Why W.E.B. Du Bois Matters 

Why W.E.B. Du Bois Matters 

By Charisse Burden-Stelly 

In 1950 at the age of 82, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois accepted the American Labor Party’s nomination to run for the New York seat of the U.S. Senate. Regarding this decision, his second wife, Shirley Graham, wrote: “The fact that you have done this now is conclusive proof of your own in[n]ate greatness. You accept the historic role in which events have cast you!” (Du Bois Papers, Shirley Graham Du Bois to W.E.B. Du Bois, Sept. 1, 1950).

As noted by his lover and comrade, it is W.E.B. Du Bois’s willingness to accept the numerous historical roles in which he was cast that makes him one of the greatest activist-scholars in modern history.

Du Bois matters today, because his persistent engagement with the most pressing issues during his lifetime offers a template for scholar-activism that is still instructive today. His combination of ideological acumen and liberatory striving remains relevant to contemporary freedom dreams. Likewise, given his unparalleled contributions to the reigning debates, political formations and intellectual innovations over more than eight decades, his life is a veritable entrepôt of African-American, Pan-African and radical Black history.

Prolific in his publishing, profound in his insights, rigorous in his research and steadfast in his commitment to the freedom and flourishing of oppressed people, Du Bois remains significant to subsequent generations more than half a century after his death. He is both a model of engaged scholarship and an archive of the global Black experience between 1868 and 1963. Attention to Du Bois’s sociopolitical thought helps to situate “radicalism” in its historical context and specific social relations.

For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Du Bois’s militant liberal agitation for racial equality to combat Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory politics was a source of radicalism given the endemic white supremacist racial order. In the 1930s, by contrast, his radicalism was enunciated through a Black Marxist critique of capitalist failure and its anti-Black effects, given the pervasive immiseration wrought by the Great Depression. Du Bois’s articulations of radicalism reveal that the most progressive critique of any given society depends on the exigencies of the time.

Drawing on a nexus of ideologies, Du Bois expertly analyzed and examined national and international phenomena of deep significance to African descendants. His multifaceted praxis conveys that freedom struggles are best served not by dogmatism and orthodoxy, but rather by taking advantage of the best political-intellectual tools of a given epoch. Thus, what some scholars have construed as inconsistency, contradiction and backpedaling is better understood as flexibility and experimentation, deep attunement to the problems of the time, consistent self-reflection, and an abiding dedication to liberation and equality.

Du Bois’s praxis is exceptionally relevant to our current moment. Despite his different ideological approaches, he remained inexorably committed to anti-imperialism, internationalism and peace. This was due in no small part to his affiliations – whether cordial or contentious – with paragons of letters, criticism and organizing with whom he worked tirelessly for the liberation of Black people in the United States and throughout the African Diaspora.

Without this mutual comradeship, his countless accomplishments would not have been possible. Stated differently, consistent connection, collaboration and even conflict allowed Du Bois to make his indelible mark on history as part of a community of thinkers. His interlocutors included antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett; Niagara Movement cofounder William Monroe Trotter; noted Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier; radical journalist Marvel Cooke; communist educator and union leader Doxey Wilkerson; Communist Party activist Louise Thompson (Patterson); Black internationalist artist and activist Paul Robeson; and the Pan-Africanist and first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.

Furthermore, Du Bois built lasting bonds through his work in a number of overlooked organizations such as the interracial left-wing Civil Rights Congress, founded in 1946; the Jefferson School of Social Sciences, a communist adult education institute in existence from 1944 to 1956; the Council on African Affairs, an African advocacy organization that folded after eighteen years due to anticommunist harassment; and the Peace Information Center, for which Du Bois served as chairman during its six-month existence in 1950.

Additionally, an essential but often-overlooked reason Du Bois still matters is his gradual move leftward – an evolution not unrelated to his early belief in democratic socialism. Du Bois’s unique approach to Black Marxism proved that race and class, culture and material conditions, structure and ideology, must be understood as mutually constitutive. For this reason, Du Bois’s work serves as the epistemological and political foundation of Black Studies and its growth and development in the United States academy.

Militant liberalism was one framework through which Du Bois advocated political and juridical freedom for African descendants, enjoined the best and the brightest class of Blacks to use their skills and resources to serve and uplift the race, positioned culture emanating from Africa and its diaspora as the special provenance and gift of Black people, and encouraged personal and group responsibility. The continued salience of militant liberalism is manifested in the institutionalization and professionalization of Black Studies (and related interdisciplines) in U.S. colleges and universities, especially from the 1980s onward.

