There can be few individuals who could outshine W. E. B. Du Bois – one of the outstanding intellectuals of the early twentieth century. Humanist, philosopher, American civil rights activist and Pan Africanist, he was a towering figure. Du Bois was also an important influence in the shaping of black opinion in South Africa and in the emergence of the African National Congress.
It was therefore a treat when a good friend of mine – Howard R. Cell – told me how he recalled hearing Du Bois in 1959. Howard Cell went on to be a professor of philosophy and a strong civil rights activist, as well as a staunch member of the Quaker community.
This is Howard’s recollection of that evening with Du Bois.
In the fall of 1959, I attended a talk by W.E.B. Dubois at the University of Wisconsin. DuBois was 91 and quite frail; he was assisted to the front of the room by two students. But he stood at the lectern to give his talk, his voice was strong, and he still possessed a charismatic presence. I felt that presence quite strongly that night; it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that I was awestruck. Here was the man who helped form the NAACP in 1909 and devoted his long life to the struggle for racial equality and for peace. In my view he was an American hero.
Though I don’t remember what he said in much detail, which is hardly surprising, I do recall that he spoke for a half hour or so about the countries in Africa that had gained their independence and what roles they might be expected to play in the community of nations. In particular, he mentioned his disappointment at not being able to attend the celebration of Ghana’s independence two years previously, but indicated that he planned to visit there soon. (The U.S. Government had confiscated his passport in 1951 following a trial, though not a conviction, related to his opposition to nuclear weapons. His passport was restored in 1959 and he went to Ghana the next year, and then again in 1961 until his death in Accra two years later.)
I also remember that after he concluded his talk and offered to respond to questions, one student asked: “Which of your many books would you particularly recommend that I read?” Dubois replied, without hesitation: The Souls of Black Folk. Ironically, that very book was assigned in a class I took the following semester.
But also, during the spring 1960 semester, and just a few months after hearing DuBois speak, I found myself on a picket line in front of the Woolworths in Madison, along with hundreds of other students, in sympathy and support for the students who had begun the historic sit-in demonstrations at the Woolworths in Greensboro, N.C.
I left Wisconsin that summer and began a graduate program at the University of Texas in Austin. Early that fall, I became a member of the steering committee of the Students for Direct Action which was engaged in demonstrations to integrate various facilities just across the street from the campus. We began with the movie theatre, and after months and months of ‘stand-ins’, as we called them, the owners of the theatre agreed to admit all Americans. The stand-in consisted of getting in line to buy a ticket, and asking at the window if the theatre admitted all Americans; we were told that only white Americans were admitted, or words to that effect (like “No”); and we would say, that’s unfortunate, and go to the back of the line . It was an inexpensive way to spend an evening with friends, of course, though rather expensive for the movie theatre since our stand-in discouraged others from getting into the rather lengthy line. (John Lewis refers to the Austin stand-ins, in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind, as an influence on the strategies adopted in Nashville.) Subsequently, Paula and I were active in CORE in California, in the mid-1960s, and in other organizations and activities relating to civil rights and peace since then.
So I’ve wondered, from time to time, if my involvement in the Civil Rights movement at UT may have been influenced by W.E.B. Dubois and the talk he gave at the University of Wisconsin one evening in the fall of 1959. I don’t remember, unfortunately, whether he mentioned anything about the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, though it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t. What I do remember, with great clarity, was that I had the extraordinary experience of being in the presence of a person who had spent a lifetime struggling against the very system that I had grown up in—the Jim Crow system that prevailed in North Carolina and throughout the South, but also the system of white privilege that prevailed throughout the country then, and still prevails in so many ways. (His essay, The Souls of White Folk, addresses this directly.) W.E.B. Dubois was a remarkable individual indeed, who had a significant impact on this country and, I suspect, on my own life.