W. E. B. Du Bois: The Prime Minister of the State We Never Had

Bill Strickland – University of Massachusetts at Amherst

To most Americans, and especially to most black people, the name W. E. B. Du Bois triggers a moment of iconic recognition, for he is one of the most legendary figures of black history. Pressed to explain who they think Du Bois was, some will say that he was "the father of Pan-Africanism" or a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor, for nearly a quarter of a century, of its magazine, The Crisis. Others seem primarily to link Du Bois to Booker T. Washington, citing him as Washington's staunchest and most unremitting critic. He was this and much more. Du Bois's life spanned nearly a century, from 1868 to 1963, representing approximately one-quarter of all the years that black people have lived on America's shores, and Du Bois's travails, hopes, and rejections represent as well, in microcosm, nearly all the struggles and experiences that black people have waged—and endured—in their effort to overcome racial inequality (and worse) in American society.


The Early Years

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington, the same year that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States was passed to legally guarantee the rights of citizenship to black Americans. But this constitutional "right" was swiftly abrogated by the United States Supreme Court: first in 1883 when it overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and again in 1896 when, in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the court sanctioned segregation as legally permissible under the myth of "separate but equal." America's ambivalent relationship to black people was thus the context for Du Bois's birth.

Yet Du Bois's childhood in Great Barrington, in his own recollections, bordered on the ideal. He regarded himself as a "New Englander" and "a Republican" and later wrote, "Had it not been for the race problem early thrust upon me and enveloping me, I should have probably been an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order and of the economic development into which I was born."

It was also in Great Barrington that Du Bois became a fledgling journalist. At the age of fifteen, he began writing about events in the town and about the life and times of the black community for T. Thomas Fortune's two New York weeklies, The New York Globe and The Freeman. He continued to write for the next two years, submitting some twenty-four articles in all.

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The Fisk Years

In 1885, after graduating as valedictorian of his senior class the year before, Du Bois left Great Barrington to venture south and study at Fisk University, the renowned black school in Nashville, Tennessee. It was in Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, that Du Bois, two decades after the Civil War, would truly discover "the soul of black folks." And there that he would be moved by "the sorrow songs" of a people still living in the shadow of slavery.

That experience kindled Du Bois's racial consciousness and cultivated in him a racial empathy that would crystallize his identity as a "race man." In the post-Reconstruction South Du Bois discovered his people, his identity, and his cause:

I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and opportunity.

With that new racial clarity, the question became, how could Du Bois best represent and alleviate blacks' common plight? The answer seemed to be: through the written word. Not surprisingly, the vehicle to which he turned was his student newspaper, The Fisk Herald. He became the paper's editor in his junior year and proceeded to write about the life of southern blacks and whites from his own perspective. However, in 1887, Du Bois assumed the role not of racial reporter but of racial spokesman by writing "An Open Letter to the Southern People."

In addressing his appeal to the outside, overbearing white South, Du Bois to some degree anticipated the later "Appeal to the World" of the Pan-African Conference. But the message itself, to a startling extent, mirrors the themes of conciliation and racial interdependence that Booker T. Washington was to make famous almost ten years later at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 in his historic speech "Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are."

The similarities indeed approach the uncanny for, like Washington, Du Bois alleges that the interests of southern blacks and southern whites "are one. . . .Let us then, recognizing our common interests (for it is unnecessary to speak of our dependence upon you) work for each other's interest, casting behind us unreasonable demands on the one hand and unreasonable prejudice on the other. We are not foolish enough to demand social equality or amalgamation, knowing full well that inexorable laws of nature regulate and control such movements. What we demand is to be recognized as men, and to be given those civil rights which pertain to our manhood."

Like Washington, Du Bois was prepared to bargain away social equality and even impute racial differences (presumably to superior genetic endowments, i.e., "laws of nature"). But, unlike Washington, he mildly criticized southern mores, i.e., "unreasonable prejudice"; and in language quite at odds with Washington's respectful discourse with whites, he demanded that blacks be "recognized as men." Du Bois's position was inconsistent: how can one bargain away social equality on the one hand but insist upon gender, civic, and human respect on the other? He also ended his letter in a quite un-Washington-like way by warning of a possible racial confrontation:

I might name many ways in which your policy toward us could be broadened to our mutual advantage in the end, but such is not my purpose; it is not against particular acts that I inveigh, but against the spirit that prompts them: it is not that I care so much about riding in a smoking car, as the fact that behind the public opinion that compels me to ride there, is a denial of my manhood... If you correct this evil you will find that in the future, as in the past, you will have in us staunch friends in sunshine and storm; if you do not the breach can only widen, until a vast throng of fellow-citizens will come to regard each other as natural foes.

