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Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt
W. E. B. Du Bois was an African American intellectual, sociologist, poet, and activist whose fierce commitment to racial equality was the seminal force behind important sociopolitical reforms in the twentieth-century United States.
Although Du Bois may not have the same name recognition as Frederick Douglass or martin luther king jr., he is regarded by most historians as an influential leader. King himself praised Du Bois as an intellectual giant whose "singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people." Reflecting on Du Bois's legacy, playwright Lorraine Hansberry noted that "his ideas have influenced a multitude who do not even know his name."
Born February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, during the Reconstruction period following the U.S. Civil War, Du Bois was of African, French, and Dutch descent. His tremendous potential was apparent to his fellow townspeople, who raised money in the local churches to send him to Tennessee's Fisk University, a predominantly African American school. Du Bois earned a bachelor of arts degree from Fisk in 1888. He then attended Harvard University, where his professors included George Santayana and William James. An outstanding student, Du Bois received three degrees from Harvard: a bachelor's in 1890, a master's in 1891, and a doctor's in 1895.
Du Bois traveled extensively in Europe during the early 1890s and did postdoctoral work at the University of Berlin, in Germany. It was there that he pledged his life and career to the social and political advancement of African Americans. When Du Bois returned to the United States, he accepted his first teaching position at Ohio's Wilberforce University. He later taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Atlanta University.
Du Bois made his mark as an accomplished sociologist and historian, publishing groundbreaking studies on African American culture. In The Philadelphia Negro (1899), he interviewed 5,000 people to document the social institutions, health, crime patterns, family relationships, and education of African Americans in northern urban areas. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, he published a beautifully written collection of essays on the political history and cultural conditions of African Americans.
Although his success in academe was well recognized, Du Bois chose to cut a bolder swath as a passionate social activist. He became a symbol of principled social protest on behalf of African Americans. Du Bois combined his scholarly endeavors with the profound outrage he felt over racial injustice and the South's discriminatory Jim Crow Laws. He used his position as a respected intellectual to decry the unequal treatment of African Americans and to push for fundamental change. According to King, Du Bois knew it was not enough to be angry. The task was to organize people so that the anger became a transforming power. As a result, King said, "It was never possible to know where the scholar Du Bois ended and the organizer Du Bois began. The two qualities in him were a single unified force."
Du Bois was a contemporary of booker t. washington, the head of Alabama's famed Tuskegee Institute and the undisputed leader of the African American community at the turn of the twentieth century. A former slave, Washington was a powerful figure who favored the gradual acquisition of Civil Rights for African Americans. He believed that the best route for African Americans was agricultural or industrial education, not college. Although Du Bois agreed with some of Washington's ideas, he eventually lost patience with the slow pace and agenda of Washington's program.
To Du Bois, Washington's Tuskegee Machine was much too accommodating to the white power structure. Du Bois favored a more militant approach to achieving full social and political justice for African Americans. Because of Du Bois's talent as a writer, he became an effective spokesperson for the opponents of Washington's gradualism. He became the unambiguous voice of indignation and activism for African Americans. Du Bois insisted on the immediate rights of all people of color to vote; to obtain a decent education, including college; and to enjoy basic civil liberties.
"The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression."
—W. E. B. Du Bois
His beliefs led to the creation of the Niagara movement in 1905. This organization was formed by like-minded African Americans to protest Washington's compromising approach to the so-called Negro problem. Du Bois preached power through achievement, self-sufficiency, racial solidarity, and cultural pride. He came up with a plan called the Talented Tenth, whereby a select group of African Americans would be groomed for leadership in the struggle for equal rights. The Niagara movement lasted until 1910 when Du Bois became involved in a new national organization.
In 1910, Du Bois helped launch the biracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He became the group's director of research and the editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis. Du Bois's work on The Crisis provided a wide audience for his views on racial equality and African American achievement. His writings influenced scores of African Americans who eventually made their demands for full citizenship heard in the nation's legislatures and courtrooms. Du Bois was a guiding force in the NAACP until 1934 when his interest in Communism led him to leave the organization.
On September 9, 1963, the NAACP Board of Directors recognized Du Bois's contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the following resolution: "It was Dr. Du Bois who was primarily responsible for guiding the Negro away from accommodation to racial Segregation to militant opposition to any system which degraded black people by imposing upon them a restricted status separate and apart from their fellow citizens."
Du Bois was also a proponent of Pan-Africanism, a movement devoted to the political, social, and economic empowerment of people of color throughout the world. Later, he became active in trade unionism, Women's Rights, and the international peace movement. Never one to shy away from controversy, Du Bois also embraced Socialism and communism at a time when they were especially unpopular in the United States. He joined the American Communist party in 1961, after winning the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959 from the former Soviet Union.
Du Bois became increasingly disenchanted with the United States, and emigrated to Ghana in 1961. He was a citizen of that country at the time of his death in 1963.
Du Bois's influence on U.S. law was indirect but powerful. He spoke out eloquently against injustice and inspired generations of African Americans to work for racial equality. With 21 books to his credit and a zeal for organizing social protest, he helped plant the seeds for the civil rights and black power movements in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. His unswerving commitment to equal rights helped bring about changes in the laws governing education, voting, housing, and public accommodations for racial minorities.
In 1900, Du Bois wrote Credo, a statement of his beliefs and his desire for social change. The poet in him was revealed when he wrote,
I believe in Liberty for all men: the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.
Berman, Nathaniel. 2000. "Shadows: Du Bois and the Colonial Prospect, 1925." Villanova Law Review 45 (December).
Clarke, John Henrik, et al., eds. 1970. Black Titan: W.E.B. Du Bois. Boston: Beacon Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1968. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers.
Logan, Rayford Whittingham, ed. 1971. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang.
Marable, Manning. 1986. W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne.
Romano, Mary Ann, ed. 2002. Lost Sociologists Rediscovered. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen.
Wolters, Raymond. 2002. Du Bois and His Rivals. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri.