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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pictured) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868.
Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard (where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate) he became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was started in 1909.
Earlier, Du Bois had risen to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists that wanted equal rights for blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington, which provided that Southern blacks would work and submit to white political rule.
Washington’s agreement also stated Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of racial uplift. Du Bois believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership.
Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics. He strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in education, and discrimination in employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. Du Bois was a proponent of Pan-Africanism. He helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for the independence of African colonies from European powers.
Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa, and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of American black soldiers in France and documented widespread prejudice and racism in the United States military.
Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, is a seminal work in African-American literature. Du Bois’ 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Douglass, he popularized the use of the term color line.
This term was used to represent the injustice of the separate but equal doctrine prevalent in American social and political life. He opens The Souls of Black Folk with the central thesis of much of his life’s work: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” His 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn is regarded in part as one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology.
Du Bois also published two other life stories. All three of them contained essays on sociology, politics, and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, Du Bois published many influential pieces. He believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism. Du Bois was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament.
Du Bois died at 95 years of age on August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana.
The United States’ Civil Rights Act (embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life) was enacted a year after his death.