28 Days of Black History day #12 William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois (pronounced /duːˈbɔɪz/ doo-boyz; February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After graduating from Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the talented tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.
Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included colored persons everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in their struggles against colonialism and imperialism. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to free African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military.
Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction era. He wrote the first scientific treatise in the field of sociology; and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.
In the first decade of the new century, Du Bois emerged as a spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington. Washington was the director of the Tuskegee Institute, and wielded tremendous influence within the African-American community. Washington was the architect of the Atlanta Compromise, an unwritten deal he struck in 1895 with Southern white leaders who had taken over government after the failure of Reconstruction. The agreement provided that Southern blacks would submit to discrimination, segregation, lack of voting rights, and non-unionized employment; that Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities, and justice within the legal system; and that Northern whites would invest in Southern enterprises and fund black educational charities.
Many African Americans opposed Washington’s plan, including DuBois, Archibald H. Grimke, Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar – representatives of the class of educated blacks that Du Bois would later call the “talented tenth”. Du Bois felt that African Americans should fight for equal rights, rather than passively submit to the segregation and discrimination of Washington’s Atlanta Compromise.
Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899. Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites. When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with a newspaper editor, Du Bois encountered Hose’s burned knuckles in a storefront display. The episode numbed Du Bois, and he resolved that “one could not be a calm cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved.” Du Bois realized that “the cure wasn’t simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth.”
In 1901, Du Bois wrote a review critical of Washington’s book Up from Slavery, which he later expanded and published to a wider audience as the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk. One of the major contrasts between the two leaders was their approach to education: Washington felt that African-American schools should limit themselves to industrial education topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills. However, Du Bois felt that black schools should also offer a liberal arts curriculum (including the classics, arts, and humanities), because liberal arts were required to develop a leadership elite.
In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York. The meeting led to the creation of the National Negro Committee, chaired by Oswald Villard, and dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities. The following spring, in 1910, at the second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At Du Bois’s suggestion, the word “colored”, rather than “black”, was used to include “dark skinned people everywhere.” Dozens of civil rights supporters, black and white, participated in the founding, but most executive officers were white, including Mary Ovington, Charles Edward Russell, William English Walling, and its first president Moorfield Storey.
The Crisis An African American man, sitting for a posed portrait
Du Bois c. 1911 NAACP leaders offered Du Bois the position of Director of Publicity and Research. He accepted the job in the summer of 1910, and moved to New York after resigning from Atlanta University. His primary duty was editing the NAACP’s monthly magazine, which he named The Crisis. The first issue appeared in November 1910, and Du Bois pronounced that its aim was to set out “those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people.” The journal was phenomenally successful, and its circulation would reach 100,000 in 1920. Typical articles in the early editions included one that inveighed against the dishonesty and parochialism of black churches, and one that discussed the Afrocentric origins of Egyptian civilization.
An important Du Bois editorial from 1911 helped initiate a nationwide push to induce the Federal government to outlaw lynching. Du Bois, employing the sarcasm he frequently used, commented on a lynching in Pennsylvania: “The point is he was black. Blackness must be punished. Blackness is the crime of crimes … It is therefore necessary, as every white scoundrel in the nation knows, to let slip no opportunity of punishing this crime of crimes. Of course if possible, the pretext should be great and overwhelming – some awful stunning crime, made even more horrible by the reporters’ imagination. Failing this, mere murder, arson, barn burning or impudence may do.”
The Crisis carried editorials by Du Bois that supported the ideals of unionized labor but excoriated the racism demonstrated by its leaders, who systematically excluded blacks from membership. Du Bois also supported the principles of the Socialist party (he was briefly a member of the party from 1910–12), but he denounced the racism demonstrated by some socialist leaders. Frustrated by Republican president Taft’s failure to address widespread lynching, Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential race, in exchange for Wilson’s promise to support black causes.
Throughout his writings, Du Bois supported women’s rights, but he found it difficult to publicly endorse the women’s right-to-vote movement because leaders of the suffragism movement refused to support his fight against racial injustice. A Crisis editorial from 1913 broached the taboo subject of interracial marriage: Although Du Bois generally expected persons to marry within their race, he viewed the problem as a women’s rights issue, because laws prohibited white men from marrying black women. Du Bois wrote “[anti-miscegenation] laws leave the colored girls absolutely helpless for the lust of white men. It reduces colored women in the eyes of the law to the position of dogs. As low as the white girl falls, she can compel her seducer to marry her … We must kill [anti-miscegenation laws] not because we are anxious to marry the white men’s sisters, but because we are determined that white men will leave our sisters alone.”
During the years 1915 and 1916, some leaders of the NAACP – disturbed by financial losses at The Crisis, and worried about the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its essays – attempted to oust Du Bois from his editorial position. Du Bois and his supporters prevailed, and he continued in his role as editor.
Du Bois was a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP that attended the 1945 conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was established. The NAACP delegation wanted the United Nations to endorse racial equality and to bring an end to the colonial era. To push the United Nations in that direction, Du Bois drafted a proposal that pronounced “[t]he colonial system of government … is undemocratic, socially dangerous and a main cause of wars.” The NAACP proposal received support from China, Russia and India, but it was virtually ignored by the other major powers, and the NAACP proposals were not included in the United Nations charter.
After the United Nations conference, Du Bois published Color and Democracy, a book that attacked colonial empires and, in the words of one reviewer, “contains enough dynamite to blow up the whole vicious system whereby we have comforted our white souls and lined the pockets of generations of free-booting capitalists.”
In late 1945, Du Bois attended the fifth, and final, Pan-African Congress, in Manchester, England. The congress was the most productive of the five congresses, and there Du Bois met Kwame Nkrumah, the future first president of Ghana who would later invite Du Bois to Africa.
Du Bois helped to submit petitions to the UN concerning discrimination against African Americans. These culminated in the report and petition called “We Charge Genocide”, submitted in 1951 with the Civil Rights Congress. “We Charge Genocide” accuses the US of systematically sanctioning murders and inflicting harm against African Americans and therefore committing genocide