A look back at the furor surrounding Great Barrington's dedication of the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Home Site a half-century ago reveals some juicy ironies.
The Cold War was still raging in 1969 and Mr. Du Bois' dalliances with communism and the Soviet Union were highly controversial. ("Events to make half-century since Du Bois site dedication," Eagle, Oct. 17.) There was considerable local opposition, with state Sen. George Hammond of the Hampden-Berkshire District declaring a year earlier that "If a man changes his mind to communism, it discredits all that came earlier." Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed the Du Bois event and there were fears that violence between African-Americans and anti-Communists would erupt. Happily it did not, but local police and the county sheriff's department were prepared for it and a National Guard unit was on alert.
Fifty years later, we have a Republican U.S. president who as a candidate urged Russia, the core of the former Soviet Union and a U.S. rival on the world stage, to release dirt on Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. President Trump recently went before the cameras to urge what was once known as "Red China" to investigate Joe Biden, a potential Democratic opponent. Weeks earlier, the president congratulated China on the 70th anniversary of its overthrow of a legitimately elected government. The president's unconscionable withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria has enabled Russian forces to move in, shifting the balance of power in the Middle East. Many will suffer, but the president's pal, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is pleased. While a few Republicans have protested these outrages, the successors of the anti-communists of 50 years have largely been silent.
Mr. Du Bois' unhappiness with an America burdened by racism, class warfare and economic unfairness prompted him to turn toward communism, with its promise of an egalitarian, pro-worker form of government. He became disenchanted when he saw how the brutal totalitarian leader Joseph Stalin put communism into practice in the Soviet Union. Mr. Du Bois paid dearly for his association with communism, as he was hounded relentlessly by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and found himself blackballed from the African-American colleges and churches he once spoke before. He died in Ghana where he was striving to establish a democratic African state.
Thankfully, however, the words of Sen. Hammond did not prove true. In an editorial from 1969, The Eagle wrote that "In his long career before that [his involvement with Communism] as a writer, co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and eloquent spokesman for civil rights, he earned a state memorial many times over." As an example of Mr. Du Bois' continuing impact, next Tuesday, Harvard will honor Queen Latifah and six others with the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal for their contributions to black history and culture. In 1895, Mr. Du Bois became the first black student to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
Today, Randy Weinstein and Gwendolyn VanSant, co-chairs of Great Barrington's W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, will join the many others who have kept Mr. Du Bois' memory alive with a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the homesite dedication. (See news story noted above for a schedule of events.) The fear and paranoia that underlay that dedication should not be evident today. It is dismaying, however, that fear and paranoia, as well as the racism Mr. Du Bois fought against with his words and his example, are so much with us in America today.