Friday 27 August 2010

Famous Last Words

W E B Du Bois died on 27 August 1963 and was buried on 29 August 1963. Immediately after his internment, a last message from him to the world was read to the mourners. Characteristically, he had actually composed this message during 1957 and had left it in safe-keeping until it was needed !

It is, in my view, a deeply positive message ;

"It is much more difficult in theory than actually to say the last good-bye to one`s loved ones and friends and to all the familiar things of this life.

I am going to take a long, deep and endless sleep. This is not a punishment but a privilege to which I have looked forward for years.

I have loved my work. I have loved people and my play, but always I have been uplifted by the thought that what I have done well will live long and justify my life : that what I have done ill or never finished can now be handed on to others for endless days to be finished, perhaps better than I could have done.

And that peace will be my applause.

One thing alone I charge you. As you live, believe in life ! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life.

The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.


Wednesday 25 August 2010

William Henry Melish on W E B Du Bois, W E B Du Bois on Henry Melish

W E B Du Bois on William Howard Melish  ;

"Howard Melish is on of the few Christian clergyman for whom I have the highest respect. Honest and conscientious, believing sincerely in much of the Christian dogma, which I reject, but working honestly and without hypocrisy, for the guidance of the young, for the uplift of the poor and ignorant, and for the betterment of his city and his country...Here is a young man of ideal character, of impeccable morals ; a hard worker, especially among the poor and unfortunate."

Melish, who tells his own story in a book, Strength for Struggle, was a priest who ran a church called Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. W E B Du Bois lived nearby and it would seem Melish was a fairly regular visitor to the home of W E B and Shirley Graham Du Bois. 

Melish seems to have held Communist political beliefs whilst remaining a Christian himself. I`m not in a position to comment on how he reconciled the two, or on his stances on particular issues, but it does seem clear that he was pro-Soviet (not just anti- the Cold War) at a very ugly time in Soviet history. Inevitably, he became the target of McCarthyite harassment which prevented many of his activities - moves to remove him from his Church went as far as the New York Supreme Court on two separate occasions -  but he continued to be involved in many issues, working with single mothers and later joining a Civil Rights organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Du Bois in the Autobiography portrays Melish as an earnest, hardworking priest persecuted because his church was attracting "workers and Negroes". Others have speculated that the chief persecutor of the Melishes, James P De Wolfe, had sectarian motives. Undoubtedly, the Rev Melish did much good in his life, but there seems little doubt that his political views were, to say the least, questionable. For myself I would hope that most people could recognise that he did a lot of good in his life, but let`s not pretend he was perfect !

In September 1963, the Rev. Melish flew to Ghana to address a Memorial Service for Du Bois. On his return, he had cheaply produced booklets made up containing the text of his speech, which he apparently sold for small sums in the Brooklyn area to raise funds for his church. My copy was obtained fairly cheaply and from what I`ve seen, quite a few have survived to this day.

The Rev. Melish both opened and closed his address with quotes from a piece by Walt Whitman, a poet Du Bois admired.

The rest is an amiable enough trundle through the life of Du Bois, certainly worth a read.

 I was  puzzled by a couple of references to incidents I don`t recall having seen mentioned elsewhere - one is a reference to hostility to research work done by Du Bois and  
others in `Lownes` (Lowndes ?) County - "Du Bois and his team of investigators ...met resistance, harassment and shotgun blasts"  - and  the other concerns the Atlanta Riots, which he says left the first Mrs Du Bois "injured in a manner that contributed to her invalidism in later life" and refers to their daughter Yolande "hiding in a stair well". I`ve checked against the Autobiography and David Levering Lewis` Biography but cannot see any reference to these details, which I don`t recall having seen in any other books by/about Du Bois either. Maybe someone else can cast light on this ?

Elsewhere, he refers to Du Bois standing for public office later in life for the Progressive Party rather than the American Labor Party. I have been able to resolve this ; Aptheker in his notes to Against Racism states that the American Labor Party was a name used by the Progressive Party in New York only, so presumably that`s the explanation.

