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David Levering Lewis : W.E.B. Du Bois
David Levering Lewis Dubois was heading South, boards a train and is told that he can't occupy the seat for which he has a ticket. He protests and it's to no avail. I'm not sure whether he in fact left the train or whether he finally was forced into the Jim Crow coach, but, in any case, this was a new experience for Dubois and it is a kind of marker along the road to the totality of apartheid. He wants to sue, and the saga of that suit never happening itself speaks volumes for, by then, the collusion North and South of business interests and political interests, involving, indeed, even the "leader" then of the race, quote-unquote, Booker Washington who was to be the intercessory, the intermediary in facilitating a suit before the courts in protest of the segregation of Dubois, which never ultimately happened.

In 1900 we find Dubois professor of sociology at Atlanta University one of the few places where he could get a position, despite the fact that he was a graduate of Fisk, of Harvard, of the University of Berlin, indeed had the first PhD in history earned by an African American and, indeed, his dissertation was the first in the Harvard historical series, quite a distinction until recently, one would have said. But here he is, professor of sociology in what was quite a good college in Atlanta and his stewardship of the Atlanta studies, annual conference which produced papers which were published, has made him by then, even though he was in the South in the small college recognized as one of the leading sociologists in America and certainly in the South the most significant scholar in the field.

When Dubois took his professorship at Atlanta University after a brief stint at the University of Pennsylvania, where significantly enough, he wrote a pathfinding work in sociology called "The Philadelphia Negro", which used empirical, the techniques that were fresh and new to the field of sociology. When he arrived two years later in Atlanta he came with a conviction that though he was unable to find a post appropriate in a Northern institution -- Southern institutions, of course, white, were out of the question.

An African American, educated with a PhD from Harvard with training abroad in Germany, which was the ultra of training for Americans at that time, could not be hired in an American university of the first rank, certainly not one that was white. He came close at the University of Pennsylvania but it was not possible. Indeed, one of the ironies is that the second position that he was offered was at Tuskegee Institute, the school presided over by soon to be his nemesis. So Atlanta University he goes to, but he remains convinced, as he told the American Academy of Political Science in Philadelphia in a famous address that knowledge what does it change society, that more and more sociological research would have a potent effect in transforming the mores and the institutions and the prejudices that he and others of his race, and other races, indeed -- this is a time of blatant anti-semitism as well -- confronted.

Dubois' belief in the transformative power of social science knowledge remained intact and really animated his activities until the year before 1900 when a quite appalling lynching occurred on the outskirts of Atlanta of a farmer named Sam Hoes. As the details reached Dubois of this barbarity, he set out to deliver a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, but passed the storefront in which the dismembered parts of Mr. Hoes were on display, he stopped, riveted to the spot and went back to the campus, didn't send the letter, but decided that social science wouldn't transform society, that politics would and decides that he'll have to surrender his tenure as a professor and commit himself to a political agenda.

Dubois believed in the power of social science to make a big difference, to transform the society. He kept saying, "Americans are thinking wrong about race because they don't know and we have more Atlanta University studies, conferences and more papers on labor and on infant mortality and on the whole gamut of the life of black people. It'll make a difference." That commitment remained with him until the summer of 1899.

What he's done, the books, the studies, yes, those have great value, but they are inadequate to the task of changing American race relations. And this is a man who thinks big. He's just not a college professor; he's a college professor whose books are going to change America and after the Sam Hoes incident, trauma, he decides, indeed, politics and he with politics as a propagandist will make a difference. When he needed to be a detached social scientist, the reflexes were still there and he was up to it but I think it's fair to say that we're into decades of militancy through his pen journalism and propagandizing for the cause of human rights.

Dubois becomes convinced that the cure for changing society's ills is not to tell them about them, to write about them, but to convince them of the existency of the need to change. So he comes to see that the point is that the cure for social ills is not to tell people the truth, but to convince people of the truth that they must follow in order to change society.

Dubois was present at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and was the fellow who bought most of the artifacts that were installed in the Negro pavilion and they were to show the remarkable progress the African Americans had sustained in the South and he had selected examples of that progress himself in conjunction with, as associate at the Library of Congress, an African American. And so effective was the display, that he in fact was awarded a gold medal. That was, for him, quite a kudo because the, achievements of the African American had been so caricatured and discounted in Southern lore and in Southern propaganda that the opportunity to have those modest achievements recognized in the venue of Paris with the international audience there was an accomplishment of some meaning and merit. And from there, he crossed the channel to participate in the pivotal Pan African Conference of that year in London.

If anyone has spoken with the poignancy that has no peer about the asphyxiation of one's ideals and one's aspirations and, indeed, really the stuff of one's life under segregation, Jim Crow, it's Dubois. There is a passage where he describes, we were talking earlier, about his own experience boarding a train and being forced into the Jim Crow accommodations, but then he fictionalizes it in a much later book, Dark Water, and he describes the experience of a comely woman who boards a train and who is forced into these appalling condition and the vividness with which he retrieves that experience for that woman for his readers.

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