Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honoring the Memory of W.E.B. Du Bois

Last month one of my blog articles (see here) was about a brilliant French woman who died 75 years ago. This article is about a brilliant African-American man who died 20 years later, in August 1963. This remarkable man was born when Andrew Johnson was President and died the year Lyndon Johnson became President.
A Brief Bio
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born 150 years ago in February 1868, was the great-grandson of James Du Bois, a white plantation owner in the Bahamas. But W.E.B. pronounced his name “doo boyz” rather than with the French pronunciation.
When he was only 20, Du Bois graduated from Fisk University. He went on to study at Harvard, at the University of Berlin, and then in 1895 became the first African-American to be awarded the Ph.D. degree by Harvard.
In 1903 Du Bois published his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of 14 essays—and now, 115 years later it is still in print and relevant. 
One central point made on the book’s very first page seems, unfortunately, still to be true: “the problem of the Twentieth Century [and now the Twenty-first Century] is the problem of the color line.”
In that book, and consistently through the following years, Du Bois adamantly opposed the idea of biological white superiority. Partly for that reason, in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and long served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.
Du Bois taught at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910, and then at the age of 66 he went back to that school and was chair of the department of sociology from 1934 to 1944.
During most of the 1950s, Du Bois was unable to travel outside the U.S. because of his alleged ties with Communist nations.
In 1961 Du Bois moved to Ghana—and later became a citizen of that country, where he died in 1963 at the age of 95.
A Critical Controversy
Although they were the two most important African-American leaders after Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, there was an ongoing controversy between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who was twelve years his senior.
Du Bois’s criticism of Washington was eloquently voiced in the third essay in The Souls of Black Folkand it lasted until Washington’s death in 1915. In what Du Bois called the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington seemed to accept the view that blacks were inferior to whites.
Du Bois, however, strenuously objected to that idea and called for full equality of blacks and whites. He wanted complete rejection of all Jim Crow laws and ways of thinking. He favored confrontation rather than compromise in seeking to erase the problematic color line.
A Lasting Legacy
Through the years I never heard as much, or learned as much, about Du Bois as about other noted black leaders such as Douglass or Washington. Maybe that was partly because Du Bois leaned toward socialism, was prosecuted as a Red sympathizer in the 1950s, and did join the Communist Party in 1961.
Nevertheless, I have been deeply impressed by my recent reading of and about Du Bois, and I close with words Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke (and which can be read here) on the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth.
King declared that Du Bois was “one of the most remarkable men of our time,” a scholar who “recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression [of blacks] was the myth of inferiority” and who “dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish” that myth.
Du Bois’s legacy lives on—and his voice still needs to be heard today.


  1. Earlier this morning two Thinking Friends in Missouri made brief email responses to today's article, but about 15 minutes ago I received the following comments, which I am sharing here, from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for remembering W.E.B. Du Bois, who was undoubtedly a brilliant man who fought for a just cause.

    "Events have proven Du Bois to have been correct in his quarrel with Booker T. Washington. He saw the futility of 'separate but equal' policies in which 'separate"' is strictly maintained and 'equal' is more or less forgotten.

    "It is dismaying today to see the talents of so many people of color wasted because our white-majority society refuses to invest in minorities and their communities. Despite Brown v. Board, school funding is still grossly unfair. Chicago public schools, for example, do not receive nearly as much funding per student as the nearly all-white schools in the wealthy suburbs.

    Du Bois helped to bring about much progress in race relations, but the battle is not over yet. Sadly, he was less successful in his battle against militarism and nuclear weaponry."

    1. Thanks, Eric, for sharing your helpful comments about Du Bois.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of Du Bois! I quoted these words in a prayer over the bread during communion on a MLK, Jr. Sunday years ago.

    [from “Prayers for Dark People”, UMass Press, 1980, p.62]

    [May we] “stretch our arms with toil, and strain our eye and ear and brain to catch the thought and do the deed and create the things that make life worth living.”

    I hope we will strive to make it increasingly so for all creation.

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your comments. I like the prayer you shared, and I think that sentiment motivated Du Bois in his lifelong work for African-Americans in this country.