At the end of the booklet are a selection of tributes to Du Bois from various bodies, including the NAACP Board of Directors ( "His contributions to the ageless struggle for human rights were imperishable. His passage leaves a great void which there is no immediate prospect of filling." ), an interesting one from Madison S Jones at the New York Commission of Human Rights ( "I had the honor of working with him.. I am proud to say he gave me a great deal of counsel, advice and guidance...The world is better for his massive contribution towards freedom for all." ) and one from Malcolm Cowley, President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters ( "The Institute has lost the most distinguished member whose passing will be mourned by the world of letters" ).

As we approach another anniversary of the death of W E B Du Bois, it`s interesting to reflect on his long life, prolific writing career and dedication to progressive causes.

My intentions in running this blog are pretty basic. If I can demonstrate that it`s possible to build up an interesting Du Bois collection even if, like me, you`re perennially short of both time and money, and if I can encourage others - particularly the young - to take an interest in Du Bois` life and work, I`ll be happy.

On a slightly more ambitious note, I would hope it`s possible for people of goodwill to build on the positive aspects of Du Bois` work whilst accepting that he had flaws - we all have flaws, after all ! If I voice the odd criticism, that`s the reason.  At the end of the day,  uncritical appreciation is not appreciation at all !

Thursday 10 June 2010

W E B Du Bois on Benjamin Franklin

The Story of Benjamin Franklin by W E B Du Bois is little-known and generally regarded as little more than a curiosity. Published by the rather grand-sounding Secretariat of the World Council of Peace, Vienna during 1956, the work contains no original research by Du Bois , but in his Foreword he comments "My chief sources of information have been the celebrated Franklin `autobiography`, the monumental work by Carl van Doren, and the shorter work by Samuel Morse. My own social studies in Philadelphia and New England have given me some personal knowledge of Franklin`s environment."

The circumstances surrounding the publication are explained in the Preface;

"The 250th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin has been celebrated by the whole world.
The World Council of Peace included this anniversary among the great cultural anniversaries to be celebrated in 1956.
The choice was made to enable the peace movement to associate itself with the commemoration of a man who, by his own unaided efforts, became his country`s greatest journalist, a scientist of world renown who paved the way for all modern research on electricity, and a great citizen who worked for his country`s independence and strove to win it through negotiation."

Among other observations, the Preface notes that ;

"The end of his life was the culminating point in the ascending  development of a man who, from being a slave dealer became an opponent of slavery, from being a colonialist ended by drawing up his country`s Declaration of Independence." 

Shirley Graham Du Bois in His Day is Marching On ; A Memoir of W E B Du Bois, also comments on the circumstances surrounding publication of the booklet ; 

"Since 1951 Du Bois had received many invitations from abroad which the State Department had prevented him from accepting, never, however, for any occasion in which he was so deeply, and over so many years involved*. When he was invited to the People`s Republic of China to participate in the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin (an anniversary scarcely noted in the United States), he had met the passport refusal by writing a small, beautifully illustrated book on Benjamin Franklin and sending it to China. He had countered the State Department`s refusal to return his passport so that he could attend a World Festival of Youth and Students by publishing a scathing article in the National Guardian in which he quoted from his letter to the Passport Office : "My beliefs are none of your business. I repeat my demand for a passport in accordance with the Constitution of the United States, the laws of the land, and the decision of the Courts."  

I am not so sure that I would have used the phrase "beautifully illustrated"(as distinct from just "illustrated"), but then again I`m not given to hyperbole ! It is a nice enough little booklet and I am quite proud of my copy. For the moment I won`t pen a review as I think the background story is interesting in it`s own right. We may return to this booklet in the fullness of time however.

* Here she refers to the rejection of passport applications by Mr and Mrs Du Bois, applications made in order to attend Ghana`s Independence Ceremony during March 1957. Shirley also quotes an editorial in the Accra Evening News, which pointed out the contradiction in the fact the "America is the very first nation outside the Commonwealth to establish full diplomatic relations with free Ghana" but had denied a passport to Dr Du Bois "to see the historic birth of Ghana" and commented "That the position remained unchanged after our Prime Minister`s personal intervention is the first serious slap in the face of Pan-Africanism since our emergence to Independence." (Evening News, Accra, Ghana, 13 March 1957).


