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W.E.B. Du Bois: A champion of direct political agitation and political protest
Many blacks turned for leadership to the historian and social scientist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). A graduate of Fisk University, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tennessee, Du Bois earned a PhD in history from Harvard University and took up a professorship at Atlanta University, a school founded with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau and specializing in the training of black teachers, librarians, and other professionals. Du Bois authored and edited a number of scholarly studies depicting black life in America. Social science, he believed, would provide the key to improving race relations.
This article is excerpted from the book Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs. View the entire book (PDF, 3.6 MB).
But as legal segregation — often enforced by lynchings (extralegal and often mob-instigated seizures and killings of “criminal suspects,” without trial and usually on the flimsiest of evidence) — took hold throughout the South, Du Bois gradually concluded that only direct political agitation and protest could advance African-American civil rights. Inevitably Du Bois came into dispute with Booker T. Washington, who quietly built political ties to national Republicans to secure a measure of political patronage even as his priority for American blacks remained economic development.
In 1903, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. Described by the scholar Shelby Steele as an “impassioned reaction against a black racial ideology of accommodation and humility,” Black Folk declared squarely that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Addressing Booker T. Washington, Du Bois argued that
his doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.
Du Bois also disagreed with Washington’s exclusive emphasis on artisan skills. “The Negro race, like all races,” he argued in a 1903 article, “is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” This “talented tenth” of African Americans “must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.” For this task, the practical training Booker T. Washington offered at Tuskegee Institute would not suffice:
If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it. … On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand, and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.
Two years later, Du Bois and a number of leading black intellectuals formed the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization squarely opposed to Washington’s policies of accommodation and gradualism. “We want full manhood suffrage and we want it now!” Du Bois declared. (Du Bois also advocated woman suffrage.) The Niagara group held a notable 1906 conference at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, site of John Brown’s rebellion; lobbied against Jim Crow laws; distributed pamphlets and circulars; and attempted generally to raise the issues of civil rights and racial justice. But the movement was weakly organized and poorly funded. It disbanded in 1910. A new and stronger organization was ready to take its place by then.
A false charge that a black man had attempted to rape a white woman led to anti-black rioting in Springfield, Illinois, in August 1908. The riots left seven dead and forced thousands of African Americans to flee the city. The suffragette Mary White Ovington led a call for an organizational meeting of reformers. “The spirit of the abolitionists must be revived,” she later wrote. Her group soon expanded and linked up with Du Bois and other African-American activists. In 1910, they founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The new organization’s leadership included white Americans, many of them Jewish, and Du Bois, who assumed the editorship of the NAACP’s influential magazine The Crisis.
Beginning in 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson, a native southerner, permitted the segregation of the federal civil service, the NAACP turned to the courts, initiating the decades-long legal effort to overturn Jim Crow. Under Du Bois’s leadership, The Crisis analyzed current affairs and featured the works of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, among them Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. By some estimates, its circulation exceeded 100,000.
Du Bois continued to write, cementing a reputation as one of the century’s major American thinkers. He emerged as a leading anticolonialist and expert on African history. In 1934, Du Bois broke with the integrationist NAACP over his advocacy of Pan-African nationalism and the growing Marxist and socialist aspects of his thought. Du Bois would live on into his 90s, dying a Ghanaian citizen and committed Communist.
But the NAACP, the organization he helped to found, would launch the modern civil rights struggle.