Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Scholar as Change Agent: W.E.B. Du Bois

Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Scholar as Change Agent: W.E.B. Du Bois

Article excerpt

W.E.B. Du Bois spent the vast majority of his 95 years working for the hearts and minds of Americans. Although consumed with equal rights and opportunity for Blacks, his larger vision was of a world in which all persons could progress as far as their unique knowledge, ability and efforts would permit. Intellectual and largely inward directed Du Bois utilized scholarship and the written word to advance his ideas and to secure a place of leadership in the Civil Rights movement of his day.


William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois dedicated the majority of his 95 years of life to improving the status of the Black race. Using his enormous intellect and talent for persuasion via the written word to educate and lead both Blacks and Whites to accept one another, he sought to create a community that both could share respectfully and equally. As might be expected from one who lived so long and experienced frustration and defeat as well as major victories, his views of the most appropriate avenues by which to achieve this community changed many times during his lifetime. As he gained deeper insight into the motivations of the American people and their government he adjusted the solutions that he proposed. Du Bois experienced bitter disappointments and the belief that he had overestimated White America's humanitarian motives and common respect for mankind. When he slowly came to lose the support of many in the Black community it led to what many have interpreted as a turn to radicalism.

Born February 23, 1868 to Mary Burghardt, a mixed descendent of West African heritage, and the also mixed raced French Huguenot Bahaman Alfred Du Bois, who had migrated from the West Indies to try his hand at barbering in Mary's hometown of Great Barrington, Du Bois' early ideas were highly influenced by his upbringing and education in Western Massachusetts (Nwankwo, 1989). Sadly, the union was a short one; Alfred simply wandered off and did not return, prompting Mary to move to Grandfather Burghardt's farm with her small son. Few Black families lived in Great Barrington and young Du Bois experienced none of the color caste system then prevalent in the south and recalled that whatever he could remember of social or racial injustice during his time in the Great Barrington schools had been directed at the Irish and not at him. Young Du Bois proved to be an outstanding scholar, becoming at age fifteen and perhaps mirroring the years to come, the local correspondent to the New York Globe. Though graduating at the top of his class, he experienced discrimination for the first time when denied admission to the institution of higher education that was his first preference, Harvard University. Choosing to attend the then all-Black Fisk University at the urging of some in the town who, according to Broderick (1959) viewed the Tennessee college as better able to help Du Bois help his people; he qualified for and accepted a full scholarship.

Du Bois would later say that his experiences at Fisk provided him with a broader perspective than he could ever have gained had he gone directly to Harvard; it was at Fisk that he was, for the first time among Blacks and, again for the first time, that he experienced the type of discrimination afforded most southern members of his race. In his autobiography (1968, 108) he noted

   I was thrilled to be for the first time
   among so many people of my own
   color or rather of such various and
   such extraordinary colors, which I
   had only glimpsed before, but who
   it seemed were bound to me by new
   and exiting and eternal ties.... Into
   this world I leapt with enthusiasm.
   A new loyalty and allegiance
   replaced my Americanism: henceforward
   I was a Negro.

Du Bois traveled in the area, even teaching two summers in a tiny school in a small mining community, to learn about the South and Black community. An accidental occurrence in Nashville, home of Fisk, gave him a new-found insight into relationships between the races and prompted him to avoid interaction with Whites. …

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