William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYSS) was an American civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, and editor. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, three years after the end of the Civil War. His family had lived there for generations and his ancestors had fought in the American Revolution.
Du Bois attended Fisk University in Nashville, where he encountered for the first time, in his words, “a region where the world was split into white and black halves, and where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds as well as by deep ignorance and dire poverty. … A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: hence-forward I was a Negro.”
Du Bois also saw firsthand the suffering and the dignity of rural blacks when he taught school during the summers in the East Tennessee countryside, and he resolved that in some way his life would be dedicated to a struggle against racial and economic oppression. He was determined to continue his education, and succeeded in obtaining a scholarship to Harvard University.
Du Bois earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1896. His doctoral dissertation on the “Suppression of the African Slave Trade” was published as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Series. Du Bois also studied at the University of Berlin, where he became a convert to the new science of sociology, which held out the promise that social problems could be solved by the application of scientific principles.
Returning to America, Du Bois taught briefly at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and then undertook a commission from the University of Pennsylvania to compile a study of the black community in Philadelphia. Despite discrimination and condescension from university faculty, Du Bois produced the monumental Philadelphia Negro — the first scientific study of urban blacks in America.
In 1897, Du Bois accepted an offer to teach at Atlanta University. There, he initiated a series of long-range studies dealing with the issues and problems that faced black Americans. The result was the Atlanta University Studies, one of the first continuous sociological surveys in the United States. But Du Bois was gradually coming to doubt his faith that science could overcome racism, and beginning to believe that direct social action was the only way to counter white opposition to black equality. He expressed this view in his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he criticized Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of accommodation to the status quo in racial matters.
In 1905, Du Bois’ helped to found the Niagara Movement to counter Washington’s influence and to press for a more direct redress of grievances for black Americans. “Its objects,” Du Bois stated, “were to advocate and promote full manhood suffrage, the abolition of all caste distinctions based on race or color and the recognition of the highest and best human training as the monopoly of no class or race.”
On September 22, 1906, Atlanta erupted in race riots. Newspapers had reported four alleged assaults on local white women. Soon, some 10,000 white men and boys began gathering on Decatur Street in the Five Points area downtown. The newspapers with their incendiary headlines were circulated around and the mob soon turned violent, running down, beating, stabbing, and/or lynching black members of the community who were on the street. The riot lasted four days, until the state militia and a heavy rain managed to disperse the crowds. An estimated 25 to 40 African-Americans were killed.
Du Bois responded with A Litany of Atlanta, in which he expresses his heartbreak and frustration over the descent of America, as he saw it, into barbarism:
“Bewildered we are … mad with the madness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people; straining at the armposts of Thy Throne, we raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth this? Tell us the Plan; give us the Sign!
Keep not thou silence, O God!
Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb suffering. Surely Thou too art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing?”
In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in New York by a coalition of white liberals and black leaders. Du Bois left Atlanta University in 1910 to become the NAACP’s Director of Publicity and Research.
In this capacity, Du Bois founded and edited the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis for twenty-four years. The Crisis became the most influential voice of black protest in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to Du Bois’ editorials, The Crisis featured accounts of lynchings and brutalities committed against blacks that were often ignored by the white press. But Du Bois also encouraged black writers and artists to submit their work for publication. His effort to identify and stimulate the development of a distinct Afro-American culture was one of the factors that led to the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance.
When, in the depression year of 1934, Du Bois advised blacks to patronize black businesses, he was ironically forced to resign from the NAACP for advocating what was considered to be a plan of voluntary segregation.
As Du Bois grappled with the problems of racial oppression, he began to see a connection between the fate of Afro-Americans and other oppressed races living under the colonial rule of white people. Du Bois was a moving spirit behind the growing struggle for self-determination among Africans, and the Pan-African Congresses helped to bring the issues of this struggle to world attention.
During the McCarthy era, many attempts were made to silence debate on issues affecting foreign policy and Du Bois became another victim of that effort. (Criticizing the hypocrisy of race relations in America was deemed aiding and abetting the Communist cause.) At the age of 83, Du Bois was indicted for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” Although acquitted, the government had effectively attached a stigma to Du Bois’ name and he became isolated from the mainstream of the growing civil rights movement which depended upon the goodwill of the Federal Government to advance its aims.
At the age of ninety-three, Du Bois was invited to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah to become editor of the Encyclopedia Africana, a monumental project involving scholars from around the world. Du Bois assumed Ghanaian citizenship and lived in Africa until his death at the age of ninety-five on August 27, 1963– the day before the March on Washington that marked the climax of the civil rights struggle in the United States.
Du Bois wrote and published more than 4,000 articles, essays, and books over the course of his 95-year life. Most of these are out of print and hard to find even in their original publications. No edition of his complete works has yet been published.
Note: Much of the information for this post comes from the Department of Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, custodian of the Papers of W.E.B. Du Bois. There is also a wonderful site with access to more information about W.E.B. Du Bois courtesy of The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), here.