When W.E.B Du Bois died a demonstration of 200,000 people—the famous Washington march for jobs and freedom—held a minute’s silence in his honour.
It was a profound tribute to the life of one of the US’s most important anti-racist theorists and activists.
Du Bois was one of the most prolific and popular sociologists, academics and civil rights activists of the first half of the 20th century.
From as early as 1897 Du Bois’s work with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics produced groundbreaking studies into the lives of black people living in the US southern states.
It examined conditions for both black and white workers after the abolition of slavery.
Du Bois’s analysis of race and class after the American civil war was one of his most important contributions.
In his book Black Reconstruction in America written in 1935 Du Bois describes how violence and terror were used against black workers’ resistance between 1860-1880.
He also came to conclusions about how racism was used to divide black and white workers.
“The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply.”
Du Bois didn’t stop at theory. He was a lifelong activist.
He was an important voice in the fight against colonialism. In 1919 Du Bois organised the Pan-African Congress in Paris, where delegates gathered to discuss the decolonisation of Africa.
As he got older Du Bois became more radical and came to more revolutionary conclusions
And he co-founded civil rights groups The Niagara Movement and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed in 1910.
Du Bois played many roles in the NAACP including the founder and editor of its monthly magazine The Crisis.
Both of these organisations advocated for the advancement of the legal and democratic rights of black people, through reform.
But as he got older Du Bois became more radical and came to more revolutionary conclusions.
At the height of the Cold War the US state waged a witch hunt of people suspected of being communists or of having communist sympathies.
In 1951 Du Bois was arrested and accused of being a spy for Stalinist Russia. He had been circulating a petition in protest of nuclear weapons.
The NAACP sought to distance themselves from Du Bois after this. Its central office contacted local chapters with advice about “not touching” DuBois’s case.
After the ordeal, Du Bois condemned the conservatism of the black middle class that dominated the NAACP.
He wrote that they “hated ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ as much as any white American.”
After his public indictment, Du Bois’s writings were removed from thousands of libraries and universities. His passport was illegally withheld for seven years.
But despite this at the age of 93, Du Bois joined the Communist Party.
In his application to the party, he wrote, “Communism—the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute—this is the only way of human life.”