On Civil Rights Activists W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett On December 18, 1865, in Washington, D. C. , then U. S. Secretary of State William Seward made the formal proclamation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to be law, thus formally abolishing slavery in the United States. However, for newly-freed African-Americans in the U. S. the excruciating uphill battle for equal rights throughout the country had just started. While Reconstruction had the initial promise of integrating formerly oppressed persons into the citizenry with speed and efficiency, the arduous task of racial and cultural integration with civil rights took 100 years to plateau to the level black people experience currently, especially in the South.
In the late 19th century it took radical and persistence efforts by brave and ingenious leaders to bring about change for African-American people, and although the Federal government had kept the nation together through winning the Civil War and passing laws to end slavery, the Federal government also failed to fully enfranchise blacks and tended to ignore cultural and racial turmoil that lingered amongst the population throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Reconstruction time after the Civil War (1866~1877) had the potential to bring change to racial divides and stability via federal projects and fair elections, but the overall effort failed, and by the 1880s much of the South had relapsed into oppressive laws on blacks that took many decades to reverse. William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B. ) Du Bois (1868-1963) and Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) were both influential leaders that each pioneered their own way to continue the pursuit of freedom for black people and better harmonize race relations in a then still-culturally-hostile America.
Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois was born to Mary Burghardt and Alfred Du Bois of Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868. His father’s ethnicity was quite diverse and this left Du Bois with a hint of ambiguity when it came to his ethnic identity. Alfred Du Bois emigrated from Haiti and appeared to have African ancestry as well as French Huguenot. Not long after William was born, his father abandoned him and his mother; Alfred died the following year.
Du Bois’ mother suffered a stroke when he was young which led to them barely able to make ends meet because she could not work. They relied on money from their extended family, and when Du Bois was able to work, he worked four or five odd jobs to contribute to the household income, and all while attending high school. William was a top performer in school and he was the first in his family to attend college. While in high school he edited the school newspaper, The Howler, in which he first demonstrated his genius, thus getting the attention of the principle, Frank Hosmer.
When Du Bois failed to get into Harvard after high school—an ambitious endeavor—Hosmer, with help from some other intellectuals in his community, raised enough money to send him to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk was historically a black school, and while Du Bois attended the university he was exposed to a rich variety of young African-Americans with talent and drive. In just a few months after arriving he joined the school publication, the Fisk Herald, and redirected it to project the strong opinions of his young, black peers.
After graduating from Fisk with honors, his second attempt to attend Harvard University was met with much less resistance (his first attempt was denied because his high school did not meet the rigid academic requirements for Harvard), and he was accepted. By 1895, Du Bois had earned three degrees from Harvard, and he became the first black to obtain a Ph. D. from the university. For a brief time before finishing his doctorate, William studied at the University of Berlin and traveled through much of Europe.
This would be key in broadening his global view of race and sociology, which better prepared him for tackling the continuing racial tension in the U. S. W. E. B. Du Bois quickly started to leave his imprint on history as soon as he entered Academia. After graduating from Harvard, Du Bois accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania and began work on an ethnographical study titled The Philadelphia Negro which focused on every aspect of life for blacks living in urban Philadelphia.
The study was immensely thorough and accurately displayed Du Bois’ attention to detail. According to the reference collection titled Notable Black American Men and published by Gale Research (1998), this study “pioneered what scholars now call ‘urban sociology. ’ His meticulous obsession for detail provided a model for future sociologists in the study of ethnic groups. ” Towards the conclusion of this work he writes the following: …and then to this is added that question of questions: after all who are Men ?
Is every featherless biped to be counted a man and brother ? Are all races and types to be joint heirs of the new earth that men have striven to raise in thirty centuries and more? Shall we not swamp civilization in barbarism and drown genius in indulgence if we seek a mythical Humanity which shall shadow all men ? The answer of the early centuries to this puzzle was clear: those of any nation who can be called Men and endowed with rights are few: they are the privileged classes—the well-born and the accidents of low-birth called up by the King.
