[James wrote this essay as an introduction to a 1965 republication of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. He says: "Dr Du Bois has always been put forward as one of the great black men and one of the great leaders of the black people. But I have said that he is one of the great intellectuals— American intellectuals — of the twentieth century, and today and in years to come his work will continue to expand in importance while the work of others declines.”] - Introduction from The Future in the Present
It is more than a misjudgement to think of W. E. B. Du Bois as a great leader of Negroes or as some type of spiritual African expatriate. To do so is not only to subject him to racialist connotation; it is to circumscribe and to limit the achievements of one of the greatest American citizens of his time. For that is what Du Bois was, an American scholar and public man who could have done the work he did only as an American with the opportunities and needs
and world-wide scope that only America could have given him. A mere listing of his achievements will demonstrate his Americanism without possibility of argument.
1. He educated and organised black people in the United States to claim, and white people to acknowledge, that racial prejudice in the United States was a disease against the material well-being and moral health of the American people.
2. More than any other citizen of Western civilisation (or of Africa itself) he struggled over many years and succeeded in making the world aware that Africa and Africans had to be freed
from the thraldom which Western civilisation had imposed on Them.
3. As a scholar he not only initiated the first serious study of the American slave‘ trade; in his studies of the Civil War, and of the Negro in the United States after the Civil War, he also laid
foundations and achieved monumental creations surpassed by no other scholar of the period.
To this may be added the fact that in the beginning, the development and the conclusion of his life’s work, he symbolised certain stages in the development of American thought which are a pointer to the examination of dominant currents in the role that the United States is now playing in the world.
There is no need to subscribe to all that Dr Du Bois has said and done. But long before the rulers and leaders of thought in the United States grasped the essentials of the world in which they lived, Dr Du Bois did, and to look upon him just as a great leader of the Negro people or just a true son of Africa is to diminish the conceptions and mitigate the impact of one of the great citizens of the modern world.
1. He educated and organised black people in the United States to claim and white people to acknowledge that racial prejudice in the United States was a disease against the material well-being and moral health of the American people.
Born in 1868, in 1903 Dr Du Bois was 35 years old. In this year a growing reputation reached a climax in The Souls of Black Folk. He had been educated at Fisk, a Negro university, and then at Harvard, where he was the first Negro to take a doctorate of philosophy. He followed this with post-graduate studies in Berlin. To the end of his days he remained a man of a fantastic range of accomplishments — he was Professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University from 1894-1896; he was Assistant Instructor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania whence he went to Atlanta to become Professor of Economics and History. In his last year at Pennsylvania he published his Suppression of the Slave Trade where American historicism for the first time lifted this substantial phase of American history out of the limitations of sociology and ethics and established it within economic relations. The book was not merely, as it has been hailed, “the first scientific historical work” written by a Negro. It marked a new stage in the development of American historical study and thought. Fifteen years afterwards the road paved out by Du Bois was followed by Charles Beard with his epoch-making book, The Constitution, an Economic Interpretation.
With his sociological studies of The Philadelphia Negro in 1899 and the sociological studies of the Negro which followed, Gunnar Myrdal, author of the monumental study of Negro life in the United States, An American Dilemma, says of Du Bois that he produced work which is still viable to-day “while white authors . . . have been compelled to retreat from the writings of earlier decades”. Gunnar Myrdal notes that the secret of Du Bois’s success was that he proceeded on the assumption later formulated by Du Bois himself that “the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being”. For Du Bois this was not merely a way of thinking but a way of life, his own life. During his years at Atlanta he refused to travel in a segregated transport system and could always been seen walking on his journeys from one part of the city to another.
In 1895 Booker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee Institute, had accepted segregation as an inevitable and necessary stage of the Negro’s status in American Society. “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers. Yet (here he balled his fingers into a fist) one, as the hand, in all things essential to mutual progress."
