Raymond Wolters, Du Bois and His Rivals, University of Missouri Press, 2002, 311 pp., $39.95 (softcover, $19.95).
I confess that I read this book, not because I thought it would interest AR readers, but because of my admiration for the author, Prof. Raymond Wolters of the University of Delaware. His The Burden of Brown and Right Turn are incisive, unsentimental histories of government intrusion into race relations that will never go out of date. But W.E.B. Du Bois? How interesting can he be?
In fact, Du Bois was a fascinating man, who established the black attitude towards whites and “civil rights” that is dominant today. What was essentially his view is now so widespread, it is hard to imagine an era when powerful black institutions and movements represented competing visions. Americans both white and black have hardened into intolerant consensus.
As Prof. Wolters explains, the competing visions Du Bois overcame were those of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, both vivid characters in their own right. Prof. Wolters tells the story of their often bitter and petty rivalries, during what has been called “the forgotten years” of the “civil rights” movement — the period up until the Second World War
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868, and grew up as one of just 50 blacks in the Massachusetts town of Great Barrington. His mother’s family, the Burghardts, had lived in Massachusetts since before the American Revolution, but his father Alfred was born in Haiti and claimed to trace his ancestry back to Geoffroi Du Bois, who sailed with William the Conqueror. Alfred was so light-skinned he could pass for white, and he abandoned the family when William was two. Du Bois later wrote that the Burghardts drove him off because he was too white, too cultured, and refused to work on the family farm.
As a child, Du Bois was accepted and liked by whites, later writing that there was “almost no …segregation or color consciousness” in Great Barrington. On one occasion, however, a girl, a newcomer to the area, snubbed him socially, and the thin-skinned Du Bois resolved never to give whites a chance to reject him again. Henceforth, he decided, “They must seek me out and urge me to come.”
He graduated from the Great Barrington high school at age 16 and, encouraged by the principal, enrolled in Fisk University in Nashville. He was eager to attend an all-black school, but was unprepared for the harshness of segregation in 19th century Nashville, which appears to have affected him permanently. He had already decided to devote himself to his race, and became convinced that the way to discredit the idea of black inferiority was for the best Negroes to excel in every way. As the editor of the Fisk paper, he addressed fellow students — the black elite — as “ye destined leaders of a noble people.” He was encouraged that the faculty, virtually all white, believed passionately in the high potential of blacks.
Du Bois went to Harvard on a fellowship, and took part in the black social life of Boston. He met several attractive, very light-skinned women, but decided that a leader of his people must not marry someone who could pass for white. At Harvard, his grades were so good he was one of six students to speak at commencement. He then attended the University of Berlin, where he was sometimes mistaken for a Jew because of his light complexion. He had such cordial relations with Europeans that he said he “ceased to hate people simply because they belonged to one race or color.” He fell in love with a Dutch girl, but was determined not to marry a white. “Dora never understood why I could not marry her,” he wrote. His scruples did not, however, prevent him from cohabiting with a German shop girl.
Du Bois was impressed by German patriotism, and envied the thrill his German schoolmates felt when they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles.” He once saw the Kaiser during a parade, and was inspired to trim his beard to look like Wilhelm II.
He returned to the United States to practice the sociological methods he studied in Germany. The result, in 1899, was The Philadelphia Negro, in which he pioneered the now obligatory view: that only white discrimination holds blacks down. He conceded that although blacks were only four percent of the population they committed 22 percent of the serious crime, and that “sexual looseness” brought “adultery and prostitution in its train.” He urged blacks to reform — “honesty, truth, and chastity must be instilled” — but argued that it was racial barriers to good jobs that kept blacks poor and brought on all other problems. He insisted that if prejudice were abolished, blacks would lose their excuse for indolence. Until Du Bois’s time, students of the Negro problem wrote of genetic differences and black deficiency; blaming whites was a fateful innovation.
Du Bois did not completely neglect self-help. In an 1897 speech to blacks he said that “the first and greatest step … [is] the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves,” adding that “unless we conquer our vices they will conquer us.” He increasingly shifted his emphasis, however, to the real problem: white wickedness.
It was at about the time of The Philadelphia Negro that De Bois first used his most famous expression, “the talented tenth.” These were the best of the blacks, whose success would refute the idea of black inferiority, and who would lead the battle against discrimination.
Du Bois suspected that “the talented tenth” would also lead blacks to miscegenation and amalgamation, but did not want this to happen soon. He wanted blacks to remain a distinct race for as long as it took for them to demonstrate their unique genius, and to contribute something valuable to America. “[A]mong the gaily colored banners that deck the broad ramparts of civilization,” he wrote, there must be one that is “uncompromising[ly] black.” By publicly opposing miscegenation — sincerely, it appears — he made integration more palatable to whites.
