By Daniel Rose
Americans love to celebrate birthdays.
A birthday is a legitimate occasion to acknowledge, to commemorate, to appraise an individual’s full stature, to contemplate the significance one life has had for others.
On February 13th each year, we celebrate the birthdate of W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest black individual America has produced, a formidable figure whose place on the “short list” of America’s all-time heroes is secure.
A prolific author, a crusading editor and a civil rights activist without peer, W.E.B. Du Bois unceasingly challenged America to live up to its unfulfilled promises in our Constitution; he caustically derided our churches for their discrimination against blacks and against women; he relentlessly admonished whites for their passivity in the face of injustice and exhorted blacks to protest more vigorously; and he fought uncompromisingly (though unsuccessfully) for America to be an international anti-war voice pledging never to use nuclear weapons that could eliminate life from our planet.
Born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to a biracial family in a relatively liberal community, Du Bois attended integrated local elementary and high school; and he then studied at Fisk University, at Harvard (graduating Summa Cum Laude) and at the University of Berlin. After returning from Europe, he completed his studies at Harvard, where he became the first African American to earn a Ph. D.
In 1899, as a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, he published “The Philadelphia Negro”, the nation’s first sociological case study of a black community. The detailed, empirical evidence in this landmark dissertation refuted the negative and destructive stereotypical portrayal of blacks so widely accepted throughout America. Its publication announced to the world that its author was not to be ignored.
In 1900, Du Bois attended the First Pan-African Conference, held in London, shortly before the
widely-heralded “Paris Exhibition of 1900”. At the Exhibition, Du Bois drafted a highly-praised letter (“Address to the Nations of the World”) that included his famous pronouncement, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the Color-line”. Later that year, Du Bois was the chief organizer of “The Exhibition of American Negroes” at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris. Hundreds of photographs – along with charts, graphs and maps – portrayed American blacks at their best; and Du Bois received a gold medal for the collection, which is now in Washington, D.C. in the Library of Congress.
In 1903, Du Bois published “The Souls of Black Folks”, an explosive collection of 14 eloquent essays designed to extol the genius and humanity of the black race. Quotations from this tour de force are memorable, and they evoked passionate discussion from commentors pro and con.
“The blacks of America need the right to vote, the right to a good education and the right to be treated with equality and justice”; “The granting of the ballot to the black man is a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could grant a wronged race”; “Teach workers to workers to work and teach thinkers to think”; “The need of the South is knowledge and culture”; “To make men, we must have ideals, the broad and pure and inspiring ends of learning; “We need education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning” “If the Negro wants to learn, he must teach himself”; “The inevitable problems of civilization the Negro must meet and must solve largely for himself”; “The function of the Negro college is clear; it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, before all of this, it must develop men.”
“The future of the South depends on the ability of the representatives of opposing views to see and to appreciate and to sympathize with each other’s position”; In Chapter XI, “Of the Passing of the First Born”, he recounted the death of his son Burghardt, who contracted diphtheria while white doctors in Atlanta refused to treat black patients.
In May of 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York. In 1910, at the Second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement
Of Colored People (NAACP). It was at the suggestion of Du Bois that the word “colored” was used rather than “black”. This was an early instance of what is now called “inclusivity”, and Du Bois felt that his use of “colored” encompassed “dark-skinned people everywhere”.
NAACP leaders offered Du Bois the position of Director of Publicity and Research, and he accepted in order to edit the group’s proposed monthly magazine, “The Crisis”. In the first issue of “The Crisis” Du Bois wrote that its aim was to present “those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today against colored people”.
When the silent film “The Birth of a Nation” premiered in 1915, Du Bois and the NAACP led the fight to ban the film because of its terrible portrayal of blacks. Their battle was not successful but the publicity drew many new supporters to the NAACP.
As America prepared to enter World War I in 1917, Joel Spingarn, Du Bois’s closest white friend, established a camp to train African Americans as officers in the largely segregated U.S. Army. This led to 600 black officers joining the Army in October, 1917.
In 1920, Du Bois published “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil”, his first autobiography, and it was then that he created a monthly children’s magazine, “The Brownies Book”, to encourage self-esteem among black children.
In 1925, Du Bois published his magnum opus, “Black Reconstruction in America”. By the 1960’s , this volume on the role of African Americans in our national development was widely accepted as the key text in revisionist black American historiography.
In 1936, Du Bois took a trip around the world, with visits to Germany, China and Japan. In Germany, he was appalled by the treatment of Jews, which on his return home he described as “an attack on civilization comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African American slave trade”.
In 1945, Du Bois was a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP that attended the conference in San Francisco at which the United Nations was established. That year he attended the fifth, and final, Pan-African congress, at which he met Kwame Nkrumah, the future President of Ghana, who would later invite him to Africa, and in 1960, the “Year of Africa”, he crossed the Atlantic to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana. On that visit, he spoke with the President about the creation of an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. In October of 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife moved to Ghana to begin work on the “Encyclopedia Africana”. His health declined, and on August 27, 1963, he died in Accra at 95. The following day, at the famous March On Washington, speaker Roy Wilkins asked the vast audience to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence, which they did.
After a state funeral on august 29-30, 1963, Du Bois was buried at the set of government in Accra; and in 1985, at another state ceremony, his body and that of his wife were re-interred at their home, which is today the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture.
The honors and awards that flowed to Du Bois, in his lifetime and posthumously, testify to his role in American life. That happy time will eventually occur, optimists like me believe, in our by then thoroughly integrated society, when variations in skin color will be considered as a “distinction, not a difference”, as hair color is today; and the American dream of “liberty and justice for all” will indeed prevail. And on that long-awaited day, no individual in our history will have been more instrumental in its achievement than W.E.B. Du Bois, whose birthday we celebrate each February 13th.