Thursday 29 April 2010

"A People`s Leader" - W E B Du Bois and Philip Foner on Frederick Douglass

`A People`s Leader` was the headline given by Masses and Mainstream magazine (May 1950) to a review by W E B Du Bois of the first two volumes of Philip S Foner`s The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, which had been published by New York publishing company International.

Du Bois opened his review by saying that Foner`s book "puts all America under deep obligation" and was "in happy contrast to the neglect of Douglass by American historians".

He commented "It has been difficult for America to see Frederick Douglass in his correct perspective : he was a Negro and therefore in a special category ; he was certainly an unusual Negro, but how was one to compare him with white folk ? There were no accepted standards of comparison."

He quotes an (unnamed) editor`s account of hearing Douglass speak in 1841;

"This is an extraordinary man. He was cut out for a hero...As a speaker he has few equals. It is not declamation - but oratory, power of debate. He has wit, argument, sarcasm, pathos...His voice is highly melodious and rich, and his enunciation quite elegant, and yet he has been but two or three years out of the house of bondage."

Du Bois indicates that this opinion was shared by many, in many parts of the word, but feels that in itself it tells us little ;   "But oratory is in a sense superficial ; what was the man beneath ? Foner traces his intellectual growth, with perhaps not enough  emphasis on the continuous study that gave Douglass more than a college training within seven years after learning to read."

Du Bois quotes Douglass` shocked reaction to the poverty and misery he saw in Ireland ; "The scenes I witnessed were such as to make me `blush, and hang my head to think myself a man`. I speak truly when I say I dreaded to go out of the house. The streets were almost literally alive with beggars."

Du Bois takes up the story. "Soon he was developing into a man who could see the evils of the world and not simply the plight of his own people", and quotes with approval his comment "I am not only an American slave, but a man, and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood."

"Particularly was his growth helped by meeting men and being treated as an equal" Du Bois remarks, "He talked and ate with some of the great figures of his day and returned to the United States, not only a Negro, but a world citizen."

Without wanting to play the `armchair psychoanalyst`, it is clear that Du Bois is becoming sidetracked here from reviewing the book and it seems likely that Du Bois was identifying very strongly with Douglass.While a spirit of academic detachment can be a good thing, his close identification with his subject gives us something of an insight into WEBD`s own character and thinking, as well as into the character of Douglass.

Returning to the matter in hand, he comments that in Foner`s book "one can follow details of  (Douglass`s) life and compare them with what he was thinking and saying...Those of us who have always thought of Douglass principally as a speaker will be amazed at the virility and clarity of his writing". In support of this he quotes Foner`s contention that Douglass` "editorials, speeches and letters...are among the most penetrating and eloquent of any American."

"He grew as he worked and he wrote," says Du Bois, "from the lecture platform he went into the editor`s chair ; he assumed more and more the leadership of free Negroes, a difficult and intelligent group." Is it too much to think he was having a little wry joke with us, as Douglass`s story begins to sound more than a little like his own, and he reflected on the difficulties he himself had experienced ?

"He was active in the temperance movement", Du Bois continues, "he announced himself a Chartist and endorsed the land reform movement...he opposed capital punishment and was a pioneer for women`s rights."

He touches on Douglass` falling out with his former ally Garrison, apparently because Douglass had indicated he would approve if slaves used violence to free themselves (it`s worth reminding ourselves here that slaveowners were not slow to use violence to keep their slaves, and that the slave trade was inherently violent from start to finish), but points out that Harriet Beecher Stowe had been quick to write to Garrison defending Douglass` new views as "a genuine growth of his own convictions."

Douglass, we learn, "moved into politics ; into both the Liberty and Free Soil parties and finally, with some reluctance, voted with the Republicans." He regarded his association with John Brown to be "among the highest privileges of my life."

Here the first two volumes of Foner`s work end, and here Du Bois` review ends also. "These first two volumes are clear, exhaustive and convincing" he concludes. "The figure of a great man rises from them."

I hope this proves helpful to those who might not otherwise see the review (though you should be able to pick up the appropriate back issue of M and M quite cheaply on or if you want your own copy).

 I also  hope the late Dr Du Bois would forgive me my poor punctuation and rather brutal pruning of his review in an effort to  keep this article reasonably concise !

