Born: February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, United States
Died: August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana
Occupation: Civil rights activist
Other Names: Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt
Tireless Advocate for Civil Rights. From the late 1890s through the 1940s, W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the leading black intellectuals and the foremost champion of equal rights for blacks in the United States. At a time when many black Americans sought to improve their status by adapting to the ideals of white society and tolerating discrimination and segregation, Du Bois was a tireless proponent of unconditional equal and civil rights for all blacks. As a social scientist, he was also a pioneer in documenting historical and social truths about blacks in the United States. In eloquent and forceful writings in a variety of genres, he was the first to write of a distinct black consciousness, which he described as the peculiar "two-ness" of being both a black and an American. Du Bois's legacy has served as the intellectual foundation of the modern-day black protest movement. He is regarded by many as a prophet, whose words inspire oppressed people throughout the world in their struggle for civil rights.
Cofounded Black Organizations. A partial list of Du Bois's career accomplishments gives testimony to his varied gifts as political scientist, organizer, author, educator, and inspirational figure. Du Bois was one of the founders of the Niagara Movement, a black protest organization that pressed for equal rights in the early 1900s. He was later a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and an editor for over thirty years of the association's journal, the Crisis. An early proponent of Pan-Africanism (the idea of self-government for oppressed blacks around the world), he organized several Pan-African conferences in Europe and the United States. As a highly prolific scholar and writer, Du Bois produced a vast number of monographs, essays, memoirs, poems, novels, and plays, all which gave eloquent testimony to his life and various political beliefs. A professor of classics, economics, history, and sociology, he was also a frequent lecturer throughout the world.
Attended Fisk University. Du Bois (pronounced "du boyce") was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, a descendant of French Huguenot, Dutch, and black ancestry. By the time he was 15, he was a correspondent for two black newspapers, the Springfield Republican and New York Globe, reporting on local community news. After graduating from high school in 1884, he received a scholarship to all-black Fisk University in Nashville. There he edited the Fisk Herald and studied classical literature, German, Greek, Latin, philosophy, chemistry, and physics. During summers, Du Bois taught school in a small town in eastern Tennessee, where he was profoundly influenced by the dismal social and economic conditions endured by rural blacks. At Fisk, Du Bois solidified his goals for improving the status of blacks and came to believe that higher education was an important means of combating racial oppression.
Gave Commencement Address at Harvard. After graduating with a B.A. from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois enrolled at Harvard University, where he excelled as a student. He became acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including William James, George Palmer, George Santayana, and Albert Bushnell Hart, and was encouraged to direct his studies toward history and the social sciences. At his Harvard commencement in 1890, he was one of five students selected to deliver an address. Du Bois's speech on Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the issue of slavery in the United States gained him national attention, including a prominent review in the Nation. Graduating cum laude in philosophy, Du Bois was accepted into graduate school in political science as Harvard's Henry Bromfield Rogers Fellow and began work on his dissertation, "Suppression of the African Slave Trade." After being awarded his master's degree in 1891, he received a Slater Fund grant, which allowed him to study and travel overseas from 1892 to 1894. Du Bois studied history, economics, politics, and political economy at the University of Berlin and completed a thesis on agricultural economics in the American South.
Sought to Uplift the Black Race. Du Bois's European travels allowed him to more fully comprehend the racially based social structure of the United States. On the eve of his 25th birthday, he composed a journal entry that set forth his commitment to pursuing intellectual endeavors in the service of his race. As quoted by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Du Bois wrote of himself as "either a genius or a fool," and declared his intention to "make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race. Or perhaps to raise a visible empire in Africa thro' England, France, or Germany."
Became a Noted Scholar and Author. Du Bois returned to the United States and began a prolific career as a writer and scholar. He accepted a teaching position as professor of classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he also met his first wife, Nina Gomer. In 1895, he became the first black to ever receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His doctoral thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published by Longmans, Green as the first volume in the "Harvard Historical Monograph Series." In 1896, Du Bois was named assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and was hired by the university to conduct a sociological study of the black population of Philadelphia. Published in 1899, The Philadelphia Negro was the first in-depth analysis of a black community. According to Elliot Rudwick in an essay in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Du Bois "at this point in his career passionately believed that social science would provide white America's leaders with the knowledge necessary to eliminate discrimination and solve the race problem."
