William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a cultured writer, political philosopher and activist with enormous intellectual achievements who, over his long life, relentlessly pursued the goal of equality for Africans and African-Americans.
He wrote influential treatises on black life, helped establish the discipline of sociology, traveled widely, ran for political office, and became a powerful journalist and public speaker.
In his epochal 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folk,” he gave voice to the central challenges facing black Americans. Later he became a founding member of the NAACP.
Yet his name is mentioned much less frequently than his latter-day colleagues in the civil rights movement.
Obie Clayton, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Clark Atlanta University, points out that Du Bois did some of the first sociological research into the lives of black people during his first stint on the faculty at Atlanta University, beginning in 1897.
But, said Clayton, “if you mention Du Bois to a high school student, they never heard of him. You mention Booker T. Washington and they can tell you about the Tuskegee Institute. The two people they mention are Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. And that,” he joked, “is why I don’t like peanuts today.”
Clayton is the editor of the Phylon, an academic journal called “The Clark Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture” that was founded by Du Bois. Clayton also helped organize a symposium last year that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth and observed the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Du Bois and King worked toward the same goals, but took very different paths. King’s base was the church, while Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, was at home in academics. He called himself a freethinker, criticized the church and declined to lead prayers at meetings.
King fought unfounded accusations that he was a Communist sympathizer (he considered communism and Christianity incompatible) while Du Bois at age 93 joined the Communist Party, and visited with Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Born 61 years before King, Du Bois grew up in Barrington, Massachusetts. He was unaware of the harsh realities of Southern racism until he came to Nashville, Tennessee, to study at Fisk University.
In the summer of 1903, he agreed to teach at Tuskegee Institute, but by then, Du Bois had already begun to question the leadership of Tuskegee’s founder, Booker T. Washington. In his seminal work, “The Souls of Black Folk,” published that year, Du Bois nicknamed Washington’s 1895 speech “the Atlanta Compromise,” characterizing it as a tacit agreement by African-Americans to demand less and depend on themselves more.
According to “Up From History,” Robert J. Norrell’s biography of Washington, Du Bois charged that Washington’s policy “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.” Norrell rejects that characterization of Washington, and writes that in 1903, in the wake of such horrifying events as the lynching of Sam Hose, Du Bois was fully aware of the critical need for Washington’s diplomacy.
As an anti-war protester, Du Bois prefigured King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, with the result that he was similarly harassed by federal agents. In 1951, after promoting a petition to ban nuclear weapons, Du Bois was arrested, handcuffed and indicted by federal agents, who charged him with being an agent of the Soviet Union.
“The Justice Department saw Du Bois’s petition as a threat to national security,” wrote the Boston Review in 2017. “They thought it was communist propaganda meant to encourage American pacifism in the face of Soviet aggression.”
Du Bois was not, in fact, a Soviet agent, and he was acquitted for lack of evidence. But the damage had been done.
“It ruined his spirit,” said Barbara Harris Combs, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Clark Atlanta. In addition, Du Bois felt betrayed when the NAACP and other allies didn’t come to his defense.
He believed in Pan-Africanism, and was invited to Ghana in 1961 to work on a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora. While he was there, the U.S. State Department declined to renew his passport, effectively barring him from returning home.
He died in Ghana on Aug. 27, 1963, at age 95. The next day, during the historic March on Washington back in the United States, Roy Wilkins asked the crowd of 200,000 for a moment of silence in memory of Du Bois.
The AJC Sepia W.E.B. Du Bois Reading List
W.E.B. Du Bois’ publishing history spans from his 1896 Harvard dissertation to books about African colonialism well into the 1960s. Between then, he wrote a host of books, articles, novels, essays and autobiographies, charting the development of Africa Americans.
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to ajc.com/news/atlanta-black-history/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.