The rest, the mass of the nation, the pobel, the mob, are fit to follow, to obey, to dig and delve, but not to think or rule or play the gentleman. We who were born to another philosophy hardly realize how deep-seated and plausible this view of human capabilities and powers once was; how utterly incomprehensible this republic would have been to Charlemagne or Charles V. or Charles I. We rather hasten to forget that once the courtiers of English kings looked upon the ancestors of most Americans with far greater contempt than these Americans look upon Negroes—and perhaps, indeed, had more cause.
We forget that once French peasants were the ” Niggers ” of France, and that German princelings once discussed with doubt the brains and humanity of the bauer (pp. 385-396). This quote is reflective with optimism and historical context; he uses a large timeline in history to illustrate how, sociologically, our civilization has progressed from a much more dimorphic society with respect to class—when nobility thought humans of lower class to be literally sub-human—to a mostly self-governing society where class distinction is blurred and civilizations are striving for equality.
Du Bois moved on to Atlanta University to teach economics in 1898, and he wrote The Souls of Black Folk—published in 1903—which was a mostly philosophical collection of essays dealing with questions arising from the ever-developing integration of blacks in America. One of the more popular concepts in this book was the idea of “double consciousness,” which was what he coined what blacks had to do to realize themselves in America and how they have to view themselves two different ways: the “black” way and the “white” way.
In the quote below he articulates this idea: After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (p. 8). In the Introduction of the most recent edition of The Souls of Black Folk, it is stated that this passage is one of the most quoted in twentieth century literature, and it is apparent why; this explanation is of one that is in no way recent, but it finally articulates what marginalized people in a dominant society construct in their cognitive development to deal with their distinct role in that society.
The early twentieth century was arguably the time period in which Du Bois made the largest impact on his goal of uplifting African-Americans. During this time Booker T. Washington was also working for the advancement of civil rights for blacks. However, Du Bois adamantly disagreed with much of what Mr. Washington wanted to do to reconcile with whites. Booker took a position that it would be progress for blacks to concede suffrage in exchange for vocational training supported by whites and the public.
Du Bois viewed this position to be devastatingly backwards, and postulated that this hindered blacks in two ways; first, it demotes blacks to second-class citizens by taking away their democratic outlet, and secondly, it shifts African-Americans out of higher education and into more thoughtless, labor-intensive careers. While the two men were are at complete odds ideologically, they agreed that they were realizing the same goal, and they corresponded frequently until Washington’s death in 1915. In 1905, Du Bois chaired a meeting in Ontario called the Niagara Movement.
The meeting was attended by a group of about 30 prominent social thinkers who sought equality for minorities, which eventually coalesced into what is now the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He eventually settled into a position at the NAACP editing the Crisis, the organization’s official publication of which he co-founded. While most of the board of the NAACP shared Du Bois’ views of absolute civil rights for all blacks, he became increasingly radical in his opposition to racism both domestically and abroad. Du Bois was unrelenting in his criticism of the black racial oppression seen in the U.
S. and overseas, and this sometimes would not sit well with many at the NAACP, who received a large amount of financial backing from white and Jewish philanthropist. Eventually he was forced to retire in 1934. From 1919 through 1945, Du Bois lead a series of Pan African Congresses, which were mobile think-tanks that met in a different country every 3-5 years to discuss the status and progress of blacks worldwide. During this period, Du Bois became more of a socialist and began to challenge capitalism and become more aligned with the Communist party.
He was indicted by the Justice Department for his socialist views, but was acquitted thanks to the help of his second wife (and long-time friend), Shirley Graham, in raising funds for his legal bout. Du Bois was hired back at the NAACP in 1943, but was asked to retire again in 1948 due to his candid agreement with Soviet politics and still-aggressive campaign against racism in America. In 1961, the Du Bois’ moved to Ghana while William worked on Encyclopedia Africana, at the behest of the Ghanaian President.
