BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Remembering Du Bois
The creation of Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday, which recognizes the importance of civil rights movements in American history, was hotly contested by many. This year, one year into the Obama presidency, it seems particularly important to pause and consider how we think of civil rights as a national legacy, what we decide to remember about it, and where we locate the figures so important within it.
In my new book, Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois, I detail the late 1960s battle over creating a memorial, a national landmark, to one of the architects of civil rights in his hometown, Great Barrington, Mass. Du Bois — one of the world’s greatest thinkers on issues of race and equality and human rights — created a complicated legacy. At the age of 93, he joined the Communist Party and then expatriated himself to Ghana, where he died two years later on the eve of the March on Washington, mere hours before King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
The implications of Du Bois dying a communist expatriate is what first led me to this project. It began quite small: a look into why Du Bois wasn’t more famous in the place where both he, in the late 19th century, and myself, in the late 20th century, had grown up. Why had he been virtually erased from local history? Why did I grow up learning all about other famous local figures — Herman Melville, Norman Rockwell, Edith Wharton, Daniel Chester French — but nothing about Du Bois?
And then I came across what I now think of as The Quote: “It’s like building a statue of Adolf Hitler,” said Harold J. Beckwith, a past commander of the James A. Modolo Post of the VFW in Great Barrington. “The man was a Marxist as far back as 1922 and we oppose a monument to a communist any place in the United States.” It was not surprising to see a VFW member opposed to the Du Bois memorial movement. Many such folks had come forward to argue against it. Was he really a local figure, some asked. He deserted the U.S. for Ghana, others pointed out. He was a communist, most agreed.
But Hitler? Really?
Great Barrington was not alone in abandoning Du Bois. He is perhaps best known for his public disagreements with Booker T. Washington and for his central involvement with the Niagara Movement, which led to the founding of the NAACP, of which he was the sole black member of the founding administration. He published over 4,000 works and traveled the world, including trips to Russia and China, and his writings and teachings increasingly focused on a socialist worldview. As such, he became disfavored by colleagues and enemies alike. In Cold War America, his writings were trashed from public libraries, and the State Department took away his passport. When he died in Ghana, a state funeral was held; here in America, little happened. Why?
Most simply: he died at the wrong time. The moment of Du Bois’s death was such a politically complicated one; movements of civil rights were so deeply entangled with issues of decolonization, Vietnam, Black Power, and — of course — the Cold War that few could accommodate his late-in-life communist stance within his overarching oeuvre as a black intellectual. As he writes in his final autobiography, “I would have been hailed with approval had I died at fifty. At seventy-five my death was practically requested.” His legacy created a collision among racism, global politics, and communism that few could or would accommodate.
Today, Great Barrington has slowly started to find a place for Du Bois, albeit with much (heated) conversation. But a familiar song continues to be sung, perhaps best exemplified by recent comparisons of President Obama to Hitler in the midst of the debates on health care. The use — and abuse — of history in this way, just as in the way Du Bois was once compared to Hitler, demonstrates how history is never about the past — it is contested terrain that people battle over every day, whether over the creation of a federal holiday for a great leader, a memorial landmark at the childhood home of one of the world’s great thinkers, or — indeed — in terms of the policies of the first black president of the United States. #
Amy Bass, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and honors program director at the College of New Rochelle.