W. E. B. DuBois

Jun 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism
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W. E. B. DuBois 1868 – 1963  William Edward Burghardt DuBois was a preeminent analyst of the roots of racism and the subordination of African Americans. He combined scholarship with activism in a tireless search for ways to improve the lives of all Blacks, everywhere. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “History cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois….”

South to See Racism

DuBois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. While slavery had only recently been abolished, the town had a long-standing free black population, and a benign atmosphere. In high school he became the local correspondent for a New York newspaper, and excelled in his studies. His hopes of attending Harvard University were frustrated by a lack of means, and so DuBois accepted a scholarship from Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee. His three years there, from 1885 to 1888, were his first exposure to southern rural poverty and racism. This led to an acute sense of racial pride: “I am a Negro; and I glory in the name.”

Harvard University provided DuBois with scholarships for his continued studies. There he earned A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees; he was the first African American to earn a doctorate there. He spent two years at the University of Berlin in Germany as part of his graduate work. His masterful dissertation was published as “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America.” After briefly teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he accepted a research fellowship from the University of Pennsylvania. His work in Philadelphia’s black slums resulted in his historic treatise, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.” In 1896, DuBois married his first wife, Nina Gomer, with whom he would have two children. By 1897, he had moved on to Atlanta University where he would spend the next 13 years, immersed in prolific studies of the plight of Blacks in America, and the political concerns that would drive his career.

Ku Klux Klan violence, lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions, and overt segregation were commonplace at that time. DuBois believed that Blacks would need to fight for and win full political parity in order to succeed, and should be educated and uplifted by a “Talented Tenth” of exceptional achievers. This put him at odds with the most powerful black leader of the time, Booker T. Washington, who espoused a philosophy of very basic economic achievement as the important goal for all Blacks. DuBois published a critique of Washington in his 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folks,” and issued a call for like-minded activists to join him. In 1905, a group met on the Canadian side of the Niagara River to form the “Niagara Movement.”

This movement was short-lived, but another soon arose through the merging of the all-black Niagara group with a group of white progressives. Together, they created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in response to the horrors of racial injustice. DuBois joined as Director of Publicity and Research, and editor of its magazine, The Crisis. He would write impassioned editorials, both scathing and inspiring, for the next 24 years, while the NAACP flourished: there were 50 branch offices and over 6,000 members in 1914, and DuBois’ editorials were read by over 100,000 people at the end of the decade.

He was instrumental in forcing Congressional action to improve conditions for black citizens and soldiers during and after World War I. Following the Armistice, DuBois represented the NAACP in France in 1919 as an observer at the Peace Conference. This heightened his sense of an international context for understanding and improving conditions for Blacks, and led to his decision to host a second Pan-African Congress (the first had been held in 1900). Internal conflict again erupted, this time with the charismatic Marcus Garvey and his “back to Africa” movement. While Garvey would ultimately be convicted of fraud, the controversy damaged the 1923 Congress. But DuBois then traveled for the first time to what he called “The eternal world of Black folk,” Africa.

From Social Theory to Socialism

DuBois’ return to the U.S. marked a change in his thinking, influenced by his international perspective and the Russian Revolution of 1917. DuBois was familiar with the philosophy of Marx and Engels, and he began to reconceptualize the plight of Blacks as that of the proletariat, urging an activist stance and voluntary segregation. This was expressed in his editorials in The Crisis, adding fuel to long-simmering conflicts with the NAACP’s predominantly white leadership. He resigned from the organization in 1933, and returned to Atlanta University where he wrote two significant works: “Black Reconstruction,” and “Dusk of Dawn,” which presented his ideas about Africans’ and African Americans’ quest for justice.

DuBois served with the American delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, and continued his involvement with Pan-African Congresses. The fifth Congress was attended by such luminaries as Kwame Nkruma (father of Ghanaian independence) and Jomo Kenyatta (first President of independent Kenya). DuBois was elected International President and declared “Father of Pan-Africanism.” His attacks on U.S. racism and injustice, coupled with his socialist framework and protests against U.S.-Soviet nuclear policy and the Cold War, led to his indictment under the McCarran Act for failing to register as a foreign agent. DuBois was acquitted, but by then his sense of alienation from America was complete. In 1961, he renounced his U.S. citizenship, joined the Communist Party, and accompanied by his second wife, Shirley Graham DuBois, accepted an invitation from Nkruma to become a citizen of Ghana and direct the creation of an “Encyclopedia Africana.”

On August 27, 1963, on the eve of the historic March on Washington, DuBois died in Ghana. He had written over 4,000 works, and was given a funeral worthy of a head of state. NAACP Director Roy Wilkins said to the massed crowd at the March in Washington, D.C.: “…his was the voice that was calling you to gather here today….”


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