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W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (John MacRae Books)
Postlude to The Future
The announcement of W.E.B. Du Boiss death came just after Odetta finished singing, a mighty trumpet of a voice that had accompanied the nonviolent civil rights movement from early days. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), broke the news in his precise midwestern voice that always reminded you of a proper Protestant pastor or one of the older men behind the counter at Brooks Brothers. From late morning into mid-afternoon, the scalding sun and suffocating clamminess had exacted their toll from more than 250,000 men, women, and young people who crowded the length of the Reflecting Pool of the nations capital in extraordinary response to the charge of Asa Philip Randolph, grand old man of civil rights and the moving force behind the March on Washington. Tall, white-maned, and as ebony as an African chiefs walking stick, Randolph had summoned Americans to Washington that twenty-eighth day of August, 1963, in all their professional, social, and ethnic variety to act, as he said in his cathedral baritone, as "the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom."1
Before Wilkinss brief, epochal announcement, speaker after speaker had stepped up to the altar of microphones to music and song by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Marian Anderson; and Mahalia Jackson. As the sun blazed down, the marchers witnessed a whos who of Americas civil rights, religious, and labor leadership. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches, with a speech too dry for this evangelical occasion, was followed by young John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose speech in its original draft, threatening to lay waste to the white South, had brought down upon his militant head the collective wrath of the civil rights elders and Cardinal Patrick OBoyle of the Washington archdiocese. Lewis finally agreed to soften his words, but not by much, and the crowd cheered when he intoned, "Listen, Mr. Kennedy, listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizensthe black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there wont be a ‘cooling-off period.” The United Automobile Workers ebullient Walter Reuther almost matched Lewiss cautionary rhetoric, telling a nation on guard against Soviet imperialism that it could not “defend freedom in Berlin, so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham.” Then came Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to read James Farmers powerful speech. Had Farmer not insisted on staying in jail in Plaquemine, Louisiana, his baritone delivery would surely have made eyes water and pulses rise even more than the intense McKissick succeeded in doing. Whitney Young Jr., the handsome, gregarious new head of the National Urban League (NUL), was more at home in the boardrooms of corporate donors than in trying to stir crowds, and his too rapidly read message showed it.2 When Matthew Ahmann of the National Conference for Interracial Justice (NCIJ) used up his ten minutes in moral generalities, the thermometer stood at eighty-two humid degrees and attention spans evaporated.
Now Roy Wilkins was at the microphone, to be followed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress. But instead of beginning his prepared address straightaway, Wilkins opened by saying that he was the bearer of news of solemn and great significance. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was dead. He had died in his sleep around midnight, on the twenty-seventh, in Ghana, the country of his adopted citizenship. “Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path,” Wilkins told the suddenly still crowd, “it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.” The NAACP head asked for silence, and a moment almost cinematic in its poignancy passed over the marchers. Saddened, though unsurprised by Wilkinss announcement, Rachel Davis DuBois (“the mother of intercultural education”) wondered aloud at that moment if Du Boiss spirit, “now free from his body, in some mysterious way might have hovered in our midst.” Unrelated by ties of blood or marriage to the legendary old icon, she had known and loved him deeply much of her life. Jim Aronson, another white Du Bois stalwart, would write in the Socialist weekly, the Guardian, of an aged, black woman in the crowd weeping, “ ‘Its like Moses. God had written that he should never enter the promised land. ”3 Aronson left unsaid what all who had known him at the end understood, that Du Bois had finally concluded that this weeping womans promised land was a cruel, receding mirage for people of color. And so he had chosen to live out his last days in West Africa.
Legendary Dr. Du Bois (for few had ever dared a more familiar direct address) appeared to have timed his exit for maximum symbolic effect. Someone told the actor Sidney Poitier and the writers James Baldwin and John Killens the news while they were standing with several others in the lobby of Washingtons Willard Hotel early that morning. “ ‘The Old Man died. Just that. And not one of us asked, ‘What old man? ” Killens recalled.4 In a real sense, Du Bois was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, as the paramount custodian of the intellect that so many impoverished, deprived, intimidated, and desperately striving African-Americans had either never developed or found it imperative to conceal. His chosen weapons were grand ideas propelled by uncompromising language. Lesser mortals of the raceheads of civil rights organizations, presidents of colleges, noted ministers of the Gospelconciliated, tergiversated, and brought back from white bargaining tables half loaves for their people. Never Du Bois. Not for him the tea and sympathy of interracial conferences or backdoor supplications, hat in hand and smile fixed, in patient anticipation of greater understanding or guilt-ridden, one-time-only concessions. From an Olympus of scholarship and opinion, he waved his pen and, as he wrote later, attempted “to explain, expound and exhort; to see, foresee and prophesy, to the few who could or would listen.” Many, many listened, and one who did, Percival Prattis, the aggressive editor of the influential Pittsburgh Courier, wrote proudly at the time of the Old Mans McCarthy-era trial as a foreign agent, “They could not look at him and call me inferior.”5
Born in Massachusetts in the year of Andrew Johnsons impeachment and dead ninety-five years later in the year of Lyndon Johnsons installation, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois cut an amazing swath through four continents (he was a Lenin Peace Prize laureate and his birthday was once a national holiday in China), writing sixteen pioneering or provocative books of sociology, history, politics, and race relations. In his eighties, he found time to finish a second autobiography and produce three large historical novels, complementing the two large works of fiction written in the first two de cades of the twentieth century. The first African-American to earn a Harvard doctorate, he claimed later that it was a consolation for having been denied the few additional months needed to take a coveted doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin. The premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States, he was among the first to grasp the international implications of the struggle for racial justice, memorably proclaiming, at the dawn of the century, that the problem of the twenti
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