During the Progressive Era, militant liberalism was the primary expression of Du Bois’s politics. His writings and activism cohered around the belief that through exceptional leadership, sustained striving, race responsibility, and unified expression of policy, Black people could develop, advance, and assert influence. Perhaps the best example of Du Bois’s militant liberalism was his critique of Booker T. Washington’s hegemonic accommodationist and conciliatory politics.

Instead of “adjustment” and “submission” that reaffirmed Black inferiority, Du Bois supported defense of rights alongside property ownership, the assertion of manhood alongside thrift and self-respect, and higher training according to ability alongside the teaching of practical skills. He did not disagree that the ignorance and “low social level” of the Black masses were a cause of prejudice and discrimination, but he insisted that the solution to these was advanced education and an adherence to the wider ideals of citizenship and civic engagement (Du Bois, Souls, 2007, 40–44).

Like Washington, Du Bois believed that interracial social interaction should not be the primary concern of Black people. However, unlike Washington, he believed that the essential elements of equality were civil rights and liberties, higher education, and the elimination of barriers to access and opportunity that precluded the best of the race from realizing their full potential.

Following his exemplar, Alexander Crummell, Du Bois argued that adhering to the foundations of liberal democracy was a means of honoring Christian principles. One of the most important foundations was meritocracy, which included education according to ability, equality of opportunity for the leaders of the race, and political and juridical freedom, especially the vote, for those who were qualified.

Likewise, Du Bois believed that the improvement of race relations would come not only through expunging the social legacies of slavery – immorality, criminality and shiftlessness – but also through greater respect for personal liberty and worth and a more equitable integration of the “Talented Tenth” into political, economic and intellectual life to propagate mutual understanding.

Du Bois’s militant liberalism had a distinctly racial orientation not least because, at the turn of the century, he understood race as a sociological fact in world history that could not be overcome. As a group separate from whites, Black people must cultivate autonomous institutions, ideals, and identity. This was possible through individual advancement in service to race uplift, racial cooperation and unity, and the cultivation of and appreciation for Black culture. Black people also needed to develop social mores like temperance, chastity, and frugality that could gain the recognition and respect of whites and thus promote peaceful coexistence. For Du Bois, this approach would ensure a more responsible, representative, equitable, and ethical American society.

Unlike many men in the early-to-mid-20th century, Du Bois’s belief in merit, rights, suffrage and leadership extended to women. Du Bois’s militant antisexism manifested in his recognition of the unique oppression of women generally and Black women particularly, in his agitation for women’s enfranchisement and full participation in politics and society, and in his belief that intimate relationships should be based on mutual support and an equal share of resources.

Du Bois’s emphasis on the political empowerment and social importance of women is of the utmost importance to the current sociopolitical climate in which women’s reproductive rights – especially abortion – are being undermined, women increasingly bear the burden of production and reproduction, and Black women and girls are the fastest-growing populations affected by AIDS and HIV.

Du Bois believed that women were just as important and capable as men. For example, when he was soliciting participants for the second Amenia Conference, Howard University professor Abram Harris responded with the following, “You will note I have not given the names of many women. I really don’t know what females should be invited. You are by far the better judge.” (Du Bois Papers, Abram Harris to W.E.B. Du Bois, Mar. 20, 1933). Harris’s letter conveys that while women were often treated as an afterthought or an addendum, Du Bois was unique from his peers in his appreciation for and attunement to women’s leadership capacity. He knew their contributions were essential to any conversation pertaining to the betterment of Black people.

His militant antisexism also manifested in his acknowledgment that women made his life, and society in general, better. In 1951, he wrote, “Women have played a great role in my life . . . [as] faithful companion[s] and help-mate[s] of my last years, sustaining and helping me in my last thoughts and efforts . . . [they have been] friends and helpers in many times and places who worked with me and whom I loved for their belief and sacrifice” (Du Bois Papers, W.E.B. Du Bois, “Greetings to Women,” July 1951).

Given the importance he ascribed to women, Du Bois worked tirelessly to create opportunities for them, to include them in projects and organizations, and to challenge their exclusion and oppression. To be sure, Du Bois was not exempted from Victorian sexual standards, patriarchal practices, and gendered notions of respectability; nonetheless, he displayed an uncanny commitment to the equality of the sexes throughout his lifetime.

Du Bois’s writings regularly offered an analysis of sexism that revealed multilayered forms of exploitation, challenged bourgeois social values that reified capitalist hegemony, and centered the issues and concerns of the working class. Du Bois and Black women educated and supported each other.

