W E B DuBois

(1860 – 1963)

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was of African, French and Dutch ancestry. After graduating from high school at the age of fifteen, he entered Frisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. From there he went onto Harvard University in Massachusetts, where he received a PhD and wrote his first book The Suppression of the slave trade.  After leaving Harvard, he became a professor of English, German, Latin and Greek, first at Wilberforce University in Ohio and then at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the University of Pennsylvania he wrote the Philadelphia Negro. As a result of his work, he was invited to teach history and economics at Atlanta University in Georgia. There he also directed the Atlanta University Studies Program, which published thirteen important studies of Black life.

Dr. DuBois also had a keen interest in the political affairs of the African continent. Beginning in 1900, he participated in a series of Pan African conferences, where he demanded independence, self government, and an end to colonialism in African countries. It was at the first of these conferences in London that Dr. DuBois made his famous prediction: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line”. He was referring not only to the on going struggle for blacks to obtain basic rights in the United States but also to the effort that would last more than fifty years to overturn oppressive European colonial regimes throughout Africa and Asia.

In 1903 Dr. DuBois published the work for which he is best known, a book of essays called The Soul of Black Folks. According to James Weldon Johnson, this work “had a greater effect upon and within the black race in America than any other book published in the US since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Soul of Black Folks went into twenty eight editions and was published in many other countries.

Two years later, DuBois organised the Niagara Movement. Named after the place where the first meeting was held (near Niagara Falls, Canada), the Niagara Movement was set up to demand “full manhood rights” for black people and was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). The NAACP grew out of a conference held in1909 by a group of black and white leaders protesting the lynching of blacks.

A year later, DuBois established The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, and ran it for twenty-four years. Largely because of his writings in The Crisis, the NAACP grew rapidly. By 1916 it had sixty seven branches and 9,000 members.

DuBois criticised Booker T. Washington, another well-known black leader, for his policy of publicly ignoring injustices towards blacks for the purpose of maintaining good relations with whites. While agreeing with Washington that blacks should work hard and strive to become economically successful, he felt that blacks also should fight to protect their constitutional rights.

DuBois felt that college-educated blacks like himself, what he called “The talented Tenth” should take the lead in helping the black race to advance.

Leaving the NAACP in 1934, DuBois returned to Georgia, where he became chairman to the Department of Sociology at Atlanta University. There he remained on till 1944, pursuing dozens of projects and writing hundreds of articles and essays. He also published several books, among them Black Reconstruction in America.

Frustrated by the U.S. government’s inability to solve the problem of racial discrimination, DuBois embraced socialism. He became associated with the peace movement and, after World War II, advocated the banning of nuclear weapons. Because of these involvements, the U.S. government indicted him as a foreign agent in 1951. When he appeared at the hearing before the judge, at the age of eighty two, DuBois stated, “it is a sad commentary that we must enter a courtroom today to plead Not Guilty to something that cannot be a crime – advocating peace and friendship between the American people and the people of the world … In a world which has barely emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, and which trembles on the brink of atomic catastrophe, can it be criminal to hope and work for peace?”

DuBois felt that college-educated blacks like himself, what he called “The talented Tenth” should take the lead in helping the black race to advance.

Leaving the NAACP in 1934, DuBois returned to Georgia, where he became chairman to the Department of Sociology at Atlanta University. There he remained on till 1944, pursuing dozens of projects and writing hundreds of articles and essays. He also published several books, among them Black Reconstruction in America.

Frustrated by the U.S. government’s inability to solve the problem of racial discrimination, DuBois embraced socialism. He became associated with the peace movement and, after World War II, advocated the banning of nuclear weapons. Because of these involvements, the U.S. government indicted him as a foreign agent in 1951. When he appeared at the hearing before the judge, at the age of eighty two, DuBois stated, “it is a sad commentary that we must enter a courtroom today to plead Not Guilty to something that cannot be a crime – advocating peace and friendship between the American people and the people of the world … In a world which has barely emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, and which trembles on the brink of atomic catastrophe, can it be criminal to hope and work for peace?”

The government certainly thought so; however, Judge James McGuire, a political conservative, did not think the same way, and the case was thrown out on November 20th 1951.

Although many protests and statements of supported for DuBois had poured in from all over the world when the indictment was issued, after the hearing many individuals and organisations turned away from him, and refused to publish his writings or hire him as a speaker. The state department would not allow him to travel outside the country until 1958, and his mail was often tampered with. According to DuBois, ‘it was a bitter experience, and I bowed before the storm, but I did not break.’

In 1961, at the age of ninety-three, DuBois joined the Communist Party. Two years later he gave up his US citizenship to become a citizen of Ghana, where he died on August 27th 1963.

Although Dr. DuBois rejected the United States at the end of his life, his influence there endures. The NAACP, which he helped to establish and in whose development he played a major role, has been the leading civil rights organisation in the US for more than seventy-five years.

William Edward Burghardt DuBois is considered one of the most influential black intellectuals, political thinkers, and protest leaders of his time. As a gifted social scientist, scholar, writer, and advocate of human rights both at home and abroad, he set a standard of black leadership that few others have been able to achieve.

“I believe in the Negro Race: in the beauty of its genius, the sweetness of its soul, and its strength in that meekness which shall yet inherit this turbulent earth”

W E B DuBois

Read more about WEB DuBois