Du Bois probably did wrestle with the possibility of black inferiority, but never expressed doubts in public. He may have been writing about himself when he wrote of how horrible it was “to doubt the worth of his life-work, — to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his.”
From 1898 to 1910, Du Bois was professor of sociology and history at Atlanta University. He was the first black on the faculty, but as at Fisk, the white professors were very close to their black students. His scholarship continued to emphasize white responsibility for black failure, and he also wrote for influential publications like Atlantic Monthly. His The Souls of Black Folks, in which he famously predicted that “the problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color-line, — the relation of the darker to the lighter races,” was widely read, and by the time of its publication in 1903, Du Bois was the second most influential black in America.
Up From Slavery
The man in whose shadow he stood, and against whose views he eventually defined himself, had a background vastly different from that of Du Bois. Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 and did not wear shoes until he was eight. He never knew his father’s name, though the man was probably white. After a hard childhood with little education, he managed to get into Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. He, too, was an excellent student and commencement speaker, and stayed on at Hampton to teach.
Hampton was run by a former Union general, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had led colored troops and was considered an expert in the management of blacks. An Alabama state commission asked his advice on whom to appoint to run a teachers school for blacks in Tuskegee and to their surprise — they expected him to suggest a white man — he recommended Washington.
Washington believed blacks had to gain the respect of whites through hard work, and that there would be no change in the Southern social order until whites were ready for it. He thought the black politics of Reconstruction had been a terrible mistake that only angered whites and created the illusion that progress comes through government handouts.
Washington was not even entirely opposed to slavery: It left blacks “in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.” He also accepted segregation: “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in the opera house.” This sort of thing infuriated more militant blacks, who accused Washington of accepting black inferiority, and of training blacks for subordinate roles.
Washington never urged blacks to push in where they were not wanted. In his famous Atlanta speech of 1895, he held up a fist and said, “in all things essential to mutual progress” whites and blacks should be “one as the hand.” He then opened his fist and said, “in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers.” His support for social separation, and his refusal to blame whites for black failure made him hugely popular among whites in both South and North. He attracted a great deal of support for Tuskegee and its program of vocational training.
In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt invited Washington to dinner at the White House, marking his ascension as the most important black in America. White philanthropists consulted him on black uplift projects, and government leaders sought his advice on black appointments. His word could make or break black careers and even institutions, and he used his patronage to promote people who echoed his views and suppress those who did not. The people he forced to the sidelines — people who wanted to blast whites rather than train Negroes to be farmers and bricklayers — hated what they called “the Tuskegee machine.”
Washington’s power was bestowed on him by whites. He never inspired a huge black following, but his machine could ladle out enough largess to keep his leadership unchallenged. At first he tried to buy off Du Bois with a handsome offer at Tuskegee, but Du Bois stayed at Atlanta University rather than move to a teachers college. Although he disagreed with Washington’s conciliatory stance, Du Bois took pains to stay on good terms.
Others did not. Dissident blacks started a newspaper in Boston called the Guardian, mainly to blast Washington. The paper hooted with joy when his daughter Portia flunked out of Wellesley, and it heaped abuse on Tuskegee. The paper’s backers organized a protest at a Washington speech that turned into a riot. Du Bois tried to stay neutral but Washington assumed he was with the Guardian,and retaliated by trying to divert funding from Atlanta University. Later, he kept Du Bois from getting an appointment at Howard University.
In 1905, Du Bois and 58 other black men started the Niagara Movement to oppose Washington’s approach and confront discrimination head-on. “Mr. Washington is leading the way backward,” Du Bois wrote, adding that vocational training meant “every energy is being used to put black men back into slavery.”
Washington had a spy in the Niagara Movement, and punished its members ruthlessly. His retaliation was so effective that many blacks were afraid to join. The Niagara organization folded in a few years, but its significance was in establishing relations between men who became the next generation of militants. Du Bois and Washington continued to snipe at each other until Washington’s death in 1915 left the field clear for Du Bois.
On August 14 and 15 of 1908, events in Springfield, Illinois led to a change in Du Bois’s career that gave him the base for his later influence. During those two days, whites burned and rioted, killing eight blacks and injuring scores more. The violence shocked many whites; Springfield was not only in the North but was also the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. A white millionaire, William English Walling, decided to fund an organization to fight discrimination, and thus was born the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was to be a national, bi-racial protest organization, and Du Bois was the only black among the five original incorporators. Even more important, he became editor of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis.
Under his leadership, The Crisis became required reading for “the talented tenth.” Easily the most influential black publication in America, it reached a circulation of 100,000 by he end of the First World War. Prof. Wolters notes that it is very unusual for someone to become the leader of a political movement simply by virtue of his influence as a magazine editor.
