As festival again honors Du Bois, 'controversial' exhibit on display

Correspondence between W.E.B. Du Bois and William Faulkner in 1956 sits in an exhibit at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Libraries.

GREAT BARRINGTON — On April 15, 1956, radio broadcaster Sidney Roger sent a telegram to Southern novelist William Faulkner, telling him that W.E.B. Du Bois was challenging him to a debate about civil rights in the wake of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the acquittal of his suspected killers by a white jury in Mississippi.

Faulkner replied that a debate would be a "waste of breath" unless Du Bois agreed that the pace of the civil rights movement required "patience and moderation," given the steady stream of dangerous upheaval.

And Du Bois, the black scholar and activist from Great Barrington, shot back with a reply in short sentences and all caps that included this: " ... debate is always useless in the face of inaction ... moderation with no forward movement is surrender ... "

This original correspondence between Du Bois and Faulkner is one artifact on display at the Mason Library titled "W.E.B. Du Bois — Global Citizen Rooted in the Berkshires," as the second year of an annual festival to honor Du Bois begins. The artifacts are on loan from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries' W.E.B. Du Bois Center's extensive collection of Du Bois materials, and include such items as a response to Mahatma Gandhi's death in 1929, letters from Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman.

The display, which will run through March 15, is one element of the larger festival that will feature a "Day of Service" on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as events, lectures and a play at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The festival runs through Feb. 28.

Randy Weinstein, co-chair of the Du Bois Legacy Festival Committee and executive director of the Du Bois Center, said the library exhibit is "controversial." But that's nothing new, given Du Bois' strong reach into the world, and his pivotal role in the country's debates on race and class.

Du Bois had habit of knocking down arguments designed to keep the status quo alive. He did it again to Faulkner in combating the "go slow" approach to racial equality that Faulkner had presented in an article in Life magazine.

While Faulkner, in his response to Du Bois' debate challenge, had agreed with Du Bois' moral stance about the murder and acquittal, he stood firm in his "go slow" position, and said that without agreement on this,"... we will both waste our breath in debate."

Du Bois succinctly cut down this philosophy.

"But moderation can only exist if there is action," Du Bois wrote. "Moderation with no forward movement is surrender. Moderation with murder of the innocent is retreat. Forward movement so long as it is movement and really forward satisfies all sons of God ever. Otherwise moderation ends in death."

Du Bois then said there was no need for debate if these points were not understood, and might be considered "time lost."

The debate never happened. In an interview with Du Bois, Roger had hoped Faulkner would agree to do it on the courthouse steps where the jury acquitted two men accused of killing Till, who was lynched for whistling at a white woman in 1955.

In the Roger interview, Du Bois said he wished Faulkner would agree to a debate about the slow approach.

"It is rather ironic [for author William Faulkner] to ask the American Negro to slow down in his effort to be modern men. After all, we have been slowing down for ninety years to have the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Amendments really enforced."

Du Bois then said he wanted to better understand Faulkner.

"... to talk about this situation and see if it would be possible for us to either clarify our positions or to understand each other better than, certainly, I understand him now."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.