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W.E.B. Du Bois: Volume II
David Levering Lewis completes his biography of a fascinating African-American

Archived article from Feb 2, 2001

By Alice Roche Cody  

When David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King Jr. University Professor on the New Brunswick campus, set out to write a one-volume biography of the black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, he knew the enormity of the challenge before him. But he never dreamed that the task would grow into two mammoth volumes and take more than 15 years of his life to craft. The research alone required some 200 interviews and extensive travel across the United States, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Africa and Mexico. Lewis pored through documents and archives and sifted through Du Bois' memoirs.

"It sounds awesome, and to tell you the truth, I could have added another 50 pages," says Lewis of his newly released 715-page volume, "W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963" (Henry Holt). The book, volume two of the biography, traces the second half of the life of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois -- activist, historian, scholar, sociologist, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the leading proponent of the civil rights movement -- until his death at age 95. The biography, which has gained critical acclaim, was a 2000 National Book Award Finalist.

Lewis' earlier book, "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919" (Henry Holt, 1993), follows Du Bois' life from his birth in Great Barrington, Mass., to his role in founding the NAACP in 1910. For that volume Lewis received top honors: the Bancroft, Parkman and Pulitzer prizes, as well as a $375,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

The first volume details Du Bois' participation in the 1905 Niagara Movement, which called for economic and educational equality and opportunity for blacks, an end to segregation and an end to discrimination. This stance directly opposed the rhetoric of the influential black educator Booker T. Washington, who advocated accommodation and compromise with whites. Du Bois' work in the Niagara Movement was crucial in founding the NAACP, an organization dedicated to improving the conditions of blacks in the United States.

The second volume moves from Du Bois' opposition to Washington to the ongoing struggle between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born activist whose "back to Africa" movement Du Bois opposed, calling instead for "the gradual empowerment of the darker world" to bring an end to imperialism and racism, writes Lewis.

"Garvey threatened the continuity of these efforts with an opera bouffe act that amounted to little more, really, than pageantry and incantation," writes Lewis. Du Bois considered Garvey's battle cry, "Africa for the Africans," a rash slogan without a carefully thought-out plan. Lewis asserts that Du Bois had advocated Africa for the Africans, but he had never called for Africa to be ruled by outsiders, such as West Indians or American Negroes.

In 1919, the 51-year-old Du Bois was the unchallenged editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, which boasted a monthly circulation of 100,000. Through the pages of The Crisis and in a series of magazine essays such as "Souls of White Folk," Du Bois became the voice for black Americans seeking racial equality and justice. "Du Bois seemed almost to scream," writes Lewis, "at what had been done to men and women of Negro descent in the United States through 'orgy, cruelty, barbarism, and murder.'"

Indeed, there was plenty to scream about. Lewis powerfully depicts the ugly state of race relations at that time, vividly describing the lynching of uniformed black soldiers as they returned home from fighting in World War I and the "Red Summer" of 1919 when 76 black men and women were lynched by angry white mobs in the South.

Du Bois warned his readers: "Terrible as the Great War had been, it was nothing compared to the impending holocaust of the races ... that fight for freedom which black and brown and yellow men must and will make unless their oppression and humiliation and insult at the hands of the White World cease." A complex man


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