The absolute uniqueness of the Fisk Manifesto, the self-confidence it exudes—and the daring—can only be appreciated when one compares it, again, to Washington's plea for racial tranquility and cooperation.

Washington at the time of the Atlanta speech was thirty-nine years old, and a college graduate. He had been the master of Tuskegee for almost a decade and a half, had toured the country fund-raising, and had spoken before Congress. Du Bois, on the other hand, was merely a nineteen-year-old college undergraduate. Yet he felt an unmistakable duty to speak out in behalf of the race and to counsel his racial "betters" not only about the racial politics they should pursue, but also to offer a mild critique of their social behavior.

Was this bravado or something more? Had Du Bois's specialness in Great Barrington—he had always been the best student and graduated valedictorian of his class, as he was soon also to do at Fisk—emboldened him beyond his years and accomplishments? Or was he paying homage to a conviction that would not be denied? We can only speculate, but there are significant clues in his 1888 commencement speech at Fisk when he, surprisingly, chose to praise the political triumphs of Count Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor" of Germany from 1862 to 1890.

Du Bois acclaimed Bismarck as a man "of unbending purpose," a "shrewd" and "wily statesman," a leader who "hurled Prussia into war against three times her number and with the grim determination of a man who knows he is risking all, he struck the fatal blow and Austria fell. . . . But his genius did not end with the rapidity of military preparation or the audacity of attack; behind [all] . . . was the shadow of the master hand of the statesman."

Reading this speech it is impossible not to conclude that Du Bois identified with Bismarck, that he subscribed to the Great Man theory of history and aspired to be a racial statesman who might unify his race as Bismarck had unified his nation.

With Bismarck as his model, it did not seem to matter to Du Bois if people understood him or agreed with him. He too would sally forth against "the great odds," against the naysayers and the doubters because, in the end, men of vision like Bismarck (and presumably himself) would overcome. But Bismarck was the prime minister of a nation who had at his disposal the resources of a state and, when necessary, an army. What resources was the young Du Bois, then twenty years old, to call upon to attain his goal of racial statesmanship in his racially hostile land? Realizing that, ultimately, he could really rely only upon himself, Du Bois determined to seek the best education possible and arm himself intellectually for the battle ahead. He did so, inspired, more than likely, by the Bismarckian example that one man can save a nation—or a people.

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The Harvard Years

Entering Harvard as a junior, Du Bois studied politics and philosophy and kept up his interest in Germany. He graduated cum laude in 1890 and was chosen to be one of Harvard's six commencement speakers. His subject this time was "Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization." As might be imagined, for a young black scholar orating before a mostly white audience that included the governor of Massachusetts and the wife of former president Grover Cleveland, to project the former president of the Confederacy as an exemplar of civilization was a surprising development that attracted widespread, and largely approving, media attention.

Du Bois drew certain parallels to Bismarck in his semi-eulogy of Jefferson Davis, whom he describes as a "typical Teutonic hero . . . an Anglo-Saxon . . . and imperious man who defied disease, trampled on precedent and never surrendered." Again, like Bismarck. Du Bois depicted Davis as the archetype "of the strong man—individualism coupled with the rule of might—and it is this idea that has made the logic of modern history, the cool logic of the Club." He acknowledged that the Anglo-Saxon approach of "might over right" had been successful but insisted that it advanced only "a part of the world at the expense of the whole . . . [that] the advance of civilization …has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness." And he suggested that such "a system of human culture whose principle is the rise of one race on the ruins of another is a farce and a lie."

Thus, as in his "Appeal to the Southern People," Du Bois grants the superior achievements of the white race but bids it use its superior gifts to aid the Negro and the African. Whites should assist the rise of Negro people, who may represent a different kind of human merit, but who deserve the assistance of the mightier race in the greater scheme of things because, he argued, "You owe a debt to humanity for this Ethiopia of the Outstretched Arm, who has made her beauty, patience, and her grandeur, law."

Du Bois will eloquently enlarge on this theme of the human significance and historical contribution of a neglected and underappreciated people in The Souls of Black Folk. But there is something in the Harvard address besides the solicitousness and dutiful curtsying to white America that resembles Du Bois's Fisk Appeal. His remarks manifest a certain boldness and taboo-breaking confrontation with the premises of Anglo-Saxon and American greatness. Deftly but unmistakably, Du Bois, in modern parlance, "speaks truth to power." His delicately phrased but delegitimizing analysis presupposes an equal footing with his fellow Americans that would not have been out of place in a truly democratic society but was treading on forbidden soil in Jim Crow America. Nevertheless, the speech seems to confirm the fact that Du Bois had decided to pursue his ambition to be the race's spokesman.