This project was a realization of one of Du Bois’ long time dreams. In 1963, when Du Bois attempted to renew his American passport, the U. S. Government denied him a renewal, and as a result he and Shirley became citizens of Ghana. Later that year on August 27th (one day before Martin L. king, Jr. ’s “I Have a Dream” speech), William Du Bois died at the age of ninety-five. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), the first of seven children, was born into slavery in the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi to mother Lizzie Bell and father James Wells.
Ida grew up in the freshly defeated South during the crux of Reconstruction, and her parents, although they continued the occupations they had when they were slaves, wanted to be sure that they and their children obtained as much education as possible. Both of her parents attended secondary school after they were freed, and her father, James, served on the first board of trustees for Rust College. Sadly, at the age of sixteen, both of Well’s parents died from yellow fever, and she took it upon herself to raise her younger siblings, of which five were had survived the illness.
Wells convinced a school that was slightly outside of her hometown that she was eighteen so she could be hired as a teacher. She worked tirelessly to support her siblings while she traveled back and forth as well as attending school. When Wells’ brothers and sisters reached the ages that allowed to work or go off to school, she was then free to attend secondary school, which led her to attend Fisk University, where she first met Du Bois. Acquaintances at best though, Wells and Du Bois apparently collaborated on an article that was published in the Fisk Herald.
The catalyst that solidified Well’s knowledge of what she was sure her contribution would be to her field came when she was attending Fisk University. Ida boarded a train to Nashville on May 4, 1884, and was immediately asked to sit in the aft car which was reserved for smoking. She refused to relocate, as she had a first-class ticket, and the conductor forced her off of the train entirely. Wells filed a suit against the operating rail company as soon as she could and won the settlement for $500.
However, the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court after it was appealed. Wells soon moved to Memphis to teach, and while she was working and living there, she bought into a publication that produced the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later changed to Free Speech) and was made the editor. She made no effort to hide her strong opinions in Free Speech, and after writing a damning article about the degraded shape of the segregated schools in Memphis, she was terminated from her teaching position.
More of a blessing than a setback, Wells worked hard on her publication and eventually worked up enough to own half of the Free Speech. Ida Wells is probably known best for her heated battle against the scourge of lynching in the South. The widely held belief of the time was that lynching was a communal punishment by concerned citizens towards rapists and murders, of whom were always black; but one incident in particular effected Wells deeply.
Tom Moss, a close friend of Wells, was a grocer in Memphis who was becoming quite successful, and this was frustrating other white business owners in the area. The other store owners banded together to form a lynch mob, and they killed Mr. Moss and two others. This shattered the preconceived notion that only wicked people are lynched, and Wells went full-scale attack on the lynching crew; feverishly asking African-Americans to boycott the public transportation in Memphis and if they could even relocate—to move out of Memphis to somewhere in Oklahoma.
Wells even went to Oklahoma to survey the conditions there and made a full report in the Free Speech. Hundreds of African-Americans moved out of Memphis, and the boycott of local business and the public transportation made quite an impact on the local economy; there was quickly an urging from her peers to hold back some of her aggression towards the boycotted. She was well aware of the backlash she might receive, but instead of fleeing or desisting, she purchased a sidearm and always kept it with here.
After two months of traveling throughout the South and investigating the cause, process, and justification for lynchings, she returned and published a searing article that enlightened readers to the fact that a lynching rarely had anything to do with crimes committed by the victim of the lynching. A collection of these articles were compiled into Southern Horror: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, and the following is excerpt illustrating her frustration and demands for action: Nothing is more definitely settled than he must act for himself.
I have shown how he may employ the boycott, emigration and the press, and I feel that by a combination of all these agencies can be effectually stamped out lynch law, that last relic of barbarism and slavery. “The gods help those who help themselves (48). ” She included some more sobering causes, such as with situations of white women having consensual sex with black men in the town—and to save face or just enact revenge—white men would band together in “common defense” of the “victimized” women and kill these black men in cold blood.