Du Bois at first joined in the enthusiastic reception given to these words by the whole nation. But by 1903 Du Bois’s study of Negro Americans had made it clear to him that the hope of creating an independent Negro peasantry was vain. Heavy capital investment in agriculture was turning increasingly large numbers of Negroes into demoralised sharecroppers, now experiencing the added weight of legalised persecution by all the state governments of the South. A number of educated Negroes had long resented the policy of Booker T. Washington and the immense recognition which increasingly represented him as the voice of the Negro people. In the essay
“On Booker T. Washington and Others” Du Bois broke shatteringly with the programme and policies of Washington. With a formidable dignity which strengthened his opposition, Du Bois ended his piece as follows:
“The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate, a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up
his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honours and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr Washington apologises for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinction. and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds, so far as he, the South, or the nation, does this, we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilised and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ "
By its mastery of economic and social movement and the general humanity and personal distinction of its style, the book at once gained a recognition which it has never lost. From that time Du Bois steadily grew into the leader of the opposition to Washington who was by now an established consultant to Congressmen, Senators and the White House on all problems affecting Negroes in the United States. While sticking in principle to the theory that all men were created equal, Du Bois characteristically made what will have appeared to him a necessary concession to objective fact. In his study of the Philadelphia Negro he had unearthed the rise to
comparative well-being and at least self-respect of a Negro class of house servants. Du Bois now advocated the conception of the Talented Tenth, by which he sought to clear the road of the educated Negro to full citizenship and to stimulate among the masses of Negroes a passionate belief in education as the curative of all social ills. This was a conception gaining ground in the United States under the powerful advocacy of the philosopher, John Dewey.
The Du Bois who preferred to walk rather than use a Jim Crow car in Atlanta was not the type of political thinker to be satisfied with the mere statement of a position whatever its acceptance. In
July 1905 he helped to inaugurate a meeting at Buffalo, New York; the first stage in what became known as the Niagara Movement. Next year the protagonists met at Harper’s Ferry, the scene of the martyrdom of John Brown. In his address Du Bois declared:
“We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a free-bom American, political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans.”
These were not mere phrases. In 1910 Du Bois founded The Crisis as the monthly organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. The organisation and the journal
were devoted to equality for Negroes, but distinguished white people, John Dewey, Frank Boas the anthropologist, and Mary Ovington the social worker, were staunch and active supporters of
Du Bois. Du Bois, however, always remained the dominant figure. The national membership of the organisation, 9,282 in 1917, by 1919 was 91,000. The circulation of The Crisis, 1,750 in 1910, was by 1919 over 100,000. Du Bois continued as editor for a quarter of a century when his by no means infrequent disputes with what he considered the conservatism of the organisation ended in his resignation. In 1944 he once more joined the staff of the NAACP as
Director of Studies. This lasted until 1948 when his break with the organisation became final. The news that he had died in Accra, Ghana, came during the preparation for the great march on Washington in 1963, led by Negro organisations including the NAACP. Many realised that the road America was travelling had not only been charted but its foundations laid by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois.
2. More than any other citizen of Western civilisation (or of Africa itself) he struggled over many years and succeeded in making the world aware that Africa and Africans had to be freed from the thraldom which Western civilisation had imposed on them.
Du Bois had conquered Booker T. Washington. Before long he was in conflict with a far more formidable rival for the allegiance of Negroes in the United States and elsewhere, the celebrated
West Indian agitator, Marcus Garvey. In the conflict and contrast between these two men, both in their own way great fighters for African independence, can be seen a great deal of neglected world history and the peculiar qualities which characterised Du Bois: belief in the ultimate power of the intellect, an instinct for political activity on the largest or smallest scale, both inspired and maintained by a tenacity that never admitted defeat.
As early as 1911, just a year after the founding of The Crisis, Du Bois took part in the First World Races Congress in London. The congress grew out of the suggestion of Dr Felix Adler, the
founder of the Ethical Cultural movement, that a congress of races of the world be held
“to discuss, in the light of science and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between so-called whites and so-called coloured peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation.”
The Congress was attended by representatives of most of the peoples of the world. Dr Du Bois represented the NAACP and, supposedly, American Negroes. The sessions were devoted largely to such topics as the meaning of the concept of race; political, economic, social and religious conditions in the colonial areas; miscegenation; inter-racial conflicts; the role of the Jew and the Negro in the world scene, and methods of abolishing the international “evils” of indentured labour and drink. The Races Congress was an example of that rationalistic liberalism which placed great faith in scientific interchange as an adequate method of social progress.
Du Bois was an active member of the Congress, being one of its secretaries and delivering one of its major addresses.
At the end of World War I, Du Bois instituted a movement for a Pan-African Congress to be held in Paris during the sessions of the peace conference in 1919, in order to pressure peacemakers to internationalise the former German colonies in Africa in a way that would best serve the needs of the growing African nationalism. Du Bois and the NAACP worked under the assumption that the Negroes of the world represented a unified pressure group.
