William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and his Contributions to the Civil Rights & Pan-African Movements

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

W.E.B Du Bois

Before black history month wraps up, we want to give homage to one of the transformative leaders of the civil rights and Pan African movements.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963). An American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. He was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard — an achievement that both reflected and affirmed his faith in the life-changing power of education. He became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 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 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." He wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains essays on sociology, politics and history.

Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. In his role as editor of the NAACP's journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. After a brief second stint at Atlanta University, Du Bois returned to the NAACP as director of special research in 1944 and represented the organization at the first meeting of the United Nations. 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. Du Bois worked for the NAACP for 24 years, during which time he published his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, according to history channel online.

As an editor of the NAACP journal, Du Bois reached out to many prominent figures in his time and one of them was Albert Einstein. According to Brain Pickings, an article by Maria Popova “Albert Einstein’s Little-Known Correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois About Equality and Racial Justice,” “Dr. Du Bois’s correspondence with Einstein, included in Einstein on Race and Racism (public library), begins with this magnificently courteous invitation from October 14, 1931 — originally written in German and sent while Einstein was still living in Berlin.” In 1892, Du Bois worked towards a Ph.D. at the University of Berlin until his funding ran out, hence why he was fluent in German. In his letter to Einstein, Du Bois wrote:


I am taking the liberty of sending you herewith some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes and in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you of 500 to 1,000 words on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom.

With regard to myself, you will find something about me in “Who’s Who in America.” I was formerly a student of Wagner and Schmoller in the University of Berlin. I should greatly appreciate word from you.

Very sincerely yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois

Two weeks later, 51-year-old Einstein replied, with equal courtesy, in the affirmative:

My Dear Sir!

Einstein's letter to W.E.B Du Bois: Credit, Brain Pickings

Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper. Because of my excessive workload I could not send a longer explanation.

With Distinguished respect,

Albert Einstein

Du Bois translated Einstein’s essay himself and introduced it in The Crisis:

It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class. The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantage suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudiced estimate because of the suggestive influence of the majority, and come to regard people like themselves as inferior. This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained.

The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.

Albert Einstein

This correspondence is a testament to what it means to live in a democratic society where freedom of speech, exchange of dialogue is common place and sacrosanct.

Moreover, one of Du Bois’ most notable work was his faith in the life-changing power of education. Du Bois decided to enroll his daughter, Yolande in one of England’s most prestigious and expensive public boarding schools: Bedales, an alma mater to many prominent figures. In an extraordinary letter Dr. Du Bois wrote to his almost 14 year old daughter, Yolande shortly after she arrived in England; he wanted to make sure, in words loving and luminous, that his teenage daughter understood both her privilege and her indelible human rights.

Yolande Du Bois

Dear Little Daughter:

I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly. Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.

Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.

Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.

Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.

I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.

Lovingly yours,


Some remarkable wise, timeless and witty words to live by. Hence, it’s fair to say this advice is for us all.

Finally, Du Bois’ efforts to the Pan African movement was one of the most outstanding works and contributions of any civil rights leader to say the least. When Ghana become the First Nation on the continent to obtain its independence from Great Britain in 1957, President Nkrumah invited Du Bois to Africa to participate in Ghana’s independence celebration. Unfortunately, Du Bois was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport in 1951. However, by 1960 – the "Year of Africa" – Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to cross the Atlantic and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana. Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.

While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with president Nkrumah about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana.

Kwame Nkrumah Monument

Du Bois’s final home, a sleepy bungalow in a leafy enclave of Accra, Ghana’s capital, still stands. The tombs of Du Bois and his second wife, Shirley, sit next to his former home, which is today a tiny, modest museum at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture. The museum features hundreds of books Du Bois brought with him to Ghana. Their titles reflect his eclectic background: British Slavery and the Abolition, The Mark of the Oppressor, Into China, Time in New England, History of the Jews in the United States and American Novels and Stories of Henry James. Glass cases feature Du Bois’s graduation robes from Harvard; notebooks from 1905 covered with his even script; an 1868 photo of his father faded into sepia; scrolls that were gifts from China (Du Bois, who joined the American Communist Party in 1961, met and admired Mao Zedong); an 1884 photo with his high school class in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; and other memorabilia. Also, found in the museum, are photos of African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and writer Maya Angelou visiting Ghana and meeting Nkrumah.

W.E.B Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture

In his poem “Ghana,” which is dedicated to Nkrumah, Du Bois wrote:

I went to Moscow; Ignorance grown wise taught me Wisdom; I went to Peking: Poverty grown rich Showed me the wealth of Work I came to Accra.

Here at last, I looked back on my Dream; I heard the Voice that loosed The Long-looked dungeons of my soul I sensed that Africa had come Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.

While it is sometimes stated that Du Bois renounced his U.S. citizenship at that and he stated his intention to do so, Du Bois never actually did. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 27, 1963, in the capital of Accra at the age of 95. The following day, at the March on Washington, speaker Roy Wilkins asked the hundreds of thousands of marchers to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, embodying many of the reforms Du Bois had campaigned for his entire life, was enacted almost a year after his death.

Du Bois was given a state funeral on August 29–30, 1963, at Nkrumah's request, and buried beside the western wall of Christiansborg Castle (now Osu Castle), then the seat of government in Accra. In 1985, another state ceremony honored Du Bois. With the ashes of his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, who had died in 1977, his body was re-interred at their former home in Accra, which was dedicated the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan African Culture in his memory. Du Bois's first wife Nina, their son Burghardt, and their daughter Yolande, who died in 1961, were buried in the cemetery of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, his hometown.

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