by Gloricelly Franceschi
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A descendent of African American, French, and Dutch ancestors, he demonstrated his intellectual gifts at an early age, graduating from high school at age 16. Named valedictorian and only black in his graduating class of 12. He won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he excelled and saw for the first time the condition of Southern blacks.
Du Bois grew up with more privileges than most blacks living in the U.S. at that time. He had suffered neither severe economic hardship nor repeated encounters with blatant racism. Du Bois began to develop his racial consciousness and the desire to help improve conditions for all blacks. He began following reports about the increasing frequency of lynching, calling each racially motivated killing "a scar" upon my soul.
Du Bois received his bachelor's degree from Fisk University in 1888, and won a scholarship to attend Harvard University. Harvard, however, considered his high school education and Fisk degree inadequate preparation for a master's program. He was registered as an undergraduate student. He earned his second BA in 1890 and then enrolled in Harvard's graduate school. He earned his degree and then his doctoral degree in 1895, becoming the first black to receive that degree from Harvard.
He became a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University in 1897 and initiated a series of studies as head of the school's "Negro Problem" program. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois sought to describe the black experience in America. He wrote, "One ever feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Du Bois wrote some 20 books and along the way criticized both Booker T. Washington for his strategy of accommodation and compromise with whites in both politics and education as well as Marcus Garvey for his black separatist stance and for leading the "Back to Africa" movement. In 1905, Du Bois helped to convene the Niagara Movement. The movement grew out of a meeting of 29 black leaders who gathered to discuss segregation and black political rights. These included equality of economic and educational opportunities for blacks, and end to segregation, and the prohibition of discrimination in courts, public facilities, and trade unions. This particular movement led the way to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP (1909) was an organization made up of black and white intellectuals opposed to the nonconfrontational tactics of B.T Washington. Although the organization was overwhelmingly white they elected Du Bois as one of its founding officers. He was hired to head the NAACP publicity and research efforts. He was also named editor of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis that soon became the most important national voice for the advancement of black civil rights.
In 1934, Du Bois resigned from the NAACP staff because he was unwilling to advocate racial integration in all aspects of life, a position adopted by the NAACP. He argued that blacks should join together, apart from whites, to start businesses and industries that would allow blacks to advance themselves economically. He returned in 1944 to head its research efforts, but was dismissed in 1948 after a dispute with the NAACP's executive director, in which Du Bois accused the director of selling out the cause of black civil rights for his own political advancement.
After WW II, Du Bois became increasingly involved in promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament. In 1950 he became chairman of the Peace Information Center in NY City, a group whose stated objective was to gather signatures in the U.S. for a global petition to ban the use of nuclear weapons. In July of that year, after collecting one million signatures, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson labeled the Peace Center a Communist-front organization. Du Bois was charged as an agent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Although he once supported many positions of the Socialist Party, he was not a member of either the Socialist or Communist Party. He was acquitted after a highly publicized trial. He was denied passports to travel outside of the U.S. and was continuously harassed by the FBI, the police, and a host of government agencies. Ultimately these experiences left him embittered and sparked even further his battles with the U.S. government.
In 1958 the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that the State Department could not demand the signing of loyalty oaths as a basis for issuing passports. When Du Bois received his passport, he traveled to USSR, where he met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and visited Communist China, a country that was on the State Department's banned list. In 1959, upon his arrival to the U.S. Du Bois's passport was revoked. That same year, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.
In 1961 Du Bois moved to the newly independent West African nation of Ghana. In an act of defiance just before his departure, he joined the American Communist Party. Once in Ghana, he began work on the Encyclopedia Africana, a reference work on Africans and people of African descent throughout the world. When his passport expired he applied to have it renewed, but it was denied by the U.S. government because he was a registered Communist. He renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana, shortly before his 95th birthday. He died a few months after Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah deemed him "the first citizen of Africa."
Du Bois did not only become a role model of an exemplary persevering black student but also led the way for others to pursue education, equality and ultimately encouraged blacks to fight for civil rights in a society which was then so infested with racism and segregation.
Du Bois influence on the field of adult education is tremendous.
- At an early age, he learned the importance of researching facts concerning his people and of developing a racial consciousness as well as a desire to help improve conditions.
- He was a pioneer in that he helped open doors that were ordinarily closed to blacks (ex. the case Harvard University, first black to receive a Doctorate Degree).
- He understood the power of numbers and used that very knowledge to lead a series of people to organize and protest against social injustice.
- Through his books, lectures, and publishing of magazines, Du Bois educated both blacks & whites on topics not otherwise discussed like the injustices suffered by colored folks. He researched and wrote extensively on lynchings, segregation, and black peoples' experiences with racism.
- His strong feelings against injustice led him to battle with the U.S. government. This would serve as an example for the civil rights movement as well as other movements that were to follow including the Black Power movement.
May 9, 2000