An Introduction to W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a Black sociologist, racial justice advocate, and socialist who lived in the period of American history between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of desegregation.

Born in 1868, Du Bois was raised by his mother after his father fled the family when Du Bois was two years old. He grew up in a racially tolerant Massachusetts town where he played with white classmates at school. At 16 years old, Du Bois graduated valedictorian of his high school and went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. During one period of his studies, Du Bois spent time abroad in Berlin, where he reported being treated as an equal among his academic colleagues.

Du Bois’s first job out of university was at Wilberforce University. There, he met Nina Gomer through a class of his, which she attended as a student. The two married and had two children together.

Upon graduation, Du Bois was also offered a job at the Tuskegee Institute, but turned it down due to differences with its founder, Booker T. Washington, about whether to center self-reliance or civil rights in the struggle to improve Black America.

In 1902, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement to speak out against Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, which proposed that Southern Blacks tolerate segregation, disenfranchisement, and White political supremacy in exchange for educational funding for vocational training. Du Bois maligned the Compromise as “accommodationist” and argued that true racial uplift required Black political participation to redress America’s racist laws. Against Washington’s claims of impracticality, Du Bois defended the value of a broad liberal arts education to provide Blacks with instruction in ethics, history, and rhetoric, which he regarded as indispensable in the fight against systemic racism. While Du Bois espoused the social darwinist position that only a “talented tenth” of Blacks were fit to lead this fight, he sought the entire Black population’s participation. Du Bois helped found the NAACP in 1909 as a more politically oriented racial justice organization.

Economics was perhaps the central part of Du Bois’s campaign against racism. As a reader of Marx, Du Bois concurred that the dominant ideologies of society — racial and otherwise — are weaponized by the ruling class to protect their wealth and power. The economic interests of Southern plantation owners, who sought to maintain their cheap source of slave labor despite the Declaration of Independence’s notion that “all men are created equal,” led to the creation of African American racial stereotypes to justify Blacks’ continued enslavement. Similarly, the threat of black-white worker unity led these same plantation owners to enact laws that privileged whiteness to grant poor white workers what Du Bois calls a “psychological wage” in the absence of a dignified economic wage to prevent whites from uniting with Blacks against the ruling class. This social and legal prejudice against Blacks, undertaken to preserve the lucrative institution of slavery, intensified as calls for abolition grew. Even after the Civil War, the economic incentives of exploiting black labor and keeping the working class racially divided remained, which led to the era of Jim Crow discrimination in which Du Bois was living and writing.

Du Bois applies his economic analysis of racism to the international sphere in the essay The African Roots of War (1915). He writes that capitalism’s demand to accumulate wealth motivated the colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, which could be tapped for cheap labor, land, and natural resources. He attributes WWI to the imperial ambitions of the European world powers and cites the Berlin Conference in which Africa was split up among the colonial nations as a foreshadowing of the War. Striking at the heart of the issue with an economic system that values profit over life, Du Bois writes,

“What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa. How can love of humanity appeal as a motive to nations whose love of luxury is built on the inhuman exploitation of human beings.”

Du Bois’s proposed solution is a multi-nation, multi-racial working class coalition that fights to secure land, education, and self-determination for all.

Du Bois’s radical advocacy landed him in a 1951 legal battle in which he was tried as an agent of the Soviet Union. A year earlier, he had run for Senate on the socialist-sympathizing American Labor Party ticket. Also in 1950, he had begun to chair the anti-war Peace Information Center. Although the FBI had kept a file on Du Bois for nearly a decade, the indictment came after Du Bois had circulated a nuclear disarmament petition. A victim of the McCarthyist era, Du Bois was subjected to a trial but quickly acquitted after Albert Einstein volunteered to testify on his behalf. Nevertheless, Du Bois’s reputation was marred and his passport was revoked for eight years. Du Bois, then in his eighties, struggled to make enough money to buy groceries. He observed that many of his Black colleagues at the NAACP chose not to support him while working class whites and blacks alike did.

When Du Bois regained his travel privileges eight years later, he and his second wife Shirley Graham travelled the world, including to China and Russia, whose living conditions Du Bois viewed favorably. In 1961, in an act of protest against the Supreme Court decision to uphold a law that required communists to register with the US government, Du Bois became an official member of the Communist Party of the United States. In the last of his three autobiographies, Du Bois stated that,

“I mean by Communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.”

Also in 1961, Du Bois moved to Ghana with Graham to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. He passed away in Ghana two years later at the age of 95.

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