
We will never again live in a world dominated by Europe and by the white people of the world.
I think America has to make a fundamental readjustment to that fact.
I don't see anything frightening about that.
As a matter of fact, I think that this is one of the most extraordinary moments in the whole history of the world because what is happening now is that all the peoples of the world are seizing their own destiny.
And they're beginning to say that they ought to have a right to take part in basic decisions affecting their lives.
So, the rise of Africa and of Asia, the rise of the third world which should really be called the first world, is a fact.
And I think the Europe and North America going to have to readjust to that new reality in the world.
And I've said in a number of places, one of the things that Americans have not done and must do more and more in the future, is to realize that there is a great deal of the third world in America and that America needs to use more and more the insights of the color people of America in formulating foreign policy and in carrying out foreign policy.
Because we now live in a world where the aspirations of Black Americans, for example, coincide with the aspirations of billions of people on this earth.
And America has to deal with that fact.
And I think the old colonial powers have to deal with it.
- [Listervelt] What do you think Black Americans reaction or response should be to this changing world situation?
- Black Americans ought to be more and more involved in foreign policy affairs.
They ought to be more and more interested in what's happening to Africa and to other color people over the world.
They should be more and more involved in all foreign policy issues.
- [Listervelt] But if you listen to the press, one would get the impression that Black people aren't supposed to be involved in world affairs.
How do you see that?
- Well, I think that's ridiculous.
Black people have always had an interest in foreign affairs.
I think within recent years, with the rise of Africa and Asia, this interest has become more focused, it's become more organized, but the interest has always been there.
And I think Black Americans, as Americans have a right to participate in the formulation of foreign policies, in the formulation of of basic decisions, which will basically affect their lives.
Because if America's involved in the war, poor whites and poor Blacks are gonna fight that war on the land anyway.
And Black people have a right to take part in the decisions which might lead to situations in which Black men will have to die.
They have a right to decide that and to take part in those decisions.
- [Listervelt] You said poor Blacks and poor whites will fight whatever war that would happen to come about but yet there is that division between poor Blacks and poor whites.
What do you think keeps poor whites from seeing that their condition is about the same as that of Black people?
- It's been one of the fundamental problems of American history.
Since the founding of the Republic, certain interests have systematically divided poor whites and poor Blacks, have systematically played on this racism thing in order to frighten poor whites and to drive them away from that true interest.
I think it is incumbent upon the poor whites of this country to understand that the struggle Black people are engaged in, is a struggle they ought to be involved in because it involves them.
Because, and you know, one of the most interesting things here is that the freedom movement of the 60s helped an enormous number of white people in South Carolina and in the south and in America because Black people marched in Alabama, because Black people struggle in Mississippi and in other states.
White people have more bread today, more dignity, more freedom.
And they ought to understand from that that any advance Black people make in this country will also help them.
And that if they continue to let themselves be used to keep Black people down, they will continue to do the thing they've done throughout our history.
They will continue to forge change which will also keep them down.
- [Listervelt] Talked earlier about the posture of some Blacks in this country, the posture of giving up saying, okay, I just want a piece of the pie.
What would you have to say to young Blacks who have been struggling, trying to stay on this side of the fence, but are on the brink of saying, "Well, just let me go and get my own".
What would you have to say to those people?
- Oh, I would say to them, this is not a matter of charity.
I would say to them that no Black in this country can be safe or secure until all Blacks in this country are safe and secure.
And I think that any Black who permits himself to believe that he can isolate himself from the problems and save himself is making a disastrous mistake because the destiny, put it another way, because all Blacks in this country on the same boat and we are all gonna rise together or fall together.
And the important point here is that no matter how many degrees you have, no matter how much money you have, your fate is linked directly to the fate of overwhelming majority of Black people in this country.
And you cannot save yourself if you do not involve yourself in the struggle to create a better life for all of the Black people in this country.
See, a fundamental law of history is involved here and that law says it is impossible to draw a straight line in a curved space, it's impossible.
So that means that a Black, an individual Black, cannot save himself in this space because the space is curved.
And in order to save himself, he has to change the situation which disastrously impacts on all Blacks, no matter how many books they've written, no matter how many degrees they have, no matter how grand they think they are.
The salvation of Black people in this country for more than 300 years has been linked to the fact, people like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, and Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, recognize that they held their skills and their talents in trust for the larger community, and that they were obligated to use their skills in order to help free their brothers and sisters.
You know, you asked me about Harriet Tubman earlier, and that's an extraordinary story about Harriet Tubman.
She was a slave in Maryland, and she escaped, made her way to the north, and she said as soon as she crossed the Mason and Dixon line, just everything changed.
The sky looked different, the sun looked different.
But then she became despondent because she realized that she was free, but her family wasn't free and her people weren't free.
And realizing that, she decided that I will have to go back into the south and bring my family out, bring my brothers and sisters out, bring as many of my people out because she cannot be free alone.
You can't be free alone.
You have to make your own freedom, make your own space, a vehicle from enlarging the space available to all the people linked to you in the same commonality.
- [Listervelt] It's Lerone Bennett, thank you very much.
- Thank you very much.
- Lerone Bennett.
Please join us next week when we will look at the level of Black representation in the textbooks of South Carolina.
Call us and air your viewpoint.
Have a good evening.