Exposed Ravages of Racism. As a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910, Du Bois supervised a series of studies on urban blacks. One of his most influential books, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903. A collection of fourteen essays, The Souls of Black Folk explores not only the damaging effects of racism, but also the strength and endurance of black people in the United States. In the essay "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," Du Bois provided one of the first depictions of a distinct black identity: "[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.... One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Between 1898 and 1914, Du Bois also edited and annotated reports on such subjects as black business, education, health, crime, family life, and the church. However, these reports were virtually ignored, prompting Du Bois to conclude, as Rudwick noted, "that only through agitation and protest could social change ever come."
At Odds withBooker T. Washington. Du Bois's activism stood in sharp contrast to the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington, a black leader of international prominence who supported vocational education for blacks, rather than higher education, and who held that a gradual assumption of economic power was the pathway for blacks to attain the rights of full citizenship. Washington was widely accepted by whites as the principal spokesman for the black community and commanded the support of wealthy white philanthropists, political figures, and members of both the black and white press. Du Bois was highly critical of Washington's position, maintaining staunchly that full and equal civil rights were the birthright of every American and demanding that full political rights be granted to all blacks. He envisioned an elite corps of black leaders--the "Talented Tenth"--who, through higher education, would be prepared to further the welfare of their race. The rift between Washington and Du Bois began a profound division of the black protest movement into two factions. In 1904, the two leaders and their supporters attempted to resolve their differences at a conference at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Washington and Du Bois, along with Hugh Browne (a Washington supporter), were selected to form a Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Negro Race. Du Bois, however, later resigned in protest of what he claimed was Washington's pervasive control of the committee.
Led the Niagara Movement. Failing to reconcile differences with the Washington faction and unable to tap the wealthy white financial backers who supported Washington, Du Bois set out on a different course. In 1905, he organized a meeting of black leaders who shared an uncompromising goal of full economic and political rights for blacks. On 11 July 1905, this group met in Fort Erie, Ontario, to organize what became known as the "Niagara Movement," thus effectively splitting the black movement into two major camps. Washington's "Tuskegee Machine" favored elementary and industrial education as the means for blacks to become economically productive and, hence, eligible for full equality as citizens. Leaders of the Niagara Movement, as Herbert Aptheker noted in Afro-American History: The Modern Era, held for an "unequivocal rejection of racism and insistence upon the fundamental equality of mankind." Holding meetings for the next five years, the Niagara Movement vigorously denounced white America for the "Negro problem" and held that protest was the only means to confront the roots of oppression.
Niagara Movement Fails. However, the practical advantages of the Tuskegee group--its influence over the black press, backing by white financiers, and Washington's skills as a tactician coupled with fragmentation within the Niagara movement itself--helped bring about the demise of Du Bois's group in 1910. Some critics contend that the Niagara's failure was inevitable because of the overwhelmingly racist beliefs of American society at that time. "The movement's basic problem," according to Rudwick, "was the nation's virulent racism that had catapulted a leader like Washington into power. Even if Du Bois had demonstrated superlative leadership skills, Niagara's program of uncompromising protest for equal treatment was too far ahead of white public opinion, and this fact damaged the movement's public opinion."
Cofounded of the NAACP. Assessing the failures of Niagara, Du Bois became convinced that an interracial organization--one that could also draw the support of prominent whites who disagreed with Washington's policies--was essential to the success of protests against racial discrimination. In 1910, he became the leading black founder of the interracial NAACP, which aimed to fight discrimination through court litigation, political lobbying, and nationwide publicity. Du Bois, as Director of Publications and Research, became editor of the Crisis, the NAACP's official publication. He edited the Crisis for nearly 25 years, during which time the journal became widely influential among blacks for its frank and eloquent discussions of racial issues in the United States.
