Our Opinion: Du Bois and MLK: United in struggle
lineW.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington in 1868, just five years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and supposedly guaranteed equality for African-Americans. By 1956, 88 years had passed since that proclamation and Mr. Du Bois can be forgiven for bristling at the suggestion of Southern novelist William Faulkner that the civil rights movement required "patience and moderation." (Eagle, Jan. 16).
"Moderation with no forward movement is surrender," replied Mr. Du Bois. "Moderation with murder of the innocent is retreat."
Mr. Du Bois had sought to debate Mr. Faulkner about civil rights in the wake of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi and the acquittal of his suspected killers by an all-white jury. The acclaimed author had expressed agreement with the scholar and civil rights activist about the incident and its aftermath but believed a debate was pointless if Mr. Du Bois would not agree on a go-slow approach by rights advocates. Mr. Du Bois in turn decided that a debate would be "time lost" if Mr. Faulkner didn't see the dangers in moderation. The frustration and exasperation of Mr. Du Bois ss likely shared by many African-Americans today who have been told to be patient in confronting the underlying bigotry of American society, only to see it erupt into full view in all of its ugliness over the past two years.
The correspondence between Mr. Du Bois and Mr. Faulkner is included in exhibit at the Mason Library in Great Barrington of artifacts on loan from the UMass-Amherst Library's W.E.B. Du Bois Center. The display, which runs through March 15, corresponds roughly with the Du Bois Legacy Festival in Great Barrington which goes through Feb. 28. Among the events of the festival is a "Day of Service" Monday coinciding with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The Rev. King, the great civil rights activist, religious leader and advocate of peaceful struggle, was at the height of his fame on Feb. 23, 1968 when he delivered a speech in New York City's Carnegie Hall marking the 100th birthday of W.E. B. Du Bois. The 50th anniversary of this speech, which came five years after Mr. Du Bois' death, is about one month away. The 50th anniversary of The Reverend King's assassination is on April 4 of this year.
In his speech, the Rev. King observed that Mr. Du Bois was first a scholar, then an historian, then an activist and ultimately a man who combined all three callings to advance the cause of African-Americans. "His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people," declared Rev. King. "There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man. Yet he had more than a void to fill. He had to deal with the army of white propagandists — the mythmakers of Negro history. Dr. Du Bois took them all on in battle."
The Rev. King, like Mr. Du Bois in his exchange with Mr. Faulkner, was told to slow down in his push for equality for African-Americans. The Rev. King was also told to speed up by leaders like Malcolm X who advocated a more confrontational approach to the white establishment. The Rev. King appeared to be speaking to those critics when he noted that Mr. Du Bois "did not content himself with hurling invectives...History had taught him it is not enough for people to be angry — the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force."
The 50-year-old speech also touched on an issue that still emerges today in Great Barrington whenever there is talk of honoring Mr. Du Bois — his flirtation with Communism and visit to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. "Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking," declared Dr. King. Mr. Du Bois, more pragmatist than Communist, was highly critical of its failings.
At the age of 95, Mr. Du Bois died in Ghana where he was participating in the democratic experiment in that African nation. "He died at home in Africa among his cherished ancestors, and he was ignored by a pathetically ignorant America but not by history," said Dr. King in his speech. We'd like to think that 50 years later, because of the efforts of so many in Great Barrington, at UMass and elsewhere across the nation, that Mr. Du Bois is not only remembered by history but his life's work is appreciated by an America that is no longer "pathetically ignorant" about him. Both Mr. Du Bois, who is being celebrated in Great Barrington, and the Rev. King, who will be honored on Monday, made great contributions to African-Americans' fight for equality and respect, a fight that sadly, must continue to be waged against ignorance and bigotry.
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