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PEOPLE IN AMERICA – February 2, 2003: W. E. B. Du Bois - 2003-01-31



I’m Steve Ember.


And I'm Sarah Long with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today we tell about W. E. B. Du Bois. He was an African-American writer, teacher and protest leader.


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois fought for civil rights for black people in the United States. During the Nineteen-Twenties and Nineteen-Thirties, he was the person most responsible for the changes in conditions for black people in American society. He also was responsible for changes in the way they thought about themselves.

William Du Bois was the son of free blacks who lived in a northern state. His mother was Mary Burghardt. His father was Alfred Du Bois. His parents had never been slaves. Nor were their parents. William was born into this free and independent African-American family in Eighteen-Sixty-Eight in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.


William's mother felt that ability and hard work would lead to success. She urged him to seek an excellent education. In the early part of the century, it was not easy for most black people to get a good education. But William had a good experience in school. His intelligence earned him the respect of other students. He moved quickly through school.

It was in those years in school that William Du Bois learned what he later called the secret of his success. His secret, he said, was to go to bed every night at ten o'clock.


After high school, William decided to attend Fisk University, a college for black students in Nashville, Tennessee. He thought that going to school in a southern state would help him learn more about the life of most black Americans. Most black people lived in the south in those days.

He soon felt the effects of racial prejudice. He found that poor, uneducated white people judged themselves better than he was because they were white and he was black. From that time on, William Du Bois opposed all kinds of racial prejudice. He never missed a chance to express his opinions about race relations.



William Du Bois went to excellent colleges, Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts and the University of Berlin in Germany. He received his doctorate degree in history from Harvard in Eighteen-Ninety-Five.

His book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study was published four years later. It was the first study of a black community in the United States. He became a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University in Eighteen Ninety-Seven. He remained there until Nineteen-Ten.

William Du Bois had believed that education and knowledge could help solve the race problem. But racial prejudice in the United States was causing violence. Mobs of whites killed blacks. Laws provided for separation of the races. Race riots were common.

The situation in the country made Mister Du Bois believe that social change could happen only through protest.


Mister Du Bois's belief in the need for protest clashed with the ideas of the most influential black leader of the time, Booker T. Washington.

Mister Washington urged black people to accept unfair treatment for a time. He said they would improve their condition through hard work and economic gain. He believed that in this way blacks would win the respect of whites.

Mister Du Bois attacked this way of thinking in his famous book, "The Souls of Black Folk." The book was a collection of separate pieces he had written. It was published in Nineteen-Oh-Three.

In the very beginning of "The Souls of Black Folk" he expressed the reason he felt the book was important:


"Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."


Later in the book, Mister Du Bois explained the struggle blacks, or Negroes as they then were called, faced in America:


"One ever feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ... He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face."


W. E. B. Du Bois charged that Booker Washington's plan would not free blacks from oppression, but would continue it. The dispute between the two leaders divided blacks into two groups – the "conservative" supporters of Mister Washington and his "extremist" opponents.

In Nineteen-Oh-Five, Mister Du Bois established the Niagara Movement to oppose Mister Washington. He and other black leaders called for complete political, civil and social rights for black Americans.

The organization did not last long. Disputes among its members and a campaign against it by Booker T. Washington kept it from growing. Yet the Niagara Movement led to the creation in Nineteen-Oh-Nine of an organization that would last, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mister Du Bois became director of research for the organization. He also became editor of the N-A-A-C-P magazine, "The Crisis."


W. E. B. Du Bois felt that it was good for blacks to be linked through culture and spirit to the home of their ancestors. Throughout his life he was active in the Pan-African movement. Pan-Africanism was the belief that all people who came from Africa had common interests and should work together in their struggle for freedom.

Mister Du Bois believed black Americans should support independence for African nations that were European colonies. He believed that once African nations were free of European control they could be markets for products and services made by black Americans.

He believed that blacks should develop a separate "group economy." A separate market system, he said, could be a weapon for fighting economic injustice against blacks and for improving their poor living conditions.

Mister Du Bois also called for the development of black literature and art. He urged the readers of the N-A-A-C-P magazine, "The Crisis," to see beauty in black.



In Nineteen-Thirty-Four, W. E. B. Du Bois resigned from his position at The Crisis” magazine. It was during the severe economic depression in the United States. He charged that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supported the interests of successful blacks. He said the organization was not concerned with the problems of poorer blacks.

Mister Du Bois returned to Atlanta University, where he had taught before. He remained there as a professor for the next ten years. During this period, he wrote about his involvement in both the African and the African-American struggles for freedom.


In Nineteen-Forty-Four, Mister Du Bois returned to the N-A-A-C-P in a research position. Four years later he left after another disagreement with the organization. He became more and more concerned about politics. He wrote:


"As...a citizen of the world as well as of the United States of America, I claim the right to know and think and tell the truth as I see it. I believe in Socialism as well as Democracy. I believe in Communism wherever and whenever men are wise and good enough to achieve it; but I do not believe that all nations will achieve it in the same way or at the same time. I despise men and nations which judge human beings by their color, religious beliefs or income. ... I hate War."


In Nineteen-Fifty, W. E. B. Du Bois became an official of the Peace Information Center. The organization made public the work other nations were doing to support peace in the world.

The United States government accused the group of supporting the Soviet Union and charged its officials with acting as foreign agents. A federal judge found Mister Du Bois not guilty. But most Americans continued to consider him a criminal. He was treated as if he did not exist.

In Nineteen-Sixty-One, at the age of Ninety-Two, Mister Du Bois joined the Communist party of the United States. Then he and his second wife moved to Ghana in west Africa. He gave up his American citizenship a year later. He died in Ghana on August Twenty-Seventh, Nineteen-Sixty-Three.

His death was announced the next day to a huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of thousands of blacks and whites had gathered for the March on Washington to seek improved civil rights in the United States. W. E. B. Du Bois had helped make that march possible.



This Special English program was written by Vivian Chakarian and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Sarah Long.


And I'm Steve Ember. Listen again next week to another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.