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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Henry
- Abraham Cahan
- Theodore
- W. E. B. Du Bois
- Sui Sin Far
- Henry James
- Sarah Morgan
Bryan Piatt
- Booker T.
- Edith Wharton
- Anzia Yezierska
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: W. E. B. Du Bois (c. 1868-1963)

Cleveland Advocate, Article
[5719] Cleveland Advocate, Article: Oppose "Birth of a Nation" (1915), courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

W. E. B. Du Bois Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
With the publication of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois emerged as the intellectual leader of a new generation of African American activists who broke with the leadership and views of Booker T. Washington. Declaring that blacks should no longer accept second-class citizenship and should instead fight for suffrage, civil equality, and the right to education, Du Bois sent out what at the time was a revolutionary call for change in the racial status quo. In doing so, he became simultaneously one of the most influential and controversial black people in America.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up far from the strife and racial divisions of the American South. Though he experienced discrimination as a child, it was not until he went south to attend Fisk University that he saw what he called "a world split into white and black halves, where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds." Moved by the situation that he saw in the South, he decided to devote his life to fighting against racial prejudice and effecting legal and social change for blacks in America. After graduating from Fisk, Du Bois went on to receive an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and to pursue advanced study in the emerging field of sociology at the University of Berlin.

When he returned to the United States in 1894, Du Bois found that in spite of his impressive academic record he could not get a permanent position at a major research university because of his race. Instead, he took a position teaching subjects outside his areas of interest at Wilberforce, a small all-black college in Ohio. In 1897 he left Wilberforce to take a temporary position at the University of Pennsylvania and later a permanent position at Atlanta University, where he conducted systematic, sociological studies of what was then termed "the Negro problem." But Du Bois's faith in the importance and efficacy of objective scientific inquiry was shaken by horrifying incidents of racial violence in the Reconstruction-era South. As he later put it, "one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist, while Negroes were being lynched, murdered, and starved." By the turn of the century, Du Bois had concluded that his scholarly studies were doing little to change the reality of everyday life for African Americans. Accordingly, he committed himself to more public political action.

One of Du Bois's first acts in his new role was to offer a strong critique of Booker T. Washington's position on African American rights. Espousing what often sounded like an acceptance of disenfranchisement, segregation, and second-class citizenship in exchange for low-level economic opportunities, Washington was popular with white audiences and had come to be regarded as the undisputed leader of the African American community. Although Du Bois had previously supported Washington's conciliatory philosophy, in The Souls of Black Folk he modified his position: "so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North and South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds . . . we must unceasingly and firmly oppose [him]." Du Bois's shift from supporting to challenging Washington was typical of what would become a pattern in his career: he changed his mind or modified his views on so many different topics and issues that his ideology can be difficult to characterize.

In 1905 Du Bois joined with other critics of Washington to form the first all-black protest movement in American history, the Niagara Movement, which was dedicated to direct action to end racial discrimination. By 1910, the Niagara Movement was folded into a new organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois was recruited to serve as the NAACP's director of publicity and research and was for many years the only African American among the organization's leadership. In this position, Du Bois edited the association's official magazine, Crisis, and reached an enormous audience with his message of civil equality and educational opportunity.

Increasingly radical in his views and at odds with the leadership of the NAACP, Du Bois was forced to resign as editor of Crisis in 1934. He then began to focus his energies on working for broader, worldwide race reform and international understanding, leading a series of Pan-African conferences, working with the United Nations, and serving as chairman of the Peace Information Center. Du Bois eventually became convinced that communism offered the greatest hope for racial equality and world peace, a position that made him extremely controversial and alienated him from many more main-stream African American organizations. In 1961 he joined the Communist party and left the United States to live in Ghana, where he died at the age of ninety-five. Throughout his long career, Du Bois was an untiring champion of both African American and human rights in the United States and around the world.

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