It is possible to string three lives together and gather the full expanse of African-American history. Those lives would include Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The cracks in this chronology could be ably filled with the lives and times of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Marcus Garvey, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
None on this illustrious list—though merely arbitrary—resonates with such passion and commitment as Du Bois; and by the way, he was 95 when his productive life finally expired, giving his longevity yet another first on this list.
We were reminded of the anniversary of Du Bois’ death by the eminent writer and esteemed professor emeritus William Branch, who forwarded us a copy of Du Bois’ obituary, published in this paper in 1963, and posted from Ghana. “For three long miles, the procession wound its way … the military band supplied funeral music,” said Branch, an eyewitness to the state funeral. “I saw hundreds of tear-stained faces among the countless thousands that filed the route.”
If we are a few weeks delinquent in paying tribute to Du Bois, who died in Ghana on the eve of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, let’s blame it on the jamboree of 50th anniversaries that were deserving distractions, though it was negligent on our part not to at least give a nod to a man many deem the most outstanding writer and thinker of his day—Black or white. An example of his versatility and prominence is found in countless American anthologies and bibliographies, whether academic, scientific, literary, political or encyclopedic. And “encyclopedic” is perhaps the best word to use when attempting to sum up Du Bois’ extraordinary mind and gifts.
Here are a few opening words about him from the prestigious “Oxford Companion to African American Literature”: “Essayist, novelist, journalist, critic and perhaps the pre-eminent African American scholar-intellectual.” In the “Encyclopedia of the American Left,” Du Bois is called “undoubtedly the most influential Black intellectual of the 20th century and one of America’s finest historians.”
While these are accurate reflections of Du Bois’ brilliance, his matchless research skills and diligence, they only approximate the fullness of his abilities and the fullness of his remarkably productive life. Unlike Douglass and Washington, whose lives intersect with his, Du Bois was not born a slave in the South, but free in Great Barrington, Mass., where he experienced neither the bondage nor hardships of racism that marked the lives of Douglass and Washington.
Crowning his sterling academic career was his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1896, and the publication of his dissertation, the prodigious “Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.” This entry was the first in the Harvard Historical Series. He achieved another first in 1899 with “The Philadelphia Negro,” which is seen as a model to sociological studies of urban communities.
As you can see, Du Bois was barely out of his 20s but well on the way to living up to the pledge he wrote in his diary when he was 25: “These are my plans: to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus, to raise my race; Or perhaps to raise a visible empire in Africa, thro’ England, France or Germany. I wonder what will be the outcome? Who knows?”
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.