Not only did Du Bois and the NAACP hope that such a congress would lead to self-determination” for the African natives, but also that it would “serve, perhaps better than any other means that could be taken, to focus the attention of the peace delegates and the civilised world on the just claims of the Negro everywhere".***
Du Bois’s reminiscences twenty years later concerning the motives of this first congress may be taken as an accurate portrayal of his actual intentions in 1919. In 1940, Du Bois wrote in Dusk of Dawn:
“My plans as they developed had in them nothing spectacular nor revolutionary. If in decades or a. century they resulted in such world organisation of black men as would oppose a united front to European aggression, that certainly would not have been beyond my dream. But on the other hand, in practical reality, I knew the power and guns of Europe and America, and what I wanted to do was in the face of this power to sit down hand in hand with coloured groups and across the council table to learn of each other, our condition, our aspirations, our chances for concerted thought and action. One of this there might come, not race war and opposition, but broader cooperation with the white rulers of the world, and a chance for peaceful and accelerated development of black folk.”
Du Bois experienced opposition from both the French Government and the American State Department but through the intercession of Blaise Diagne, an African member of the French Assembly from Senegal, Clemenceau granted permission to hold the First Pan-African Congress at the Grand Hotel in Paris. Fifty-seven delegates finally attended the Congress, including sixteen American Negroes, twenty West Indian Negroes, and twelve Africans.
From the beginning, Diagne, who was chosen as the President of the Congress, and Du Bois, its Secretary, were at odds, for Diagne was a Frenchman before being a Pan-African, and insisted upon praising French colonial rule, while attacking the other European powers’ operations in Africa. However the Congress did pass a series of resolutions calling for the creation of an “internationalised" African state, consisting of the one million square miles and twelve and one-half million inhabitants of the former German colonies, the 800,000 square miles and nine million inhabitants of Portuguese Africa, and the 900,000 square miles and nine million
inhabitants of the Belgian Congo, this state to be ruled by the League of Nations. That the range, however remote, of Du Bois’s activity was governed by the possible was shown by the fact that the Congress demanded action only on the territory of the defeated enemy and the possessions of the two smaller colonial powers, while not mentioning the lands of France or Britain for inclusion in this new state.
The Congress resolutions went on to demand safeguards against economic exploitation, cultural subjection and for increased self-rule, educational and medical facilities for all Africa. These resolutions, drawn up largely by European and American university trained Negroes placed emphasis upon the development of a Negro cultural and intellectual elite in whose hands the development of Africa was to be placed. Du Bois applied the same doctrine of the “upper tenth” to the African Negroes as he had earlier done in reference to the advancement of the American Negro people.
This Pan-African Congress met with support in the United States. On 6 January 1919, a “mass meeting for the Pan-African movement” was held at Carnegie Hall, New York, under the auspices of NAACP. Two resolutions showed the way Du Bois habitually thought. The first resolution demanded that the German colonies in Africa be turned over to the natives, while the second resolution declared that if lynchings of Negroes were not stopped in America, “a revolution of twelve million Negro citizens might be used to stop it”.
The Second Pan-African Congress was held in the early autumn of 1921, sponsored by the NAACP, i.e. initiated by Du Bois. He always saw the movement for African independence as an international movement. Therefore the Second Congress met successively in the capitals of three European nations which had African colonies—-London, Brussels, and Paris. This Congress had 113 accredited delegates including 35 from the United States, mainly, though not all, Negro.
At this Congress the dissension between Du Bois and Blaise Diagne came to a head. The Brussels meeting watered down the more radical statements and resolutions passed at the London meeting, in particular removing all specific attacks on French and Belgian imperialism. However, the Congress did agree to petition the League of Nations to set up a special Negro section of the International Labour Organisation, to appoint a Negro to the Mandates’ Commission, and to put pressure on public opinion through an educational programme to end racial discrimination. A manifesto declared that in the process of raising the Africans “to intelligence, self-knowledge and self-control, their (Negro) intelligentsia of right ought to be recognised as the natural leaders of their groups”.
A Third Congress was held in 1924 in London and Lisbon but even though the London meeting attracted people like Harold Laski and H. G. Wells, the movement was obviously on the decline.
A Fourth Congress was held in New York City in 1927 sponsored by the Council of the Women of the Darker Races. A great deal of time was spent in the discussion of the work of American Negro Christian missionaries in Africa. Professor Melville Herskovits of Columbia University was a notable participant.
An attempt was made to organise a Fifth Congress in Tunis, North Africa, in 1929, but it failed.
