WBW Honors: W.E.B. Du Bois

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When slavery was finally outlawed during the Civil War, few Americans took the removal of the slaves’ shackles to mean that the African should be accorded equal status with the white man. Yet, in 1903, just 40 years after the Emancipation, one man dared to envision such a future. W.E.B. Du Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” made its author the foremost Black thinker, writer and sociologist of the early 20th Century. More importantly, Du Bois initiated the “great debate” -integration versus segregation, the insistence of equality versus the accommodation of racism – that set in motion a chain of events, ultimately leading to the election of first Black President of the United States. The very election of Barack Obama is a vindication of the convictions and tireless work of W.E.B. Du Bois.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, MA, on February 23rd, 1868. Du Bois attended Fisk University, and became the first Black American in history to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His intellectual upbringing informed his philosophies, as later expressed in “The Souls of Black Folk.” Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the way that Black Americans led their lives as human beings, yet second-class citizens, in an America that was born on the concept that all men are created equal. Du Bois believed that the path to liberty would lie in educating the top echelon, or “Talented Tenth,” of African-Americans to lead the rest.

Du Bois’s main adversaries were Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. Garvey believed that the quest for parity with white Americans was foolish, and proposed to repatriate freed Blacks to Africa. Washington believed that Du Bois’s tactics would antagonize whites and lead to a disastrous race war. Du Bois called Washington “the Great Accomodator.” Not surprisingly, Washington was favored among the white leaders of his day.

Du Bois was one of the initial founders of the National Association For The Advancement of Colored People, and thus laid the groundwork not only for the Civil Rights movement, but the very idea of partnership with liberal whites to achieve socio-political results.

Du Bois became more radical towards the end of his life, joining the Communist Party in the 1961 at the age of 93, and expatriating to Ghana shortly thereafter. W.E.B. Du Bois died in 1963, just one day before the March on Washington.

Du Bois’s intellect, his insistence on equal rights for Black Americans, and his willingness to form a coalition with whites to achieve his ends formed the model by which Barack Obama ascended to the highest office in the land, and in so doing, liberating us all from the tyranny of racism.

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