Disagreed with NAACP Executives. At the same time, the views Du Bois expressed in the Crisis often ran afoul of official NAACP positions, causing friction between him and the organization's board of directors. One such conflict was in the area of racial segregation. Although Du Bois supported desegregation during World War I, he later began to see segregation as a favorable means of allowing blacks to exert power in areas such as economics and education, which were dominated by whites in the larger society. His views, expressed in the Crisis, came into direct conflict with the NAACP board and many black leaders, who believed, as Taylor Branch noted in Parting the Waters, that his comments "would bolster the old white racist argument that Negroes fared better under segregation." Under intense criticism, Du Bois resigned from his editorship of the Crisis and returned to Atlanta University as chairman of the department of sociology.
Perceived as Aloof and Arrogant. Throughout Du Bois's career, he was often criticized for having an arrogant personality and elitist views, which, coupled with his seemingly wavering positions on a variety of political issues, brought him into continual conflict with other black leaders. Rudwick, however, depicts Du Bois's varying positions--such as his changing views on the issue of segregation--as understandable responses to the racial climate in the United States. "Given the persistent and intransigent nature of the American race system, which proved quite impervious to black attacks," noted Rudwick, "Du Bois in his speeches and writings moved from one proposed solution to another, and the salience of various parts of his philosophy changed as his perceptions of the needs and strategies of black America shifted over time. Aloof and autonomous in his personality, Du Bois did not hesitate to depart markedly from whatever was the current mainstream of black thinking when he perceived that the conventional wisdom being enunciated by black spokesmen was proving inadequate to the task of advancing the race."
Devoted to Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism was another major focus of Du Bois's political career. Beginning in 1905, he organized a series of Pan-African conferences, the first in Paris, with subsequent conferences in Lisbon, Brussels, and Paris (1921), London and Lisbon (1923), and New York City (1927). In these conferences, Du Bois put forth his ideas of self-government for oppressed black people under colonial powers. Ideological and personal differences led to acrimonious debate between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader who strove to construct--through economic enterprise and mass education--a unified empire of people of African descent. Du Bois rejected many of Garvey's policies and mounted a campaign to expose corruption and mismanagement of Garvey's famous Black Star Shipping Line (a black cross-continental trade venture).
Joined the Communist Party. In his later years, Du Bois's political views came to align him increasingly with socialist forms of government, and, at the same time, distance him from the mainstream U.S. civil rights movement. A series of visits to the Soviet Union and China led him to publicly praise those countries' Communist governments and to urge African nations to seek Communist support in their drive for self-government. In 1951, Du Bois was tried in U.S. federal court on the charge that he was unregistered agent of a foreign power. Although he was eventually acquitted, Du Bois and his second wife, writer Shirley Graham, were denied travel visas from the U.S. State Department. This ban was lifted in 1958, and the couple conducted additional tours of Africa and the Soviet Union. In 1961, Du Bois officially joined the Communist party and moved to the West African country of Ghana, of which he became a citizen in 1963. Regarding his application to the Communist party, Du Bois wrote in a public statement: "I have been long and slow in coming to this conclusion, but at last my mind is settled.... Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all."
Revered After Death. Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, in 1963, on the eve of the historic civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Although the popularity of his political philosophies had waned among American blacks, he had come to be revered in his former country as a prophet who had presaged the modern black protest movement. His writings found a new audience in a generation of blacks--led by Martin Luther King, Jr.--who had come to see protest as the only legitimate means to press for social change and the end of oppression. Upon his death, the NAACP journal Crisis proclaimed the former leader "the prime inspirer, philosopher and father of the Negro protest movement."
"W. E. B. Du Bois." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., Gale, 1998. Gale In Context: Biography, link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1602000402/BIC?u=jac218&sid=BIC&xid=fd58a96a. Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
"William Monroe Trotter with W.E.B. DuBois, F.H.M. Murray, and L.M. Hershaw." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 1: 1900-1909, Gale, 2001. Gale In Context: Biography, link.gale.com/apps/doc/PC3468387077/BIC?u=jac218&sid=BIC&xid=ba2e7659. Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.