Many Black progressive women were inspired by his courage and commitment. The notable playwright and radical activist Lorraine Hansberry sums it up with her declaration that Du Bois’s consistent condemnation of oppressive forces, tireless attention to the “genuine needs of humankind,” outright rejection of racism in all its forms, and sincere dedication to the realization of a global socialist society made him a “fact,” “bulwark” and “institution” of Black culture and society (Hansberry in Clarke, 1970, 17).

As peace activist and labor organizer Thelma Dale raised money and organized meetings for Du Bois’s 1951 defense, she wrote, “I never had a more pleasant and rewarding assignment. I only wish I were working full-time so that I could really see the full fruits of Labor” (Du Bois Papers, Thelma Dale to W.E.B. Du Bois, Sept. 26, 1951). When he was acquitted, Dale penned an article opining that the dismissal of the case against Du Bois represented a victory for lovers of freedom and peace throughout the world (Dale, 1952, 17).

At the same time, Du Bois was constantly learning from Black women. Bill V. Mullen argues that comrades including Shirley Graham Du Bois, Claudia Jones, and Vicki Garvin helped to “gender” Du Bois’s analysis by emphasizing the importance of (Black) women to the realization of world peace, the elevation of the working class, and the forging of proletarian internationalist alliances (Mullen, 2015, 156–157). Such influence is evident in his 1949 unpublished essay entitled “The American Negro Woman,” in which he argues that the Black woman’s role as worker, head of household, and leader in cultural development provided the key to resolving the central problem of the “woman question” – economic dependence (Du Bois Papers, W.E.B. Du Bois, “The American Negro Woman” (unpublished, ca. 1949). The essay took its cue from the arguments of Louise Thompson Patterson in “Toward a Brighter Dawn” and Claudia Jones in “An End to the Neglect of the Problem of the Negro Woman!” that analyzed the triple exploitation of Black women “as workers, as women and as Negroes.”

These pieces also emphasized the leading role of their activism in combating oppression (Patterson, 1936; Jones, 1949). Whereas previous writings like “The Woman in Black” and “The Freedom of Womanhood” in The Gift of Black Folk emphasized Black women’s spiritual strength and the idealism of Black womanhood, in “The American Negro Woman” Du Bois attempted to outline the importance of Black women to proletarian struggle and to the potential resolution of working class exploitation. Du Bois’s transgenerational relationship with women like Hansberry, Dale, Thompson Patterson, and Jones is representative of the feedback loop of affection, protection, and struggle that constituted Du Bois’s militant antisexism.

Especially later in life, Du Bois modeled militant antisexism in his personal relationships. A letter he wrote to Shirley Graham Du Bois on January 23, 1951, about their impending marriage is a case in point. He explained that ordinarily in marriages, the husband controlled the family’s resources, making the wife dependent on whatever he was willing to allocate. Du Bois admitted that his first marriage had been of that sort, and he found it to be unfulfilling and immoral.

What he wanted with Graham was a marriage built upon love, companionship, friendship and common work. He expected each partner to contribute financially to the marriage and to “share and share alike.” He ended the letter with the contention that “This is the marriage for men and women, but not for parasites” (Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, W.E.B. Du Bois to Shirley Graham, Jan. 23, 1951). Here, Du Bois was eschewing the patriarchal practice of husbands financially controlling wives, the sexist practice of men subordinating women, and the inegalitarian assumption that it was the responsibility of the man to take care of the woman. Instead, he proposed a marriage in which he and Graham were partners and equals in all aspects of their life together. In the final analysis, Du Bois was not only militantly antisexist in his work with Black women and in his scholarship and journalism—he also strove to be so in every aspect of his life.

Du Bois was a lifelong proponent not only of gender equality but also of Black nationalism. As residential segregation becomes more pronounced, the allocation of public resources continues to recede, and the polarization of wealth entrenches along racial lines, Du Bois’s promotion of Black cooperation, independent Black institutions, and the ability of Black people to be self-determining offers a means of analyzing and challenging these and other forms of racial injustice. Du Bois critiqued the failures of desegregation and integration to promote racial solidarity and responsibility, strong community-oriented Black institutions, and cooperative economic formations that addressed the needs of Black people.

Especially in the 1930s, as Black communities bore the brunt of the Great Depression and racism ran rampant in the labor movement, Du Bois increasingly espoused the need for Black people to take their destinies into their own hands as the dominant society was reticent to invest in the flourishing of their darker brothers and sisters. In writings including the “The Right to Work,” “A Negro Nation within a Nation,” and “Social Planning for the Negro, Past and Present,” he urged Black people to plan a separate economy in the spirit of survival, self-preservation, and sustainable struggle. Likewise, in “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” he argued that it was up to the Black community to educate its own children to ensure care, sympathy, and equality and to ward against racism, neglect, and what historian Carter G. Woodson called “miseducation.”