Lastly, if you were interested in this article, you may also be interesed in some of my other efforts ;

Civil Rights Showdown Revisited  - 17 April 2010
Blasts From the Past ; Angus Cameron on McCarthyism -  11 April 2010
Fighting Slavery and Climate Change in Yorksire  - 2 April 2010
Civil Rights Showdown - 13 March 2010

all to be found at



Friday 19 March 2010

Postal Paraphernalia # 2

I don`t think too much additional comment is needed from me here. Following on from the original Postal Paraphernalia a few weeks ago, here are two more American first day covers celebrating the life and times of W E B Du Bois.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Happy Birthday W E B Du Bois !

Today would have been W E B Du Bois` birthday (he was born 23 February 1868), so this seems a good opportunity to share some current news which I`m sure would meet with his approval.

Firstly, the NAACP is marking 100 years of the NAACP and The Crisis, so Crisis Publishing and Gibbs Smith Publishing have teamed up to produce a new book, `NAACP 100 - Celebrating A Century ; 100 Years In Pictures`. The book is currently available, and can be ordered via the NAACP website, or contact Kim Eddy at for more information.

Secondly, Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis has co-edited (along with Michael Nash and Daniel Leab) a volume entitled Red Activists and Black Freedom, about James and Esther Jackson, close friends of both Du Bois and Robeson during the `50s. The book,  which was launched during January of this year,  arose from a symposium during 2006 entitled `James and Esther Jackson ; The American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement`. Contributors include Tim Johnson, Maurice Jackson, Michael Anderson and Angela Davis. The book is published by Routledge.

Levering Lewis has been sharply critical  of some of the stances taken by Du Bois later in life, so this may seem a surprising project for him. However, I understand he has interviewed the Jacksons several times in the course of research for his books and believes that it is impossible to understand the Civil Rights Movement of the `60s without first understanding the pioneering work they undertook in the `30s. He is at pains to stress that the Civil Rights movement didn`t begin with Martin Luther King, it has a long history and is ongoing. Esther Jackson has commented that "the book would not have been possible" without Lewis. It`s interesting to note that the  launch of the book was attended by  Jarvis Tyner, once a key figure in the Committee to Defend Dr Du Bois.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Book Review #3 ; Kathryn T Cryan-Hicks - W E B Du Bois : Crusader for Peace

Kathryn T Cryan-Hicks (author) , David H Huckins (illustrator) - W E B Du Bois : Crusader for Peace - Discovery Enterprises, Lowell , Massacussets, 1991. In the Picture Book Biography Series. Contains a message from Benjamin L Hooks.

I make no apologies for including a book aimed at youngsters in this blog, particularly one as good as this !

Kathryn T Cryan-Hicks has a nice writing style, very clearly expressed, but still obviously well-researched and informative. There is no sense of her `dumbing down` for a younger audience. Interestingly, I notice at the front of the book, under the heading A Word on the Literature, a few suggestions on further reading for adults interested in Du Bois. I have to say her selections are very good and include some I would have mentioned myself ( Shirley Graham Du Bois - His Day is Marching On, Manning Marable - W E B Du Bois : Black Radical Democrat, Mark Stafford - W E B Du Bois : Scholar and Activist).

The book is enhanced by a number of excellent full-page colour illustrations by David H Huckins. These are done to a high standard and the images complement Ms Cryan-Hicks` words nicely.

It`s interesting to see how the use of simple words can actually be more effective than a heavily embellished style ; 

"Some people said W E B Du Bois was ahead of his time. They called him a prophet because he saw things that others didn`t see. One thing is evident. While other people hid from the world, afraid of different cultures, different ideologies, Du Bois was not afraid to seek the truth, and to look it squarely in the face. He was not afraid to act upon his new insights and to discard ill-fitting philosophies. His life manifested this search to understand people and the world, and to find a way for all people to live together peacefully."

A pretty good epitaph I should say !