It could be said that it was a form of terrorism, because whites hoped lynchings would discourage blacks from becoming too prominent in a community, thus re-enslaving them mentally. When the heavy-handed article made its way around Memphis, the uproar was massive. A large mob destroyed the main Free Speech office and machines and threatened to lynch Wells or her partner on site. Fortunately, just as that issue of the Free Speech came out, Wells embarked on a trip to New York City. It was apparent to her that returning to Tennessee was an absolute death wish, so she accepted a job writing with the New York Age, under editor Thomas Fortune.
Wells took her campaign international and left for Europe and Britain in 1893 to display the tragedies going on in the South to the rest of the Western world. When she returned from Europe, she moved to Chicago and worked on A Red Record, a meticulous detailing of three years of lynching containing empirical data compiled completely from white sources, and at the Conservator. In Chicago, Wells began to settle down. She married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer, and she devoted more time to her family (which included four children).
Wells spent the rest of her life working tirelessly in Chicago and elsewhere advocating the civil rights and advancement of not only African-Americans, but especially African-American women. Ida Wells died of kidney disease at the age of 39 on March 25, 1931. Along with Frederick Douglass from throughout the 19th century, W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida Wells attacked the oppression of blacks head on, and both were heavily chastised because of it. It must be noted that during their lifetime, especially in the late 1890s, speaking out loudly through print and through organization was not mainstream.
Many black civil rights leaders of the time, such as Booker Washington, preferred appeasement instead of standing up to any establishment. Many African-Americans who were finding themselves in influential positions feared retaliation for speaking out on Jim Crow laws or lynching. To illustrate this, there was not a unified and concrete effort for civil rights that was nearly unanimous in their mantra until the mid-1950s and the modern civil rights movement. Until then, efforts like Du Bois’ and Wells’ were mostly marginalized by cautious blacks and fragmented by white supremacist.
However, their contributions can be argued to have set the cornerstone for Martin L. King, Jr. ’s campaign for black liberties. Other than at Fisk University, Du Bois and Wells did collaborate at the Niagara Movement in 1905 and both were co-designers of the NAACP. Coincidentally, both rescinded their memberships due to disagreements with the board, more specifically, the NAACP’s refusal to take a hard-line stance on racism in the U. S. Although greatly influential Americans like Frederick Douglass and Harriet B.
Stowe fought for the freedom of slaves from the institution of Slavery, Wells and Du Bois fought in the “cold war” on slavery, a time in the South when it was illegal by law to have slavery, but the control and fear felt under slavery had not fully dissipated out of the psyche of many Southern blacks. WORKS CITED Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. 3rd ed. Piscatawy, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 1984. Print Du Bois, W. E. B. The Negro. New York: Holt. 1915. Print. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.
Philadelphia: Publications of the University of Pennsylvania. 1899. Print. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. , 2007. Print. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: 8th ed. A. C. McClurg & Co. 1909. Print. “Ida B. Wells Barnett. ” World of Sociology. 2 vols. Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. : Gale, 2009. http://galenet. galegroup. com. libproxy. mpc. edu/servlet/BioRC. 18 Nov 2009 “Ida. B. Wells-Barnett. ” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. : Gale, 2009. http://galenet. galegroup. com. libproxy. mpc. edu/servlet/BioRC. 18 Nov 2009 “Ida B. Wells-Barnett. ” Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III. Edited by Terrie M. Rooney. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. : Gale, 2009. http://galenet. galegroup. com. libproxy. mpc. edu/servlet/BioRC/ 18 Nov 2009 “Ida Wells-Barnett. ” Historic World Leaders. Gale Research, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. : Gale, 2009. http://galenet. galegroup. com. libproxy. pc. edu/servlet/BioRC. 18 Nov 2009 Schecter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform. UNC Press. 2001. Print. “W. E. B. Du Bois. ” Notable Black American Men. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. : Gale, 2009. http://galenet. galegroup. com. libproxy. mpc. edu/servlet/BioRC. 18 Nov 2009. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. On Lynchings: Southern Horrors, A Red Record, Mob Rule in New Orleans. University of Michigan: Ayer Co. 1991. Print. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Ed. Miriam DeCosta-Willis. Boston: Beacon Press. 1995. Print.