Du Bois’s promotion of pragmatic segregation, at the intersection of socialism and nationalism, was especially pronounced at the second Amenia Conference on a New Programme for the Negro, held August 18–21, 1933. Moving away from his earlier advocacy of militant liberalism, he excoriated the extant labor movement’s anti-Black and elitist methods of organizing, particularly its policy of securing employment and wage increases primarily for highly skilled whites; criticized the failure of integrationist efforts; and championed all-Black cooperatives to secure Black economic betterment.

His program of nation building required Black consumer and producer cooperation, careful planning, and intense scientific economic study. Du Bois believed that if Black farmers worked together, they could produce food for large segments of the Black population; that artists and artisans could organize their services to produce clothing, shelter, and goods; and that Black workers could harness “cheap power” in the Southeast to form manufacturing cooperatives. This economic “protective separatism” discouraged exploitation, selfishness, and profiteering. For Du Bois, it was through Black nationalist efforts that Black people would be properly educated, economically sound, unified, and self-supported (Du Bois Papers, “Second Amenia Conference on a New Programme for the Negro,” Jan. 9, 1933; “Notes on Amenia Conference,” 1933; “Proposed Program of the Amenia Conference,” 1933).

Du Bois’s belief in the flourishing of African descendants extended beyond U.S. borders. He is rightly considered a father of modern Pan-Africanism. Defined as the ideas, activities and movements preeminently concerned with the commonality of purpose among, and the social, political, and economic emancipation of, African peoples wherever they are located, Pan-Africanism is as important as ever. To an unprecedented degree, structural adjustment and “poverty reduction” programs undermine sovereignty, life chances, well-being and progress in the Global South generally, and for African people particularly.

As political parties like the South African Economic Freedom Fighters suggest, concerted African efforts are necessary to ensure prosperity on the continent and in the Diaspora. Here, much can be learned from Du Bois’s Pan-African vision through which he unceasingly brought African people together in organizations, congresses, publications, and protest to collectively dismantle the global system built upon exploitation, expropriation, and exclusion.

Along with leaders like Amy Ashwood Garvey, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois profoundly shaped Pan-African ideology with his voluminous scholarship about the history and contemporary realities of Africa, his activism on behalf of African liberation, and his ultimate repatriation to the African continent in 1961. One of his most important contributions was his instrumental role in convening the Pan-African Congresses between 1900 and 1945.

Du Bois helped to lead, coordinate, publicize and forge the philosophy of the Pan-African Conference of 1900 (London) and the Congresses of 1919 (Paris), 1923 (Paris, London, Lisbon, and Brussels) and 1927 (New York). Here, African descendants convened to build and sustain networks; to pass resolutions condemning colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy and European domination; to air their grievances to an international audience; and to agitate for mutual progress. They supported nonviolent nonintervention, including strikes and peaceful demonstrations, on behalf of civil rights, self-determination, an end to discrimination and the abolition of forced labor.

Perhaps the most important Pan-African Congress, though, convened in Manchester, England, just as World War II was coming to an end in 1945. Influenced by the World Trade Union and Subject Peoples’ Conferences held earlier that year, the fifth Pan-African Congress signaled a militant phase of the African anticolonial struggle, emphasizing the right of all colonized nations to self-determine, self-govern and control their own destinies using every tool at their disposal, including armed struggle.

Participants insisted upon emancipation for the whole of the Black world, including complete and absolute independence of West Africa, the removal of armed forces from and the establishment of democratic rights in North Africa, and the practice of the principles of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms in East Africa. They passed resolutions supporting the voluntary federation of the British West Indies predicated on self-government, universal adult suffrage, and the introduction of modern social legislation afforded to citizens in the metropoles. They also supported defense against imperial machinations in Haiti and Ethiopia and made a case for the representation of colonized and oppressed people in the United Nations (Adi & Sherwood, 1995).

Du Bois had taken up all of these issues – anticolonialism, West Indian Federation, Haitian independence, Ethiopian sovereignty – in numerous writings since the 1890s. While the fifth Pan-African Congress included participation from prominent intellectuals, activists and future heads of state like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Ras T. Makonnen, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Nnamdi Azikiwe, Du Bois and the other delegates emphasized that peasants, workers and the laboring classes were the key actors in throwing off colonialism and imperialism.

