"Those about Him Remained Silent": The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois

Article excerpt

"Those About Him Remained Silent": The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois. By Amy Bass. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 224 pages. $24.95 (cloth).

"We are inviting outside interference at a time when there are many willing to interfere," wrote a concerned citizen in a letter to the Berkshire Eagle. "We are preparing a marvelous bed for radicals, kooks, agitators and other undesirables from outside." It was March 1968, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Committee had recently announced its intention to honor the famous sociologist and author of The Souls ofBhck Folk. Du Bois was not only a scholar of international standing when he died in Ghana in 1963. He was also a Berkshire County native son, having been born and raised in the southern Berkshire town of Great Barrington. Amy Bass' book explores the way anti-communist hysteria nearly derailed efforts to commemorate the life of Du Bois. Her study is significant, for the Great Barrington debate proved to be "among the first of its kind, as it asked, How should civil rights be remembered?" (xviii).

Bass frames her story within the larger narrative of Du Bois' biography and his foundational role in the NAACP. Her chapter on "Du Bois in Great Barrington and Beyond" draws a great deal on Du Bois' own autobiographical writings and on secondary source material such as Bernard Drew's definitive volume, Great Barrington: Great Town, Great History (Great Barrington Historical Society, 1999). For the history of the Great Barrington debate, Bass relies to a great extent on the archives of the daily erkshire Eagle and the weekly Berkshire Courier, along with interviews of some of the key actors in the Du Bois drama.

One of those key actors was also a character: a former ACLU southern secretary and labor organizer, Walter Wilson was one of the leading realestate developers in Berkshire County when he and his friend and fellow activist Edmond Gordon bought the parcel of land in Great Barrington that had once belonged to W.E.B. Dubois' family. Although at first residents were wary of Wilson's intentions - they had assumed he would exploit the land for a development deal - the resistance reached a fever pitch as soon as Wilson and Gordon announced plans to haul in a plaque and build a Du Bois memorial park on the site. Between 1968 and 1969, when a crowd of 800 gathered to hear Julian Bond speak at the official dedication ceremony, anti-communist hysteria had so twisted the debate that more than thirty bomb threats were made against the proposed park.

Bass finds anger in abundance on the letters pages of the Eagle and Courier. The majority of letter writers took issue with Du Bois' decision later in life to move to Ghana and embrace socialism. For them, a Du Bois memorial park would be tantamount to having a Soviet beachhead in Great Barrington. But this anti-communist narrative was often shot through with racial animosity. "The general idea of all this," intoned one letter to the Berkshire Eagle, "is to vote the whites out of large areas of the U.S., take over in the name of black leadership and then set up some vague sort of communal living" (70). While the Eagle editorial board was supportive of a Du Bois memorial park, the same could not be said of the weekly Berkshire Courier. …