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Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Slater Fund

After graduating from Harvard but staying on to study for his M.A. degree in history, Du Bois applied to the Slater Fund, which had advertised its willingness "to subsidize any young colored man" interested in furthering his education in Europe. He was turned down. Moreover, former president Rutherford B. Hayes alleged to the press that the fund had been unable to find any worthy applicants. Du Bois's response is a priceless demonstration of his willingness to confront the powers that be:

The announcement that any agency of the American people was willing to give a Negro a thoroughly liberal education and that it had been looking in vain for men to educate was to say the least rather startling. When the newspaper clipping was handed me in a company of friends, my first impulse was to make in some public way a categorical statement denying that such an offer had ever been made known to colored students. I saw this would be injudicious and fruitless, and I therefore determined on the plan of applying myself. I did so and have been refused along with a number of cases beside mine.

He went on to chastise the former president for being a party to this insincere charade:"As to my case I personally care little. I am perfectly capable of fighting alone for an education, if the trustees do not see fit to help me. On the other hand the injury you have—unwittingly I trust—done the race I represent, and am not ashamed of, is almost irreparable."

Then, after expounding at length on the damage to the race's reputation by such demeaning and unfounded slanders of its abilities, Du Bois told Hayes that he owed an apology to the Negro people: "We are ready to furnish competent men for every European scholarship furnished us off paper. But we can't educate ourselves on nothing and we can't have the moral courage to try, if in the midst of our work our friends turn public sentiment against us by making statements which injure us and which they cannot stand by."

To his credit, Hayes did not take offense but recommended that Du Bois reapply to the fund. Finally after a year and a half of correspondence, sterling letters of recommendation, and Du Bois's explanation of his study project, the Slater Fund, in May 1892, voted to give him a $350 scholarship and a $350 loan to underwrite his education for one year at a German university. Consequently, in the summer of 1892, Du Bois embarked for Kaiser Wilhelm's and Otto von Bismarck's Second Reich, and the University of Berlin.

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The German Years

Europe in general and Germany in particular were revelations to Du Bois. They connected him to larger humankind in a way he had not found possible in America. Traveling to Poland with a friend from the University of Berlin, for example, he discovered ethnic and religious oppression outside the United States in the case of Austrian and German prejudice against Polish Jews.

He was also exposed to a new scholarship of sociology and political economy and "began to understand the real meaning of scientific research and the dim outline of methods of employing its technique and results in the new social sciences for the settlement of the Negro problem in America." But most of all he was exposed to new racial theory in the form of Pan-Germanism as advocated by its foremost disciple, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, whose ideas about racial unity and the role of race as a motive and determining force in history influenced a generation of Germans to believe in German supremacy and Germany's destiny for world leadership.

Some of von Treitschke's teachings were clearly racist, but what seems to have most influenced Du Bois was his notion of race as a positive and undeniable force in history. Relating to that racial hypothesis led Du Bois quite easily to the kindred concepts of Pan-Negroism, Pan-Africanism, and racial idealism. Suddenly the world became comprehensible and navigable in a way that it had never been before.

In addition to von Treitschke, Professors Gustav von Schmoller and Adolph Wagner also had a profound impact on Du Bois's academic and methodological thinking. Schmoller taught him that the role of social science was to explain social phenomena through the collection of empirical data; first the research, then the interpretation. Wagner opposed the school of laissez-faire economics that Du Bois had learned at Harvard, espousing state intervention to produce desirable economic outcomes.

Armed with this new knowledge, Du Bois, on his twenty-fifth birthday, reviewed his quarter-century of existence and pledged a self-oath:

Be the Truth what it may I will seek it, on the pure assumption that it is worth seeking and heaven nor Hell, God nor Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die. . . . I therefore take the work that the Unknown lay in my hands and work for the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development means the best development of the world.

From the perspective of American racial thought, Du Bois's new views on race bordered on heresy, for to propose that there was any discernible link between the progress of Negroes and the progress of humankind flew in the face of everything that racists and the more sophisticated social Darwinists believed. Yet that was now Du Bois's basic supposition, the product of his new European enlightenment. That he returned to America a different Du Bois is without question. He describes his reaction to his return as "Days of Disillusion," which he contrasts with his years in Europe: "As a student in Germany, I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved and wandered and sang; then after two long years I dropped suddenly back into 'nigger'-hating America!" For this man of consummate language to define America thusly and so strongly condemn its racial ways is a marker of his new alienation. It also suggests that his belief in the nation's ability to racially transform itself was now a doubt-filled hope.

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Race Organization

Although he would have preferred to finish his graduate studies in Germany and was supported in this by his professors, who were willing to permit him to do so ahead of the normally required time period, other faculty members objected to this special treatment, so Du Bois returned to Harvard to get his doctorate—the first by a black—and write his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, 1638–1870," published in 1896 as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Series.

