While we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, we should as well be commemorating another event. On the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, the life of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant individuals came to an end. W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar, Pan Africanist, political leader, champion of the struggle against white supremacy in the United States, died in Ghana, August 27, 1963.
It is easy to forget about Du Bois since an orchestrated effort has been conducted by the larger society to minimize his contributions and, in fact, to expunge him from our collective memory. Beginning with the Cold War in the late 1940s, the government and the right-wing went out of their way to harass Du Bois, restrict his travel and opportunities, and limit his access to those who wanted to or needed to hear his words.
For us at TransAfrica Forum, the work and life of Du Bois was particularly significant because of his commitment to the struggle against racist discrimination at home as well as against imperialism and colonialism abroad. Du Bois saw no inconsistency in taking up both struggles, usually at the same time. Thus, Du Bois is acknowledged as the father of the modern Pan African movement. He was directly involved in organizing and helping to lead the first five Pan African Congresses. He was also one of the leaders, along with the great Paul Robeson, of the Council on African Affairs, a U.S.-based advocacy group on Africa which was, in many ways, a political ancestor of TransAfrica Forum. Du Bois was also a founder of the NAACP, editor of the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, and author of the monumental and definitive study Black Reconstruction in America.
Du Bois would probably have been heralded by the larger US establishment if he had restricted his criticisms to racial matters in the United States. Du Bois refused to be so constrained. Du Bois’s critique of U.S. society expanded over time to examining the economic roots of racial oppression as well as his expansive analysis of Western colonialism and the U.S. role in propping up colonial empires, allegedly in the name of fighting communism.
Following World War II when the United States came to the aid of various European colonial powers, in some cases reinforcing their domination, in other cases attempting to replace them, Du Bois was one of the courageous few who would not be silenced. Du Bois saw that anti-communism and red-baiting were not aimed at stopping the spread of a totalitarian ideology, but rather were aimed at silencing any and all dissent from policies that advanced corporate interests. For his recognition, the forces of repression came down upon him.
Ultimately Du Bois chose to leave the United States and reside in Ghana. Before his death he began work on an encyclopedia of the African world. He did not live to complete it.
It is not enough for us to honor the memory of Du Bois, though that is itself important. Reminding ourselves, and particularly younger activists and scholars of the renown of such a human being has a value in and of itself. Yet for those who work with and support TransAfrica Forum, and other organizations committed to a democratic foreign policy on the part of the United States, the life and work of Du Bois has an additional value. All too often I hear people suggest that international events are too distant from the realities of the everyday person. Du Bois repudiated such notions, suggesting instead that it is inconceivable that we, African Americans, can fight the good fight here in the United States for social justice in isolation from the fight for what we now call global justice. A system that would ignore the plague of HIV/AIDS as it ravages Africa and the Caribbean; a system that would promote the interests of pharmaceutical corporations over those of the individuals living with HIV/AIDS, can never be expected to discover humanity in its treatment of those of African descent living in the United States.
The reverse is also true. As often as we attempt to illustrate our patriotism through volunteering to support United States wars overseas, and other such adventures, we may achieve awards and note, but it brings us no closer to achieving actual freedom, equality and dignity at home. To the extent to which we stand up for what is right rather than what the establishment deems to be popular, we regain our humanity. If there is no other lesson to learn from the work and life of W.E.B. Du Bois, it is that one simple point.