Du Bois insisted on complete editorial control, and his intemperate attacks offended both blacks and whites who could have been allies. White supporters groaned over editorials that said such things as: “It takes extraordinary training, gift and opportunity to make the average white man anything but an overbearing hog, but the most ordinary Negro is an instinctive gentleman.” Or of the Southern white: “He makes it his chief business in life to hound, oppress, and insult black folk and to tell them personally as often as he can how utterly he despises them — except their women, privately.”
These and other writings, not often quoted today, show the depth of Du Bois’s bitterness. He once wrote that Western Civilization was “built on black and brown and yellow suffering,” and summed up his feelings for whites in the following ditty:
I hate them, Oh!
I hate them well,
I hate them, Christ!
As I hate hell!
If I were God,
I’d sound their knell
As for colonialism, he wrote that “outside of cannibalism,” there was “no vice and no degradation in native African customs which can begin to touch the horrors thrust upon [Africa] by white masters. Drunkenness, terrible disease, immorality, all these things have been the gifts of European civilization.”
Du Bois was the only black officer during the early days of the NAACP, and he resented the power that whites, no matter well-disposed, had over the organization. By 1919, there were 62,000 dues-paying members, and he “thank[ed] God” that most of the money was now coming “from black hands.”
Surprisingly, anti-white sentiments seem to have diminished his influence no more than they would today. He wrote for the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and other major publications, and had an active speaking schedule. By the time he was 50, Du Bois was the most influential black in America.
The Crisis was full of what blacks — and some whites — wanted to read. It banged the drum incessantly about the wrongs whites had done to Negroes. Back in Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington thought this was a dangerous distraction from the less glamorous but more important work of black self-improvement. He kept after Du Bois, attacking the motives of blacks who demanded integration. When Du Bois spoke at an integrated dinner in 1911, Washington sent a reporter who filed a story that included this astonishing bit if color: “White women, evidently of the cultured and wealthier classes, fashionably attired in low-cut gowns, leaned over the tabes to chat confidentially with negro men of the true African type … [T]he broad smiles of the negroes as they leered surreptitiously across the room at their Caucasian friends made one feel their inner ecstasy.”
Washington tried to dig up dirt on Du Bois, and did everything possible to bring him down. Relations between the two men remained bitter, but after Washington’s death, Du Bois managed to win over many Tuskegee stalwarts, thereby strengthening the NAACP even further as America’s main black organization.
Ironically, it was at the height of his popularity that Du Bois managed to damage his own reputation. When the First World War began, he convinced himself it was a rivalry between European powers over how best to exploit darker peoples, but believed the United States was in the right. He thought blacks could not demand equality if they did not do their part in the war effort. The Crisis urged blacks not to bargain with their loyalty to America, to stop agitating, to join ranks, and fight for America.
The Army was segregated, of course, and blacks could do their part only in labor battalions or, to a limited extent, in segregated units. Many blacks were appalled that Du Bois could put the racial struggle on hold for any reason. Never had he taken a position that alienated so many supporters, and some called it a “doctrine of surrender.” This, and post-war bickering with other blacks over their actions during the war, seriously damaged his reputation, but by then another rival had appeared.
Back to Africa
Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887, and was proud to be a full-blooded African black. He wanted to unite blacks under an all-African government, but his efforts to start a movement in Jamaica failed; he was convinced it was because of opposition from the mulatto elite. He admired Booker T. Washington’s self-help doctrine, but by the time he got to America in 1916, Washington was dead.
In the United States, he found unhappy blacks who were ripe for leadership. The 500,000 who had gone to war were still second-class citizens, as were those who had migrated North. He told them they had no future in a country that hated them, and preached return to the mother continent. He claimed Africa had a glorious history that was stolen by whites, and that a united Africa would rise up and reclaim its destiny.
Blacks flocked to his movement, known as the United Negro Improvement Association. At the first UNIA convention in Harlem, His Excellency Marcus Garvey, Provisional President of Africa, led 50,000 followers in a massive parade. He and his men dressed in fantastic uniforms, and it was the UNIA that popularized the tricolor African flag: black for the race, red for their blood, and green for Africa’s vegetation.
He had only vague notions of how blacks were going to get back to Africa, but he sent representatives to Liberia in 1920 to find out. They discovered that the ruling ex-American slaves lorded over the natives, and reported that the government would have to be overthrown. Americo-Liberians promptly kicked out the Garveyites.
By 1920, the UNIA had 800 branches in America and 300 overseas, and Garvey claimed four million supporters. They were younger, poorer, and blacker than NAACP members — Du Bois called them “the lowest type of Negroes” — but Garvey was a great orator who could sweep an audience off its feet.