The outlook represented in the dissertation shows that in the decade that had passed since his Fisk years, Du Bois increasingly had come to embrace a political-intellectual tradition of critiquing America that could be traced back to David Walker and was embodied by Ida B. Wells and the monumental Frederick Douglass, who had once asked America, "What is Your Fourth of July to Me?" Revealingly, therefore, the dissertation muses over America's moral failing in the last chapter, called "A Lesson for Americans."

It behooves the United States . . . in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave trade. . . . The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong be safely compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing through carelessness and moral cowardice, any social evil to grow. . . .From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.

Du Bois's questioning of America's racial contradictions had grown more and more into a questioning of the nature and meaning of America itself. But he did not abandon his own pursuit of "scientific truth." Utilizing the research methods he had learned in Germany, he single-handedly conducted the magisterial social study of The Philadelphia Negro, the first empirical sociological study of its kind in America. But despite successfully completing this stupendous and unmatched feat, Du Bois was virtually ignored by the University of Pennsylvania, under whose auspices the study had been undertaken; nor did he receive any job offers from a white university. Therefore, he accepted a position at Wilberforce, a black college in Ohio, which turned out to be a largely unhappy experience. From Wilberforce he returned to the South, to Atlanta University, to oversee the racial research we now know as the famous Atlanta University Studies, a project that was rebuffed by white scholars when Du Bois proposed it to the American Academy meeting in Philadelphia in 1899.

In the meantime, though, he had turned to the race for intellectual succor, joining with Alexander Crummell to form the American Negro Academy, an organization of black scholars and intellectuals. In March 1897, Du Bois helped to elect Crummell president of the academy and then delivered a speech entitled "The Conservation of Races," a historical and philosophical retrospective heavily influenced by the racial ideas of German nationalist thinkers like von Treitschke. "The history of the world," Du Bois said, "is the history not of individuals but of groups, not of nations but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history." On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Du Bois had turned the Great Racial Negative into a Great Racial Positive. Races made history, and there was a place for Negroes in the Hall of Fame of Human Progress.

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The First Pan-African Conference

This, then, was the keenly racially conscious Du Bois who would answer Henry Sylvester Williams's call and venture to England for the first Pan-African Conference. The very first meeting of representatives of the African Diaspora was convened in London in July 1900 by the Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams for the purpose of renegotiating colonial and imperial relations to better the global lot of the black race. This meeting of thirty-two black men and women from Africa, America, Canada, and the West Indies represented, according to its conference chairman, Bishop Alexander Walters of the United States, "the first time in the history of the world [that] black men [and women]…gathered together from all parts of the globe with the object of discussing and improving the condition of the black race." Fully cognizant of the significance of their role, and accepting its awesome responsibility, the members issued, at the end of the three-day conference, a declaration "To the Nations of the World," penned by the conference's secretary, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, chairman of the conference's Committee on Address.

The words of that declaration, its analysis, and the accuracy of its prophecy have, ever since that day, essentially framed the discussion of race in the modern world. It read:

In this the closing year of the nineteenth century, there has been assembled a congress of men and women of African blood, to deliberate solemnly upon the present situation and outlook of the darker races of humankind. The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question as to how far the differences of race—which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and texture of the hair—will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost abilities the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.

Although Du Bois's sentence "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line" has been famously, and almost unfailingly, associated primarily with his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, it was in London at Sylvester Williams's conference that these words were first heard. The statement spoke not only for Africans and African-descended people but also for that half of the world comprising "the darker races of mankind." This appeal was thus not one of narrow nationalism but a more inclusive racial identification for the uplift and emancipation of all the downtrodden peoples.

Moreover, the Pan-African conference was to be the forerunner of a succession of Pan-African Congresses led by Du Bois over the next half century after Williams's untimely death in 1912. In 1903, three years after the London conference, Du Bois wrote not in London but in Atlanta, the heart of the American South, in a voice that had grown more militant. Perhaps because, according to the Chicago Tribune, 104 black persons were lynched that year, or one every three days. Du Bois, like others before him and many others to come, had been radicalized by America's heartless racial practices. But in a sense his journey from reflection to radicalism was a road he had long seemed destined to travel.

And it is this Du Bois who we need to view not simply as the individual genius that he undoubtedly was. We need to view him and his life of struggle and achievement—and betrayal by his native land—as a metaphor for the essential meaning of black life in America. Advocate, statesman, negotiator, defender, champion, ambassador, griot, and peerless challenger of the system, Du Bois was all these things and more of—and for—our national self. . . . He was the best prime minister we ever had for our State That Never Was.

"Your country, How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here."

The Souls of Black Folk

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__________________. W. E. B. Du Bois : The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.