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Recalling the greatness of W.E.B. Du Bois

Herb Boyd | 10/31/2013, 1:43 p.m.
It is possible to string three lives together and gather the full expanse of African-American history
W.E.B. Du Bois

Amazingly, Du Bois accomplished each one of his goals, because his knowledge and contributions in science and literature certainly enlightened and raised the thinking of people all over the world. There were no limits to his interests, imagination or energy. Each day found him fully committed to the issues, and to follow his life is to be in touch with every major event of his lifetime. Organizationally, he was the main progenitor of the Niagara Movement; though existing for only a brief spell in the early 1900s, it paved the way for Du Bois’ pivotal role in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Always endowed with a keen regard for communications, Du Bois conceived The Crisis, the NAACP’s house organ that, from 1910 to the moment, has been a clarion voice for African-Americans, and with Du Bois at the helm, it was indispensable in the struggle for civil and human rights. On average, Du Bois must have written at least 3,000 words a day on any one of his numerous projects—his editorials, articles, reviews, poems, novels or essays, several of which are collected in “The Souls of Black Folk,” earning him national acclaim. His toxic dismissal of Washington stands as the centerpiece in the anthology, and from that moment on, the debate between him and Washington has been one of irresolvable potency.

In an almost Zelig-like fashion, Du Bois was seemingly at the center of or near the periphery of practically every significant event of his lifetime. During World War I, his editorial in The Crisis, “Close Ranks,” set a tone of commitment to the fight against fascism and the temporary suspension of the fight against Jim Crow. In 1935, his voluminous “Black Reconstruction” was at the forefront of the legion of revision scholars determined to establish a new paradigm in the study of race relations, particularly slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Marxian analysis utilized in “Black Reconstruction” was by no means incidental; it would continue his pursuit of scientific socialism that culminated near the end of his life with his joining the Communist Party.

There is no way to capture even the preface of Du Bois’ endless achievements in this limited space; even the formidable scholar David Levering Lewis discovered he needed two volumes to gather the warp and woof of Du Bois, to begin to sort through the piles and piles of papers and books the polymath left behind.

When Roy Wilkins announced to the crowd assembled at the National Mall that the great Du Bois had died, a pall swept across the crowd. To be sure, there were thousands there who had no idea who the man was, but even they knew he must have been important for Wilkins to stop the celebration with a bit of sad news.

Yes, it was a solemn moment, and the soul and spirit of Du Bois’ departure may have been the overarching halo that blessed the occasion and pushed King to the very height of his oratorical genius.