Born in a small town in western Massachusetts in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois became one of the 20th Century’s’ leading black scholars and a passionate advocate for civil rights.
The descendant of a well established Berkshire black family and a Bahamaian plantation owner, Bu Bois was raised as an only-child in Great Barrington, Massachusetts by his impoverished, crippled mother. In 1885 he received a scholarship to attend Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, where the Northern-born-and-bred young man was introduced to life in the segregated, post-Civil War South. After two years at Fisk, he went on to graduate cum laude from Harvard University in 1890. His application for a scholarship to attend the University of Berlin was denied, but ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes intervened and ensured that Du Bois had the funds necessary to study in Berlin. While in Europe, Du Bois showed an interest in socialism and occasionally attended rallies of the German Social Democratic Party. After two years in Germany, DuBois returned to Harvard and in 1896 completed his PhD dissertation, which was titled The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America, 1638-1870; this became the first volume in Harvard’s Historical Series.
After two years teaching at Wilberforce College in Ohio, Du Bois received a fellowship to study Negro slums in Philadelphia, which resulted in his writing another book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), and earned him an invitation to join the faculty at Atlanta University. In 1903 he published the classic, The Souls of Black Folk, which included a chapter detailing his differences with Booker T. Washington, who was then considered the most influential black moderate in the United States. DuBois thought that Washington was inappropriately content with black social progress that was both too slow and too small.
Du Bois advocated the so-called “Talented Tenth” theory, which held that the intellectual elite of the black community embodied the best hope of making inroads into American social and political life, and thereby paving the way for other blacks to follow. It was the Talented Tenth, said DuBois, who could uplift the rest of the black race. “Was there ever a nation on God's fair earth civilized from the bottom upward?” asked Du Bois rhetorically. “Never; it is, ever was, and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress . . . How then shall the leaders of a struggling people be trained and the hands of the risen few strengthened? There can be but one answer: The best and most capable of their youth must be schooled in the colleges and universities of the land. . . . All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have, for the talented few, centers of training where men are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living.”
In 1909 DuBois was one of the organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which, to his dismay, included mostly white leaders. DuBois stayed with the group for 25 years, influencing its policy by editing its magazine, Crisis.
In 1911 Du Bois joined the Socialist Party. He left the Party a year later, in part because of what he perceived as racism within its ranks, and in part because he wished to devote his full efforts to the endorsement of Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 Presidential bid. But DuBois remained a committed socialist and continued his contributions to the socialist press. He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, which prefigured his appointment as a consultant to the American delegation at the 1945 founding of the United Nations at San Francisco.
Du Bois’ 1927 visit to the USSR inspired him to call the Soviet system “the most hopeful vehicle for the world.” In 1935 he published the book Black Reconstruction, which offered a Marxist interpretation of the Reconstruction Era. In 1942 DuBois signed a statement of the Citizens Committee to Free Earl Browder, the general secretary of the Communist Party (and as the Venona transcripts later revealed the leader of a large Soviet espionage ring), who was then serving a four-year term for using false passports; President Franklin D. Roosevelt released Browder from most of his sentence as a gesture of goodwill to Stalin.
DuBois also signed a letter protesting the arrest of Chilean poet and sometime diplomat, the Communist and Soviet agent Pablo Neruda, who was briefly held on charges involving a conspiracy to assassinate Leon Trotsky. In April 1947 Du Bois signed a statement titled “We Negro Americans,” which defended the Communist Party. In 1948 he protested the arrest of the twelve top Communist Party leaders. DuBois was also active in such fronts as the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, the American Committee for a Democratic Greece, and the Civil Rights Congress. In addition, he supported Communist Party educational fronts like the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York and the California Labor School in San Francisco. In 1948 he signed an Appeal to the U.S. Government to End the Cold War and to confer with the Soviet Union; this was precisely at the time when the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was being contemplated as a means of defending against the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe which had led to a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.
DuBois was also involved, as a sponsor and panelist, in the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, a landmark Communist gathering for “peace” at the New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in March 1949. This was another Communist effort to blunt the West’s response to Communist expansion. The forum was chiefly concerned with opposing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe, deriding the proposed NATO defense pact, and condemning the Truman Doctrine and American Cold War policy in general.
As Du Bois grew older, he dropped any independent cover he had maintained openly joined the Communist cause. In 1950, at the age 82, he made his first bid for public office, running for the New York State Senate on the American Labor Party ticket. He lost the election but remained committed to his cause. Eight years later, he joined Trotskyists, ex-Communists, and independent radicals in proposing the creation of a united leftwing coalition to challenge for seats in the New York State elections. In 1961 he joined the Communist Party USA and emigrated to Ghana to live in Kwame Nkrumah's socialist police state, which he preferred to his native land. He made Herbert Aptheker, the chief theoretician of the American Communist Party, the executor of his papers.
DuBois became a citizen of Ghana. He died there in 1963, at age 95. In 1963 the Communist Party named its new youth group (a successor to the Young Communist League) the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs.