Our Opinion: A well-earned celebration of Great Barrington's Du Bois

President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Reverend Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream Speech" in 1963 were in a sense bookends to a tumultuous century for African-Americans, one marked by great progress and terrible disappointments. W.E.B. Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, was alive for all but five years of that period, and he was a critical player in it as both a chronicler of the African-American experience and a shaper of that experience.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of the writer, educator and civil rights leader in 1868 is Friday, and The Berkshire Eagle honors the Berkshires' native son today with an extensive section. Fiery and outspoken, Mr. Du Bois was a controversial figure during his long life, seen as threatening not only by white people but some black people as well. His home town, which has been and will continue to celebrate this anniversary, was slow to embrace him. Today, with the Cold War-era cloud that enveloped him having dissipated, Mr. Du Bois can be seen clearly as the pioneer that he was, one who was not reluctant to take risks to draw attention to the racism that poisoned America and to fight for equality for African-Americans.

It was 40 years after President Lincoln freed the slaves that Mr. Du Bois wrote his seminal work, "The Souls of Black Folk," that chronicled the black experience in the United States at the turn of the century. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation in all its idealism had not been fulfilled, and two years later, in his Niagara Movement Address he chronicled in detail a path toward achievement of those goals.

"We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American — political, civil, social," declared Mr. Du Bois "And until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assault the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves but for all true Americans."

The Niagara Movement led to the founding of the NAACP, and in the following decades Mr. Du Bois continued to champion civil rights, always insisting on non-violence but also pushing African-American leaders to be more aggressive in their demands. An educator, sociologist, novelist, historian, editor and activist, he came to be recognized as the leading African-American intellectual of his period.

Like many intellectuals of his time, he grew disenchanted with an America burdened by racism, class warfare and economic unfairness. And like many of those intellectuals he came to see communism — pro-worker, anti-colonialist — as a path to that elusive equality. He joined the U.S. Communist Party and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate from New York as a socialist.

Mr. Du Bois' enthusiasm for the communist movement abroad led him to speak and write favorably of Joseph Stalin, the totalitarian Soviet leader and murderer of his people. He had every right to do so — that guarantee of free speech is one of the major differences between the United States and oppressor states like the Soviet Union, and today, Russia. But while Mr. Du Bois soured on communism and a Soviet state that was the antithesis of what he hoped it would be, he found himself at the vortex of a Cold War hysteria that would reach all the way to his home town.

In 1951, Mr. Du Bois was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly failing to register as a foreign agent. He was acquitted but this was just the opening salvo in a campaign of harassment brought by witch-hunting cold warriors. The U.S. government seized his passport for a decade and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover harassed him, as he would Martin Luther King. Publishers began to reject his work, African-American churches and conferences shunned him, colleges declined to invite him to speak. "A whispering campaign continually intimated that some hidden treason or bribery could be laid at my door if the government had not been lenient," wrote Mr. Du Bois. "I lost my leadership of my race."

There were many others in the arts, journalism and academia whose careers and lives were shattered by anti-communist hysterics in government. Mr. Du Bois' solution was to move to Ghana, where he worked to pursue an ideal African state. He died there in 1963 on the eve of MLK's historic speech, and is honored in that nation today.

That was not the case in Great Barrington, where an attempt in the 1970s to establish a monument to the native son, one who had written positively about the town and its influence upon him growing up, drew virulent opposition from veterans groups and the town Selectmen. There were threats to blow up the monument if it was built, according to a Berkshires Week article in 1976. Advocates prevailed, however, although residual dislike of Mr. Du Bois may have led to the failure of an effort to name a new school after him in 2004. ("A chance to revisit naming school for W.E.B. Du Bois," Eagle editorial, February 11.)

Today the Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, opened in 2006, testifies to the hard work of many to give its native son his just due. Perspective has been accorded to the life and accomplishments of a man whose extraordinary and varied gifts were brought to bear in the cause of racist fairness and justice. He has earned the Berkshire celebration of his 150th birthday and Great Barrington and Du Bois' champions have assured that he and his legacy will not fade into history.


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