People & Events: W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1963
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century, was an editor, historian, sociologist, novelist, civil rights leader, socialist, and pan-Africanist. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois studied at Fisk University in Nashville, Harvard University (B.A. 1890, M.A. 1891, Ph. D. 1896), and the University of Berlin. He taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio, and then, in 1897, began teaching at Atlanta University.
Du Bois's experience in the South caused him to reject the accommodationist methods of Booker T. Washington, and to press for public protest against racial violence and discrimination. He advocated the development of an intellectual elite, which he called the "talented tenth," of African Americans to provide leadership for the race, and argued for an aggressive strategy toward black integration into American political and economic life. In 1903 Du Bois published his first collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk. In it he said, "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," and dismissed the accommodation to discrimination advocated by Booker T. Washington. "[When] Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice," Du Bois wrote, "he does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds...we must unceasingly and firmly oppose [him]."
Du Bois was an activist as well as an intellectual. In 1905 he helped to found the Niagara Movement, and in 1910, its successor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As the editor of the NAACP's publication, The Crisis, for some twenty-four years, Du Bois published the work of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and other Harlem Renaissance writers as well as his own increasingly radical opinions.
Personal and political antagonism between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey was formidable and long-standing. The ideological differences between the two men are often characterized as integration vs. separatism and the merits of elite vs. working class leadership (although the latter is somewhat obscured by Garvey's pro-capitalist outlook and Du Bois's Marxism); but both in their lifetimes supported the ideas of economic nationalism, pan-Africanism, and the preservation of a black cultural heritage.
Antagonism between the two men started almost immediately upon Garvey's arrival in the United States. Garvey hand-delivered a pair of tickets for his first public speaking engagement and an invitation for Du Bois to chair the meeting to Du Bois at the offices of The Crisis, but later received only a perfunctory note of acknowledgement from Du Bois's secretary which indicated Du Bois would not be able to accept the invitation because he was out of town. Garvey would take surprised note, when he visited The Crisis office, of the absence of visible black staff. In fact, The Crisis was largely white; as director of publications and research, Du Bois was the only African American among its early officers. This fact would soon become a weapon in the hands of a propagandist as skillful as Garvey.
At first, W.E.B. Du Bois gave tepid support to Garvey's ideas for black independence and to the idea of Garvey's Black Star Line. But by 1920 Du Bois had become deeply suspicious of Garvey's methods, ideas, and motives, and published his own damning expose of Black Star Line finances in The Crisis. The animosity between the two men became personal and venomous. W.E.B. Du Bois called Garvey the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race -- either "a lunatic or a traitor." He said Garvey "suffered from serious defects of temperament and training" and described him as " a little, fat, black man, ugly...with a big head." Garvey countered by calling Du Bois the Negro "misleader" and said Du Bois was "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro...a mulatto. Why in fact," Garvey wrote, "he is a monstrosity."
Ironically, Du Bois shared Garvey's reverence for Africa, and was himself committed to the cause of African freedom. Visiting Africa in the 1920s, Du Bois wrote that his chief question was whether "Negroes are to lead in the rise of Africa or whether they must always and everywhere follow the guidance of white folk." He organized the first Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919 and helped coordinate other congresses in 1921, 1923, and 1927. Du Bois moved increasingly to the left in his political thinking, embracing a Marxist analysis of black labor in the United States and eventually advocating a "nation within a nation" form of black economic separatism or cooperation during the Great Depression. In 1944, in his mid-seventies, Du Bois declared that he would spend "the remaining years of [his] active life" in the fight against imperialism. He helped organize the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England, which elected him its international president. He was dismissed from the NAACP in 1948 and became the vice chair of the Council on African Affairs, which monitored political events in Africa and supported nascent African liberation movements.
Because of his growing radicalism, Du Bois was subjected to increasing governmental restrictions and harassment, just as Garvey had been before him. In 1951, at the height of the Cold War, he was indicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. Though he was acquitted, the United States government refused to issue Du Bois a passport, barring him from foreign travel until 1958. In 1960 Du Bois attended his friend Kwame Nkrumah's inauguration as the first president of Ghana; and the next year, Du Bois moved there. He became a Ghanaian citizen and died in Accra in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington, the seminal event organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.