For “the talented tenth,” the UNIA’s message was frightening and insulting: Integration was a betrayal of blacks, and whites would never accept it anyway. Garvey made things painfully explicit. He recalled that in 1916, when he paid a courtesy call on the NAACP office, he was astonished to find that the staff were all either white or almost white. He started calling the NAACP the National Association for the Advancement of (Certain) Colored People, and claimed, with some truth, that NAACP people looked down on full-blooded blacks. Du Bois himself he called “a misfit, … neither a Negro nor a white man,” and claimed the NAACP appealed only to miscegenationists. It would lead both races to destruction through mongrelization. He also accused the NAACP of looking for white handouts when it should be urging blacks to better themselves.
What may have angered middle-class blacks even more were the UNIA’s friendly relations with the Ku Klux Klan. Both groups believed in separation, and the Klan, which had prevented all attempts to organize rural blacks, welcomed the UNIA. “Between the Ku Klux Klan and the [NAACP],” said Garvey, “give me the Klan for their honesty of purpose towards the Negro. They are better friends of my race, for telling us what they are, and what they mean.” Du Bois could work all he liked for the right to dance with a white lady at a ball; he would build a black civilization.
Garvey told integrationist blacks to build their own institutions. Whites, he said, had the right to make blacks sit in the backs of street cars: “The white man built them for his own convenience. And if I don’t want to ride where he’s willing to let me ride then I’d better walk.” Perhaps the last straw was his position on white violence: “[L]ynchings and race riots … work to our advantage by teaching the Negro that he must build a civilization of his own or forever remain the white man’s victim.”
The UNIA’s best-known venture into self-help was the Black Star Line, which was to become a fleet of black-run steamships, linking blacks around the world in commerce. Garvey sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock, but the venture was miserably managed, and investors lost everything.
Prof. Wolters finds that it was blacks who ultimately pressured the government to charge Garvey and several associates with mail fraud, even though there was no evidence Garvey had enriched himself. Middle-class blacks hated his politics and were afraid he was draining so much money from blacks that there would be none left for their organizations.
At his trial Garvey represented himself, and was so arrogant and belligerent he managed to get himself convicted despite the thin evidence. Three other directors hired lawyers and were acquitted. On his way to the Atlanta penitentiary, Garvey claimed he had been railroaded by whites who were afraid of black pride, but that he had also been the victim of “wicked members of my own race.”
Once Garvey was safely in jail, Du Bois called him “either a lunatic or a traitor” who was, “without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world.” Four years later, Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence and deported him to Jamaica. Without him the UNIA withered.
Du Bois had now outlasted both rivals: Washington, who told backs to know their place, stay out of politics, and work their way up; and Garvey, who urged blacks to withdraw from America completely. Du Bois was again the top black, but again lost support by shifting his politics. As time went by he began to sound increasingly like Garvey, but without Garvey’s charisma. He argued that segregation was going to last for hundreds of years and that blacks should look to each other for support rather than to whites. Like Garvey, he spoke of building a parallel black economy, “a Negro Nation within the Nation.” He started insisting on the distinction between segregation and discrimination, arguing that there was nothing wrong with segregation so long as it was voluntary.
Just as Garvey had done, he started accusing integrationist blacks of wanting to associate with white people, attacking those in “the talented tenth” who wanted to abandon their poor brethren: “the problem of 12,000,000 Negro people, mostly poor, ignorant workers, is not going to be settled by having the more educated and wealthy classes gradually and continually escape from their race into the mass of the American people.”
In 1934, he resigned from the NAACP. He lived for 29 more years, but his days as an influential black leader were over.
In his larger politics, Du Bois completely abandoned the mainstream. During the Depression he decided capitalism was doomed, and he tried to turn The Crisis into a socialist tract. At the same time, he admired Imperial Japan, calling it “a country of colored people run by colored people for colored people.” After the Second World War, he became sharply anti-American and pro-Communist. In 1953, he wrote that Harry Truman “ranks with Adolf Hitler as one of the greatest killers of our day,” but that Stalin was “a great man: few other men of the 20th century approach his stature.” He praised Mao’s China, and after his wife of many years died, married a black Communist named Shirley Graham.
She drew him into Communist circles, and he started writing for the party paper, The Daily Worker. In 1961, in his nineties, he finally joined the Communist Party. He renounced his US citizenship and went to Ghana, where he became a citizen, but died two years later at age 95, just one day before Martin Luther King’s Aug. 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. His wife was living in Peking when she died in 1977.
Needless to say, Du Bois is not now remembered for his last 30 years but for establishing today’s racial orthodoxy of white culpability. It is for this that there is a postage stamp in his honor, and that the University of Massachusetts named its main library for him. It was his view — not those of Washington or Garvey — that dominates our own era, not least because it was the one whites accepted. We have Prof. Wolters to thank for a vivid, engaging account of Du Bois and his influence.