Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois ... the Father of Modern Pan-Africanism

By Goffe, Leslie Gordon | New African, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois ... the Father of Modern Pan-Africanism


Goffe, Leslie Gordon, New African


As 2013 comes to a close, we remember Dr William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (better known as W.E.B. Du Bois), the father of modern pan-Africanism and a leading African-American intellectual of the 20th century, who died 50 years ago in Ghana. Though his death was barely noticed by the world, coming a day before the 28 August 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, Du Bois still stands tall in the memory of the people his life affected in the USA and around the world, Leslie Gordon Goffe reports from New York.

DR WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT Du Bois was disliked by his own country, the United States of America, and so when he died, aged 95, on 27 August 1963 at the home Ghana's President Kwame Nkru-mall had kindly provided him and his wife with in Accra, the world barely noticed. "Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois ... died as he had lived--alone, unloved, and under-appreciated by the masses of Negroes he had tried all through life to help," reported the Chicago Tribune. But that was a lie.

A founder of America's oldest and largest civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois found refuge in Ghana in 1961 after being hounded out of America by the US government because he demanded not just civil rights for African-Americans but freedom for Africa and an end to capitalism, which Du Bois said was the cause of racism and all human misery.

Shamefully, many of Du Bois' long-time friends in the US civil rights movement, afraid of the wrath of the US government, abandoned him. It was in Ghana, where Dr Du Bois had been invited by President Kwame Nkrumah, that he died a day before the historic March on Washington, an event that Du Bois had tried to organise 6o years before. It was Du Bois' bad luck to have died just as the march, at which Dr Martin Luther King would deliver his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech, was getting underway in the US capital. Du Bois' death, at the home given to him by the Ghana government at 22, First Circular Road in Accra, went mostly unmentioned by the American media. All the headlines went to Dr King, who would later describe Du Bois, admiringly, as "this restless, militant black genius".

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Du Bois had been an admirer of King, too. In 1958, he called him the "American Gandhi". But Du Bois later withdrew his praise, saying King's movement focused too little on economic equality. Dr King, though, never lost his regard for Dr Du Bois. He counselled critics in the civil rights movement to "cease muting the fact that Dr Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a communist".

Interestingly, the night before the March on Washington, Du Bois sat down in his library in Accra and wrote Dr King a letter praising his courage and leadership. A few months before this, perhaps sensing he might not be alive when the march he had long dreamed of was held, Du Bois sent the march's organisers a letter that had a strange finality about it.

"Always I have been uplifted by the thought that what I have done well will live long and justify my life," wrote Du Bois, who at the beginning of his political life was a moderate who believed a "Talented Tenth" should lead the race and by the end of his life had become a Marxist preaching world revolution. "What I have done ill or never finished can now be handed on to others for endless days to be finished better than perhaps I could have done," he added.

Honouring Du Bois--who became more radical, not more conservative, with age--was opposed by a key figure at the March on Washington. Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, an organisation that was started by Du Bois, refused when first asked to lead a moment of silence and say a kind word in his predecessor's honour. "I'm not going to get involved with that communist at this meeting," Wilkins spat scornfully. "I'm not going to announce that communist's death," he added emphatically. …

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