W.E.B. Du Bois: American Sociologist, Black Leader, And Civil Rights Activist

By Grace Taylor

Formal photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois, with beard and mustache, around 50 years old. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

You may not know the name William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or even his better-known initials of W.E.B., but you definitely know his work. In addition to being the face of the Civil Rights struggle in the early decades of the 20th century, his 1903 book The Souls Of Black Folk is one of the most important works of American sociology and brought the idea of "double consciousness" to the cultural forefront. He also co-founded a little group called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, A.K.A. the N.A.A.C.P., in 1909.

Du Bois's Early Life

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868 and grew up in the majority white town, free from many of the educational and social barriers that restricted the black community in some states, particularly in the South, during that time. In fact, Du Bois excelled in his classes, becoming the first person in his family to attend and graduate from high school. The community had such faith in him and his academic abilities that local churches actually pooled their resources and paid for Du Bois to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was first confronted with the challenges black Southerners faced in the era of Jim Crow.

Richard Rummell's 1906 watercolor landscape view, facing northeast. (Collection of Arader Galleries/Wikimedia Commons)

Double Consciousness

Du Bois went on to attend the University of Berlin and Harvard University, becoming the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895. While doctoral theses are usually shoved into a drawer after completion, never to see the light of day again, Du Bois's "The Suppression Of The African Slave Trade To The United States Of America" is still widely read. For many years, Du Bois worked for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, where he investigated the issues facing black workers as they struggled to find livable wages and published the first sociological study of the black community, "The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study," in 1899.

However, his real claim to fame was his book The Souls Of Black Folk, whose 1903 publication shocked the American public and divided the black community. The lyrical collection of essays paint a vivid picture of real people's lives, many of which were lived with a constant awareness of how others viewed them in addition to how they viewed themselves, an idea that Du Bois called "double consciousness."

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness," he wrote in The Atlantic in 1897, "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Booker T. Washington circa 1895, by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Du Bois Vs. Washington

Du Bois wasn't an uncontroversial figure, even in his own community. His position that racial justice was only possible through education, social development, and political protest stood in stark contrast to other Civil Rights leaders of the time, most notably Booker T. Washington, who argued that developing crafts and trades and excelling financially was the only way to win the respect of the white establishment. Du Bois's may have been the more "radical" approach, but it eventually inspired later leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to take direct action.

Du Bois in 1946, photo by Carl Van Vechten. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Pan-Africanism And The N.A.A.C.P.

Alongside many other Civil Rights activists, Du Bois co-founded the N.A.A.C.P. in 1909 and quickly took over as editor-in-chief of its monthly magazine, The Crisis. The group was responsible for groundbreaking achievements in Civil Rights at the beginning of the 20th century, lobbying politicians, swaying legislation, and organizing mass protests. They won their first major legal case in 1915 with Guinn v. The United States, when the "grandfather clause" (a loophole that automatically allowed white citizens to vote but required black citizens to pass a literacy test) was ruled unconstitutional. They went on to campaign against the widespread horrors of lynching and eventually garnered mainstream support for the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and '60s.

Later in his life, Du Bois became involved with more radical leftists politics, specifically the idea of Pan-Africanism, a movement toward the development of a worldwide black identity regardless of nationality, as colonization, slavery, and the ramifications thereof were hardly confined to a single country. His growing support of socialism led the F.B.I. to open a file on him, and he was subjected to intense scrutiny during the McCarthy era, but many character witnesses (including Albert Einstein) spoke on his behalf and he was never convicted of any wrongdoing. At the end of his life, Du Bois moved to the African country of Ghana, where he continued to work until his death on August 27, 1963, just a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States.

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Grace Taylor