From start to finish Du Bois was the moving spirit and active organiser of these congresses. Much later he was to claim that the Mandates’ Committee of the League of Nations came out of the Congress proposal that the German colonies be turned over to an international organisation. That claim may or may not be justified. That is not important. What matters is this clear vision and persistent attempt, long before all other statesmen and political thinkers, to apply to Africa the type of thought and action with which the world is now familiar, not so much from the League of Nations as from the United Nations. Du Bois was limited to support from mainly Negro intellectuals, for the most part American and this interest in Africa of many of them was stimulated directly or indirectly by their belief in the repercussion of African progress on their own situation in the United States.
Du Bois did not have only to stimulate Negro intellectuals whose ideas were not as comprehensive as his own. He had to battle with hostile imperialist powers. What he was preaching and trying to do must be seen side by side with another American movement, the
movement of Marcus Garvey.
Garvey, a Jamaican by birth, achieved the astonishing feat of building a mass movement of millions of Negroes in the United States. He also impressed upon world opinion the conception that the subordination of Africa to foreign powers could not continue, its regeneration would come from Negroes in the Western world whom Garvey was to lead back to Africa. Long before Garvey, Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk had noted the resentment bottled up in large sections of the Negro population of the South. The needs of war propelled a mass migration of more than a million of these Negroes to the North and they formed the basis of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association. Garvey declared Negro opposition not only to white oppression but to the Negro middle classes of whom Du Bois as the originator of the conception of the Talented Tenth was the accepted chief. Du Bois at first did not attack Garvey. As late as December 1922 he wrote in The Crisis that Garvey was “essentially an honest and sincere man with a tremendous vision, great dynamic force, stubborn determination, and unselfish desire to serve”. But Du Bois, struggling against the enormous vested interests that impeded his Pan-African Congresses and finding that his movement was being linked with Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, and no doubt stimulated by Garvey’s unbridled attacks against him, turned against Garvey and in 1924 declared that “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most
dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor for he believes that forcible separation of the races and the banishment of Negroes to Africa is the only solution of the Negro problem.”
Thus the two most dedicated movements for the emancipation of Africa originated among Negroes in the United States and were in mortal opposition to each other. Long before 1930 Garvey’s movement came to an end and when Garvey was deported back to
his native Jamaica Du Bois led the movement for the rehabilitation of his aims if not his methods.
Pan-Africanism seemed to have died in 1927. In the thirties it was revived by a West Indian in London, George Padmore. In association with Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta the new
Pan-Africanism held a great conference at Manchester in 1945. Du Bois came from the United States to preside over the conference which launched the political movement that ended in the
achievement of independence by the Gold Coast under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. The United States government prevented Du Bois from accepting Nkrumah’s invitation to attend
the celebration of the independence of the new state of Ghana in 1957. But as during the 1963 March on Washington the celebration was pervaded by the spirit of the far-seeing and doughty pioneer.
3. As a scholar he not only initiated the first serious study of the American slave trade; in his studies of the Civil War, and of the Negro in the United States after the Civil War, he also laid foundations and achieved monumental creations surpassed by no other scholar of the period.
In The Crisis Du Bois wrote constantly about Africa and published a volume devoted to the history of African civilisations. But, as he had done in every sphere of endeavour he touched, Du Bois broke new ground in one of the most important fields of modem history — the history of the United States itself. In 1909 before the American Historical Association Du Bois delivered an address on John Brown which startled all historians and students of history. Brown, Du Bois declared, had been the protagonist of a movement of active revolutionaries in American history. “Slavery,” he declared, “had to die by revolution and not by milder means. And this men knew and they had known it for a hundred years. Yet they shrank and trembled.” Readers of his address could not escape the implication that the whole character of Du Bois‘s interpretation of
John Brown had contemporary connotations. A piquant situation now developed. Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the liberal journal, The Nation, bore the family name of the Abolitionist
Movement and would soon give years of devoted service as head of the NAACP. Villard challenged Du Bois’s interpretation and in time produced his own volume on Brown in which the death of Brown at Harper’s Ferry is reduced to an episode. Liberal opinion welcomed this recovery of John Brown from the explosive pen of Du Bois. Little did American historical study know what was in store for it. In 1935 Du Bois produced his Black Reconstruction, subtitled An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880.
