Conversation: David L. Lewis

January 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: We are joined by David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of History at Rutgers University. The book is the second and final volume of his Pulitzer prize-winning biography of W.E.B. Dubois. This volume, “The Fight for Equality and the American Century: 1919 through 1963,” covers the second half of Dubois’ life, charting 44 years of the culture and politics of race in the United States. Welcome, Mr. Lewis.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: You won the Pulitzer Prize, as I mentioned, for the first half of this massive biography. Why was there a need for more?

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: Well, because I hope to see the second Pulitzer. There was another 50 years of his life, roughly, to tell. I stopped volume one in 1919, as you indicate, at the end of World War I, when Dubois was midstream in his life. He would live, until 1963, a life as full as the years antecedent to the time that I interrupted. And because, as the subtitle of this volume indicates, “The Fight for Equality and the American Century,” I wanted to take Dubois out of what was not certainly parochial concerns about civil rights for one group of people, but quite focused concerns about one group of people, and put him in a larger forum in which he becomes concerned about equality and economic justice for people of all colors everywhere.

GWEN IFILL: W.E.B. Dubois is one of those figures who has been defined by different generations in different ways. Some people know him as the person who talked about the talented tenth of talented Negroes. Other people know him as someone… In fact, have lately come to define him as someone who is actually more of a… had more of a bootstraps mentality; was not as radical as other leaders of today. But in fact you found… or you wrote that that was… none of that was really the case, that was not the sum total of this man.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: No, but it’s true to say that there is enough in capacious life for everybody. I’ve heard Dubois’ name invoked as an enemy of affirmative action, someone who might favor vouchers. Those things seem quite unlikely to me, but I concede that a life as protean as Dubois’, in which perhaps every decade there is a certain degree of reinvention, that there are inconsistencies above, of course, the basic consistency of his concern for the widening and deepening of rights for people of color and for economic justice for all people.

GWEN IFILL: So if you picked and choose… chose different parts of his life, you could find a time when he advocated segregation and a time he advocated integration, and a time he was a big capitalist and a time when he was a big Communist.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: Well, he never advocated segregation. That was a very controversial series of articles he wrote in which he was saying in the…

GWEN IFILL: “Social reconstruction” was the term.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: …of the Depression, right, when things were falling apart, not very good for people of whatever color, that one strategy that was worth exploring for African Americans was a kind of social democracy within the group. And so it was not so much segregation as a kind of cooperativist movement amongst African Americans who prepared themselves for survival in what he thought was a fatally flawed and dying capitalist regime.

GWEN IFILL: Yet W.E.B. Dubois, like other larger-than-life figures, had these great flaws as well. He spent a lot of his time, it seemed, at war with various people who had been friends or weren’t friends. What was it about him? Was he severely flawed or was it just that he just believed so strongly in his own beliefs?

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: Well, I think the latter, that here is a man of great principles and great inflexibility who was not a politician, but who sees with a kind of Calvinist insistence that America is an exceptional place and that it’s very exceptionalism imposes a greater duty to live up to those opportunities; an enormously wealthy country with people who were divided by the artificial wedges of race and class. And he thought that if he talked about economic justice and talked about civil rights insistently, that that would tweak the conscience of his fellow Americans. And then when the consciences were insufficiently tweaked, he thought that there were other avenues — economic– which would motor justice and redistribution of wealth, because he became increasingly to view the problem of race in the 20th century as an economic problem as much as a problem of color.

GWEN IFILL: He was also quite the pan-Africanist, and in fact when he died, died living abroad in Ghana with his passport revoked, actually. Yet he had this ongoing tussle, this war, this struggle with Marcus Garvey, who was certainly very well known for his pan-Africanist views.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: He did, and that’s a chapter in which I expend as much salience as I can in pointing out that that was a dispute which perhaps need not have happened. It was a dispute based upon personality rather than the content of ideas, because if you look at the page, the men were singing from the same pan-Africanist hymnal. Later, Dubois, in fact, acknowledged that there had been a misunderstanding which was premised more on dislike, personal dislike, than upon real concepts about changing things for people of color.

GWEN IFILL: How much of that was Dubois’ thought that he ought to be the one, the great definer of what the arguments would be? Someone… You describe it in your book that someone once described the crisis at the NAACP Magazine, that he was editor of for so many years, as… one of his critics described it as “one man’s soliloquy”; there was no other room for another world view than Dubois’.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: Well, I don’t think he was as exclusionary as that, but it is true that there is a grand monologue that one can be heard through the decades uttered by Dubois. For me as a biographer, a man who is as contrary as Dubois, who is as principled, who is as flawed– to use your word I think is apposite– is a wonderful challenge. He… it’s seldom that you have a life that spans the greater part of the 20th century that is emblematic of so many issues that are central to our time, and will continue to be. He said, you remember, that the problem of race would be the problem of the 20th century. It may well be that the 21st century is one in which race continues, but the problem of economic well being and a kind of capitalism that is unfettered by government, by consumer forces, is as great a problem, and in Dubois’ late pronouncements, he very much focused on that aspect of inequality. And so there is so much in the life, that you really are writing about America as you write about him with his contrariety and flaws.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about his prescience — about looking forward to racism as the problem of the 20th century. He also, however, seemed kind of sad when he died; was considered, I think– there is a phrase in the book– as “a proud pariah.”

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: That’s a nice phrase. I suppose it is in the book, and there is verity in that description. I resist tragedy, though. At the end of the day, I think Dubois illustrates a profoundly inquisitorial mind, brilliant racialized mind in the racial… racialized world who won’t give up and who is never satisfied even when the ideals that he’s espoused are beginning to come to pass. It’s at that point that he says, characteristic of the true intellectual, “what is going to be the shortfall of that? How can we make better what we are getting that we demanded?” And that puzzled many of his allies, as you point out, people who had marched shoulder to shoulder with him. They’d say, “my goodness, it looks like the nirvana is here. It looks like the civil rights movement is reifying the things we want.” Dubois would say, “ah, desegregation, yes; but what about the economic insufficiencies that will flow from the dismantlement of white supremacy in the South and the policies of racism in the North?” And indeed, that prophecy is one that should detain us today.

GWEN IFILL: That is my final question. So that is the imprint that he left on today’s civil rights movement?

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS: I think so. In skepticism, inquisitiveness, Martin Luther King is invoked as, you know, saying that people must be judged by the content of their character. But in a world today where we are supposedly moving beyond race, I think you would hear Dubois modify that and say that people of color must be judged by the content of their politics.

GWEN IFILL: David Levering Lewis, thank you so much for joining us.