NOTES - A bit of googling has produced the fact that Kathryn T Cryan-Hicks is Assistant Director of Programs and Community relations at Chelmsford Public Library (Chelmsford, Massachusetts, not Chelmsford, UK) and a member of Chelmsford Climate Action Network ( ) . I didn`t find anything about David H Huckins other than a passing reference which seemed to indicate a connection with the world of music. I had little luck finding out more about Discovery Enterprises, though I note they did publish a series called Perspectives on History which included one called The Lowell Mill Girls : Life in the Factory by Jo Anne B Weisman which I thought sounded interesting. In addition to his many other activities, Benjamin L Hooks has been a lawyer, a businessman, a Baptist Minister and was Executive Director of the NAACP from 1977 - 1993.  He is founder of the Benjamin L Hooks Institute for Social Change.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Postal Paraphernalia

These don`t really need much comment from me. The US postal service paid tribute to Dr Du Bois in 1992 and 1998 by issuing commemorative stamps, as you`ll see from the images below. Sadly, the 1998 first day cover doesn`t reproduce too well because of the use of gold gilt, which reflects light, but I`m including it for interest`s sake.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Quotations #2 - Du Bois on Jefferson Davis

In June 1890, Du Du Bois graduated with honors in philosophy, and was asked to make a speech at his `commencement`, which I assume is the US equivalent of graduation. Du Bois, a man of mixed race, chose the tricky subject of Jefferson Davis, a champion of slavery and the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.

The next two paragraphs are from Mark Stafford`s W E B du Bois : Scholar and Activist (Chelsea House, New York, 1989. In the Black Americans of Achievement series) ;

`Du Bois` speech...was as impassioned as it was caustic. Davis, he said, satisfied the nation`s hunger for an individualist who was also an oppressor. Du Bois called the southern leader a "peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free". Like all "strong men" he sought "the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the has thus happened that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness."

The speech received an overwhelming response. "Du Bois handled his difficult and hazardous subject with absoloute good taste, great moderation and almost contemptuous fairness," The Nation reported. "He is an excellent scholar in every way, and altogether the best black man that has come to Cambridge" added a Harvard professor.`

Stafford states that as a result of this speech the American Historical Association invited Du Bois to address one of its` meetings, and also  quotes further praise for the speech from the New York Independent.

The full text of Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization can be found in a Du Bois anthology edited by Herbert Aptheker, Against Racism ; Unpublished Essays 1887 - 1961, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

It`s worth pointing out that, while passages of the speech are certainly caustic, the Dr was on the whole even-handed and even, to a degree, diplomatic, stressing that "I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented ; its foundation is the idea of the strong man - individualism coupled with the rule of might - and it is this idea that has made the logic of even modern history, the cool logic of the club".

He also pointed out that Davis was "a naturally brave and generous man" and that "such a type is not wholly evil or fruitless : the world has needed and will need its Jefferson Davises ; but such a type is incomplete and can never serve its best purpose until checked by its complementary ideas".

Clearly it is a youthful work, and elsewhere in the same speech we find some rather dated ideas, and some rather dated language. Some later commentators, particularly the more radical ones, find it rather submissive and `accomodationist` . They may have a point, though personally I think it is partly his choice of words that gives that impression.

However that may be, the essential message seems pretty clear, and in my view still relevant and thought-provoking. Du Bois summarised his aims in making the speech  in this way ; "the submission of the Strong to the advance of all - not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that `to no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of truth`, that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development."


It is interesting to note that some of these sentiments, voiced by Du Bois so long ago, appear to anticipate areas of feminist thinking from the `60s and `70s. We know that many feminists from this era have asserted that they took much of their thinking from the American Civil Rights movement*. It would be interesting to know if Dr Du Bois, well-known as an early advocate of women`s rights, had a particular influence there. 

* This point is made by Jenny Bourne in her  Towards an Anti-Racist Feminism ( IRR, London, 1984). Jo O`Brien makes similar comments in the conclusion to her Women`s Liberation in Labour History : A Case Study From Nottingham (BRPF, Nottingham, 1972), though her comments go more to her motivation in writing her pamphlet, which is about English working class women in the 19th century, than to it`s content.

Bourne`s pamphlet is still available, at a very reasonable price, from the Institute of Race Relations, London. I don`t run this blog as an adjunct to our business, but as it happpens, I do have a copy of O`Brien`s pamphlet for sale ;

but just to re-iterate, her comments on feminism and civil rights are only a small part of a pamphlet largely concerned wth other matters.