Exit Strategy

By Lewis, David Levering | The Crisis, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Exit Strategy


Lewis, David Levering, The Crisis


HAVING SET THE STAGE FOR THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, W. E. B. DU BOIS BOWED OUT ON THE EVE OF ITS GRANDEST EVENT

Dr. Du Bois (for few had ever dared a more familiar direct address) appeared to have timed his exit for maximum symbolic effect. From his home near Accra, Ghana, the 95-year-old civil rights legend and his second wife, Shirley Graham, followed the limited news about the impending March on Washington as it filtered through the West African country's state radio and fiercely anti-U.S. newspapers. The Du Boises had been told that a large contingent of Black Americans intended to march on the American Embassy in Accra on the evening before the great march. On the night of Aug. 27, 1963, before 250,000 of his countrymen and women began assembling along the great Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, W.E.B. Du Bois died in his sleep at 11:40.

The actor Sidney Poitier and the writers James Baldwin and John Oliver Killens heard the news while standing in the lobby of Washington's Willard Hotel early the following morning. '"The old man died.' Just that. And not one of us asked, 'What old man?'" Killens recalled.

Later that day, speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, then-NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins told the vast assembly that he was the bearer of news of solemn and great significance. W.E.B. Du Bois was dead.

"Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path," Wilkins told the suddenly still crowd, "it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause." Wilkins then asked for silence, and a moment almost cinematic in its poignancy was shared among the marchers.

Du Bois was still regarded by many Americans as the paramount custodian of the civil-rights integrity of the 20th century. His chosen weapons were grand ideas propelled by uncompromising language. From an Olympus of scholarship and opinion, he waved his pen and, as he wrote later, attempted "to explain, expound and exhort; to see, foresee and prophesy, to the few who could or would listen." Many had listened and applauded until the last two decades of his life. From that point on, the numbers dwindled and far fewer dared applaud as the increasingly controversial sage espoused a politics of international pacifism and an economics of radical egalitarianism that ran hard against the grain of his native country's Cold War liberalism.

At age 83, he had been tried by the U.S. Justice Department as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. Although the case was dismissed, deprived of passport, he became a non-person.

During the late 1950s, when it needed to be heard in the rising chorus of civil rights protest, Du Bois' voice was silenced in minority forums as effectively as it was in those of the mainstream. Despairing of the prospects for economic and racial democracy in his own country, he had applied for membership in the Communist Party of the USA and then departed with Graham for Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana in October 1961 on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Soon after the moment of silence requested by Wilkins passed, Mahalia Jackson electrified the great crowd with "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." At 3:40 p.m., on that catalytic August day, Martin Luther King Jr., the new shepherd of the 'buked and scorned, soared into one of the noblest speeches in the history of the American republic. The civil rights baton passed from the prophet of the colorline to the apostle of the beloved community.

Yet, as I noted in W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, "the appearance of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott had been something of a puzzle for Du Bois." He observed somewhere that he had expected to live to see anything but a militant Baptist preacher. In the Indian journal Gandhi Marg, Du Bois drew obvious parallels between Gandhi's liberation of India and King's success in Alabama, and went on to speculate that the gifted, committed preacher might be the American Gandhi. …

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