50 Years Later, Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois

Overshadowed by the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was another half-century milestone -- the death of W.E.B. Du Bois.
On August 28, 1963, as more than 200,000 Americans assembled at the Lincoln Memorial, Roy Wilkins, the longtime head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), addressed the crowd. Toward the end of his remarks, Wilkins announced that Du Bois, who had helped found the NAACP in 1909, had died the day before in Ghana at age 95. Wilkins explained:

"Now, regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by DuBois published in 1903."

Few at the march had heard of Du Bois, whose writings were mostly forgotten. He had not been actively involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The "another path" that Du Bois had chosen late in his life was black nationalism and communism, which most civil rights leaders, including King and Wilkins, rejected in favor of racial integration and social democracy.

Today, however, Du Bois is recognized as one of the monumental intellectual and political figures of the 20th century and certainly its most influential African American thinker. Author of eighteen books, Du Bois' writings challenged America's ideas about race and helped lead the early crusade for civil rights. In the almost half century since the March on Washington, his reputation as a brilliant sociologist, historian, polemicist, novelist, and editor has been restored, his writings reprinted, and his life reported in several prize-winning biographies. Once his life and ideas were rediscovered in the late 1960s, Du Bois became a major influence among both academics and activists.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a town with about 50 African Americans out of 5,000 inhabitants. The valedictorian of his high school class, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a black liberal arts college in Nashville, and spent the summer teaching in a rural school. These were his first encounters with southern segregation, about which he would later write prolifically. After two years at Fisk, he transferred to Harvard and graduated cum laude in 1890. Five years later he earned his doctorate in history, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His dissertation was published in 1896 as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, in the Harvard Historical Series.

While working as an instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois wrote The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), the first case study of an American black community, as well as reports on black farmers and businessmen and on black life in southern communities. These works established Du Bois as the first great scholar of black life in America at a time when lynching and other forms violence against blacks were intensifying and southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to strengthen white supremacy.

In an 1897 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, "Strivings of the Negro People," Du Bois first outlined his concept of blacks' "double consciousness" -- the tricky balancing act of reconciling the pursuit of assimilation into the American mainstream with the maintenance of pride in one's black identity. That essay became the basis for his most enduring book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of penetrating essays on African American culture, religion, history, and politics. It was there that Du Bois wrote the statement for which he is probably most famous: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." (Most Americans only know the first half of the statement.)

Du Bois hoped his research would bring about change by exposing whites to the brutal realities of segregation. But he soon realized that political agitation was also needed to change attitudes and to dismantle America's racial system. He hoped that well-educated African Americans--a group he called the "talented tenth" -- would develop the leadership capacity to carry out that political effort.

Source: Black Voices 

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012)

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