Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, we overlooked the 50th anniversary of the death of a Great Barrington native who was central to that struggle; W.E.B. Du Bois. On Aug. 27, 1963, only one day before the March, Du Bois died in Ghana. He was born 95 years earlier in Great Barrington.
Du Bois had one egregious fault -- his support of communism, especially later in his life when the system's faults and evils were widely known. While about 10 million people died in the Nazi Holocaust, millions more have died due to communist regimes, with estimates of as many as 85 to 100 million. It is impossible in a column to catalog all the deaths due to communism; deaths due to extreme hardship conditions in slave labor camps; deaths due to man-made famine; and deaths due to outright execution.
In Stalin's "Great Purge" from 1937 to 1938, the Soviet's own declassified papers show 1,548,366 victims of whom 681,692 were shot. Du Bois must have known about the Soviet Gulag system when he joined the Communist Party in 1961 and its long history of oppression of political dissent. By ‘61, Du Bois would have known of the Soviet famine of 1932 to 1933 that lead to the death of millions, especially in the Ukraine, which some have labeled genocide. He would have known of the Russian famine of 1921, under the Bolshevik regime, that killed about six million people.
Farms were collectivized, grain taken from peasants, and the results were of apocalyptic proportion. The communist oppression of free speech and religion was infamous, as well as it opposition to the family structure.
Yet to all this Du Bois writes in his last autobiography written in the early 1960s (posthumously published), "What amazed me and uplifted me in [my visit to the Soviet Union in] 1926 was to see a nation stoutly facing a problem which most other modern nations did not dare even to admit was real: the abolition of poverty." Of a 1936 visit, just three years after six million died in the ‘32-'33 famine, Du Bois writes, "This was no longer a people struggling for survival, it was a nation sure of itself."
On the notorious Soviet restrictions of political discourse Du Bois writes, "Nowhere are public questions so thoroughly and exhaustively discussed." No mention is made of secret police. Worse, while Du Bois signed a document "We Charge Genocide" accusing the United States of genocide which was presented to the United Nations in 1951, (then delegate Eleanor Roosevelt objected to its presentation), he never acknowledged the atrocities committed by communist regimes.
Yet like a vain college student staying at youth hostels, his somewhat short (and no doubt government guided) visits to the Soviet Union and China encouraged him to state that things were not so bad. He writes in his autobiography that he went to China in 1936, and again in 1959 where he had "the most fascinating eight weeks of travel and sight-seeing." He brags that he spent four hours with Mao Tse-tung. Chairman Mao is blamed for killing more people than Hitler. By 1961, when Du Bois joined the Communist Party, Du Bois would have known of the Great Chinese Famine from 1958 until 1961, when 20 million to 43 million died as a result of "The Great Leap Forward." After Du Bois death, Mao would kill one million in the Cultural Revolution.
NAACP leader Roy Wilkins learned of the death of Du Bois, who had co-founded the NAACP in 1909, at the March on Washington. Wilkins, who despised Du Bois' communism, was reluctant to acknowledge it. When he learned of Du Bois death on the crowded stage, he first said he was not going to announce the death, telling organizer Bayard Rustin, "I am not going to get involved with that Communist at this meeting." But pressed by Rustin to say something, Wilkins ended up observing, "Regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible at the dawn of the 20th century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause."
Du Bois' embrace of communism in his later years raises serious questions about the extent to which we should honor him with stone memorials and the like in Great Barrington. But we should look at the whole man, the good and the bad, in his appraisal.
Rinaldo Del Gallo, III is an occasional Eagle contributor.