The time was the tumultuous thirties when revolutionary ideas were in the air even of Universities. Du Bois. however, had raised his banner since 1909, twenty-six years before. He was sixty-seven when the book was published and its over 700 pages embodied a mastery of detail which could only have been the work of a lifetime. The book for the first time established the elevated aspirations and genuine social and educational achievements of the post-Civil
War Negro-dominated government of the South. Du Bois showed that what he called the Great Strike of the slaves, their carefully timed but incessant pouring, from slavery into Union lines, had created a condition in which emancipation had become the price and only guarantee of victory.
But this material with which he was so familiar Du Bois placed within a framework which embraced his life’s studies, his political work and his hopes for the future. Slavery and slave revolts, American society inside and out of the South, the military and political features of the Civil War, the grandeur and decadence of Reconstruction, were fitted into a comprehensive view of world politics, including Marx’s Intemational Workingmen’s Association, the Paris Commune, World War I, the crash of 1929, the rise of fascism, the threat of World War II. Some of these relations he established were in 1935 startling enough, though time and the violent historical
changes in the contemporary world have made much that in 1935 seemed wanton not at all remote thirty years later. Only the future can tell to what degree the historical audacities of Du Bois are viable. Quotation can scarcely do him justice but his awareness of the intricacies and subtleties of politics and social movement on an international scale rest firmly on a deep and passionate humanity.
“There was to be a new freedom! And a black nation went tramping after the armies no matter what it suffered; no matter how it was treated, no matter how it died. First, without masters, without food, without shelter; then with new masters, food that was free, and improvised shelters, cabins, homes; and at last, land. They prayed; they worked; they danced and sang; they studied to learn: they wanted to wander. Some for the first time in their lives saw Town; some left the plantation and walked out into the world; some handled actual money, and some with arms in their hands, actually fought for freedom. An unlettered leader of fugitive slaves pictured it: ‘And then we saw the lightning—that was the guns! and then we heard the thunder—that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to git in the crops it was dead men that we reaped.’
The mass of slaves, even the more intelligent ones, and certainly the great group of field hands, were in religious and hysterical fervour. This was the coming of the Lord."
Black Reconstruction is and is likely to continue to be one of the finest history books ever written.
It is also the climax of Du Bois’s work and the herald of the surprising activities of his last years. In 1948 when he was eighty years of age he was forced out of the NAACP and until his death
in 1963 Du Bois became an avowed propagandist of socialism. The communist states gave him an ecstatic welcome during his visits to their territories and to his unrestrained advocacy of their cause at home and abroad.
It is easy to understand how he made this transition. At the end of World War II he had written:
“Accomplish the end which every honest human being must desire by means other than communism, and communism need not be feared. On the other hand, if a world of ultimate dernocracy, reaching across the colour line and abolishing race discrimination, can only be accomplished by the method laid down by Karl Marx, then that method deserves to be triumphant no matter what we think or do.”
All his life he had seen whatever activity he had taken part in within the context of the movement of world forces. After World War II it must have seemed to him that the communist world with its denunciations of the old order and its sponsorship of a new order for all peoples represented the approach to an ideal which had inspired all his life.
Du Bois was persecuted for the transfer of his allegiance to socialism. He disdained to disguise his views and faced trial and the danger of imprisonment with fortitude and dignity undiminished. World-wide protest came to his rescue.
In 1961 he accepted an invitation from President Nkrumah of Ghana to undertake and direct plans for an Encyclopaedia Africana, a project for which he was well suited. With his wife, he moved to Ghana and was active in this work until the end. On 13 February 1963 he became a citizen of Ghana. He died on 27 August of the same year, five months before his ninety-sixth birthday.
This was the day of the great Civil Rights March on Washington. Du Bois’s death was announced to the crowd at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, when Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, said: “The true leader of this march is W. E. Burghardt Du Bois.”
In his constant energy, his deep respect for the history and learning of the old world, his audacity and readiness to venture into uncharted seas, he was a true son of the intellectuals who founded the United States in 1776. Devoted as he was to righting the injustices of coloured people, he came in time to see his famous aphorism, that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the colour line, in a wider context. In his retrospect to The Souls of Black Folk he wrote:
“So perhaps I might end this retrospect simply by saying; I still think today as yesterday that the colour line is a great problem of this century. But to-day I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and colour, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilised persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be colour and race."
Yet it was his consciousness of race which widened his vision and deepened his sensitivity. Africa can rightly claim him as a son and it is fitting that his dust should rest there, but for three-quarters of a century he strove to adapt the impulses of 1776 to the world of the twentieth century. He represents a current of American effort which will have much to do with the establishment of peace and progress not only to Africans and all people of colour but to the whole troubled world.
*Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 275.