Such support indicates Du Bois’s increasing embrace of Black Marxism, which provides invaluable analytical, theoretical and practical resources to understand the current global landscape. Black Marxism can be understood as African descendants’ deployment of anticapitalist principles to challenge the structural and material conditions of local, national and global Blackness and to imagine and bring into being liberating possibilities for all oppressed people.

Internationalist in scope, Black Marxism links the conditions of Black people to other colonized and racialized groups through anti-imperial, anticolonial, antiracist and socialist praxis. Additionally, Black Marxism centers critical political economy analysis, attends to intraracial class conflict, emphasizes the importance of labor and workers, theorizes Blackness as a special condition of surplus value extraction, and strives for the eventual overthrow of capitalism.

Current research, scholarship, activism, organizing and teaching would be enriched by embracing Du Bois’s example. As the late political scientist Cedric Robinson argued in his Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Du Bois was one of the most influential Black Marxists of the modern era (Robinson, 2000). While Du Bois had been a socialist since the first decade of the 20th century, by the 1930s, he had begun to diligently study Marxism-Leninism and to update it with his own insights about the Black experience.

Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 was Du Bois’s Black Marxist tome. To write it, he enlisted a number of Black radicals to help him research the project, including Howard “Red Top Roundtable” scholars Emmett Dorsey, E. Franklin Frazier and Abram Harris (Du Bois Papers, W.E.B. Du Bois to E. Franklin Frazier, Oct. 16, 1933; W.E.B. Du Bois to E. Franklin Frazier, Oct. 19, 1933; W.E.B. Du Bois to Abram Harris, Dec. 4, 1933; Emmett E. Dorsey to W.E.B. Du Bois, Dec. 6, 1933; W.E.B. Du Bois to Harold O. Lewis, Dec. 7, 1933; Emmett Dorsey, “Reconstruction Bibliography,” 1933, Du Bois Papers; David Levering Lewis, “Interview with Doxey Wilkerson, Tape #7”; “Interview with Esther and James Jackson, Tape #14 and #15,” David Levering Lewis Papers [MS 827], Interview Transcripts, University of Massachusetts Amherst). In doing so, he was employing a critical practice of consulting and elevating the scholarship of often-ignored Black scholars who generally had the most up-to-date historical, sociological, and economic scholarship and data about Black people, past and present.

Black Reconstruction analyzed the Civil War and Reconstruction as phases of capitalist exploitation, U.S. imperialism, global white supremacy and Black labor insurgency. Du Bois’s earnest study of Marxism, long-standing dedication to Pan-Africanism, and increasing commitment to Black internationalism underwrote his assertion that, “The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black” (Munro, 2017, 18–19; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 16).

Du Bois’s attention to class conflict signaled his growing facility with Marxism, and his argument that slavery as a system of surplus value extraction was the unequivocal cause of the Civil War dovetailed with his earlier and later critiques of imperial capitalism as the source of world war[CE1] [MOU2] . Likewise, his analysis of Reconstruction as a global phenomenon signaled his Black internationalism that connected the condition and fate of all racialized and colonized laborers. And, his emphasis on Black folks as self-determining subjects underscored his belief that the oppressed masses possessed the capability to liberate themselves.

Importantly, Du Bois’s Black Marxism is manifested in Black Reconstruction’s discussion of white workers that captured both his disillusionment with this group, which led him to advocate separate Black economic cooperation throughout the 1930s, and his later belief that Black and white workers must unite against the ruling class to bring about a socialist future. Eric Foner contends that for Du Bois, “the tragedy of Reconstruction was that white laborers, in the North and South, failed to see their interests were intimately tied up with the emancipated slaves. Reconstruction represented a lost opportunity, a moment when black and white labor could have united to seek common goals but failed to do so” (Foner, 2013, 412).

As a Black Marxist, Du Bois simultaneously acknowledged the ability of Black workers to organize themselves and the potential of all laborers to unite against systems of exploitation. More comprehensively than any other work of its time, Black Reconstruction conveyed that any study of class conflict required a sincere consideration of race, and a deep understanding of racism could not be apprehended without attention to class conflict.

The study of Du Bois’s praxis – his application of ideology, epistemology, and theory to practical action – elucidates a road map of struggle against myriad forms of exploitation to which oppressed people have been, and continue to be, subjected.


This article is an excerpt from Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Why W.E.B. Du Bois Matters,” in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne, 195-210 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2019).

Caption: Madame Fathia and President Kwame Nkrumah honor Dr. WEB Dubois on his 95th birthday in Ghana on February 23, 1963.

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