Born 23 February 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was perhaps the most influential African American leader of the first half of the twentieth century. The first black graduate from Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois believed in protest and activism to advance the rights and conditions of African Americans.
His views were in stark contrast to his fellow campaigner, Booker T Washington, who believed that through education and hard work, blacks could eventually win the respect of whites and thus gain greater equality. Du Bois became increasingly critical of what he considered Booker T Washington’s accommodating approach to racial integration, believing that Washington’s approach undermined the black person’s status in society. Instead, Du Bois believed in a more proactive approach, and strove to achieve greater political representation for blacks. He believed education should do more than merely teach vocational trades; it should teach black people how to live assertively, fighting for equality and to be demanding of their civil rights.
Du Bois was also critical of fellow black campaigner, Marcus Garvey. ‘Without doubt,’ wrote Du Bois of the flamboyant Garvey, ‘he is the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.’
In 1905, Du Bois and a group of 28 other African Americans met in Ontario in Canada near the Niagara Falls and wrote a manifesto demanding an end to racial discrimination and recognition of full civil liberties for blacks. Initially called the Niagara Movement it evolved four years later into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It challenged through the courts a number of segregation cases and lobbied the courts on behalf of blacks. One of its primary aims was to put to a stop the practice of lynching. Between the mid-1880s and 1914, there were 7,500 known cases of lynching. Although NAACP and its journal, The Crisis, edited by Du Bois until 1934, expanded, in both membership and influence, and improved educational opportunities for blacks, the lynching continued.
In July 1917, following racist violence in East St. Louis in Illinois, Du Bois’ NAACP staged a Silent March down New York’s Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. With the men dressed in black, and women and children in white, they marched silently to the sound of muffled drums, bearing banners that read, “Mr President, why not make America safe for democracy?” President Woodrow Wilson may have promised that the post-World War One peace would “make the world safe for democracy” but when black soldiers returned home, there were many recorded cases of them being lynched whilst still wearing their uniforms.
The American Communist
Progress through NAACP was slow and, disillusioned, Du Bois resigned. A long-time admirer of Joseph Stalin, Du Bois wrote a gushing obituary of the dictator: ‘Joseph Stalin was a great man… simple, calm and courageous’. But Du Bois’ admiration for Stalin should not deflect from his own greatness or his immense contribution towards the advancement of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. Martin Luther King said of Du Bois:
‘History cannot ignore W.E.B. Du Bois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. Du Bois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.’
In 1961, the 91-year-old Du Bois joined the American Communist Party. In the same year, while visiting Ghana, the US refused to renew his passport. Du Bois consequently renounced his American citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana and died there, aged 93, on 27 August 1963, one day before Luther King delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington.
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