  3. It is a shame that skin color is/ has been a rationale for mistreatment of a person or group. But it has been since the beginning. That is not the only thing that easily divides people into antagonistic groups. I find cultural differences to be the most divisive personally, followed by religious differences (even within Christendom).

    Having grown up in another part of the world, and dated girls from Kenya, India, Sweden, and Canada, I can probably adapt to others better than most Americans. I am glad that I did not marry any of those girls, the variance was too wide (but we are still friends). My son once went on a date with a girl from Kenya. He was worried about how I would respond. I told him that I had dated a girl from the same tribe.

    We need to find ways to be friendly and of goodwill to those not like us. But also realize that we may never be the same - some differences are difficult to overcome. Just the same, Jesus' commands to love your neighbor, love your enemy, and love one another need to be better heeded within Christendom.

    1. The ongoing problem in the United States is not just the difference in skin color but the lingering effects of slavery, which along with the dastardly treatment of the indigenous peoples, Jim Wallis (among others) refers to as America's "original sin."

  4. Wikipedia has a more detailed look at Du Bois than could be covered in the short blog above, see at this link:

    Two lines that stuck out to me in that article were that he "believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism" and "was an ardent peace activist." He sounds like a man way ahead of his time. I suspect he and Bernie Sanders would strike it off well.

    Personally, I have come to the conclusion that militarism and capitalism are just the obverse sides of the same imperialist coin. I doubt we will ever totally tame these forces, and might actually regret it if we ever did. Capitalism and Socialism are the yin and yang of competition and cooperation. A healthy society will have both roughly balanced in a creative tension. Even militarism, toned down into a modest police function, has its roll. Just as the body has an immune system, so the body politic needs judicial, regulatory and defense systems. What we have in America today is metastatic imperialism, which could easily become the ruin of us all, even as it is already the ruin of many. The unreconstructed Viking in the heart of western civilization needs to confronted and civilized. Du Bois bore witness to the need for radical change. Perhaps he was too hard on Booker T. Washington, who tried to trade acceptance of Jim Crow for black lives. Still, "separate but equal" was a "Sophie's Choice" compromise, not an ideal agenda. If America is to survive its current challenges, we all need to learn to in a sense to be black, Jewish, native American, and all the other options from genders to religions that make up the rich heritage of our land. Global warming, population explosion and ideological rationalizations threaten to destroy us all.

    When we hear a prophet like Du Bois thundering in the wilderness, we need to listen. Next time, there may be no one left to cry out "Babylon the Great is fallen!" We may leave nothing but the silence.

    1. Insightful, Craig.

      But having grown up in the shadow of Soviet and Chinese imperial socialism (look no further than Ghana at independence as one example) and one sees the very sinister side of Socialism. Thankfully in Ghana's case, the Queen intervened. I have personally seen the devastating results of Socialism where I grew up.

      Despite its ills, thank you God that I live here. Please grant us repentance and reconciliation for our evil ways, and a return to goodwill from all sides, that we might once again Love the LORD our God, love our neighbors as ourselves, love our enemy (especially in our own land - those we despise), and to love one another - those of the household of faith in Christ Jesus.

    2. Thanks, Craig, for your insightful comments.

      Yes, it was a challenge to write meaningfully about Du Bois in only 600 words. Thanks for linking to the Wikipedia article; I read it in my background study for preparing the article and thought it was quite good.

      It is hard to know how to assess Du Bois's criticism of Washington. The latter certainly did a lot of good things for African-Americans in the short run. He was a realist who helped many blacks in his day. Du Bois was more of an idealist who sought to help people of color in the long run--and I think his contributions are much more relevant now than Washington's.

    3. Du Bois moved to Ghana in 1961 in response to the invitation from Kwame Nkrumah and the Ghana Academy of Sciences to move to Ghana and undertake direction of the preparation of an “Encyclopedia Africana,” a project much like one he had long contemplated.

      A few years earlier, in 1958, Du Bois delivered an address to the All African Peoples' Conference, which was held in Ghana. He encouraged the building of a Pan African movement and the worldwide movement towards Socialism, urging Africans to embrace "Pan-African socialism".