Perhaps the most innovative and influential American intellectual of the 20th century was Dr. W. E. B. Dubois. No other African American articulated more clearly the struggle for social, economic, and political liberation of both Black Americans and Africans. From his Massachusetts birth in 1868, to his death in Ghana in 1963, his longevity allowed him to witness nearly a century of unpresedented change throughout the world. In order to truly appreciate the enormous impact of W. E. B. Dubois on Africa and the diaspora, a brief examination of his unparalleled achievements is necessary.
After the passing of his mother in 1885, W. E. B. Dubois escaped poverty and racism to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1895 he became the first African American Ph. D. from Harvard. In the years that followed, Dubois began to articulate the concerns of African Americans through a growing number of published materials and forums. From 1903-1905, he wrote The Souls of Black Folk, and accused Booker T. Washington of adopting accommodationist views. Dubois founded the NAACP in 1910.
As editor of its journal The Crisis, Dubois was able to secure a national forum, from which he would articulate his views until 1934. Widely recognized as, “The Father of Pan-Africanism,” Dubois organized the First Pan-African Congress in 1919, as well as subsequent Congresses in 1921 and 1923. Around 1933, Dubois started re-evaluating his lifelong advocacy of integration. After his resignation from the NAACP, he began promoting black seperatism as well as social and economic self-reliance. W. E. B. Dubois was seventy-seven in 1945, and showed no signs of slowing down.
In fact, some of his biggest challenges still laid ahead. An analysis of W. E. B. Dubois as an anticolonial freedom fighter following WWII, essentially is a study of the last eighteen years of his life. A number of events began to unfold in 1945, and are notable for the impact they would make: the drafting of the U. N. charter, the Manchester Congress, and the end of WWII and the advent of the atomic bomb. European imperialism existed in a much weaker form following WWII. Leaders of African independence movements such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, moved quickly to exploit the weaknesses of colonial regimes.
As delegates, Nkrumah and Kenyatta joined with W. E. B. Dubois and other African Nationalists at the Fifth Pan-African Congress. This congress was the most significant ever held due to the strong presence of a solid African delegation. It was in this congress that the first real demands were made calling for revolutionary change in Africa. Two declarations were made. The first one was by Kwame Nkrumah, who would later lead the west African nation of Ghana to its independence in 1957.
The second declaration was given by the President of the Congress, Dr. W. E. B. Dubois. In his authoritative address to the colonial powers, his oratory is uncompromising: Yet if the western world is still determined to rule mankind by force, then Africans, as a last resort, may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve freedom, even if force destroys them and the world. We are determined to be free…. We demand for black Africa autonomy and independence…. We will fight in every way we can for freedom, democracy, and social betterment. 1 The timing of the Manchester Congress was critical to its success.
The rigors of another war weighed heavily on the former colonial powers. Their weakened status made their compliance with African initiatives necessary. Cold War tensions began to rise shortly after as a shift from anti-colonial politics to a paranoid anti-communist agenda began to take place. with the introduction of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. Dubois figured prominently as a leading spokesperson for black civil and political rights. By 1945 he was once again employed by the NAACP, this time as director of special research. Many changes had taken place during his decade-long absence.
Dubois had envisioned a return to the same, familiar organization he had left over ten years ago. Instead, he found a much bigger corporate enterprise. Everything was handled impersonally and immediately, as if one was under the employ of an uncompromising dictatorship. 2 His ongoing feud with NAACP director Walter White, combined with their differences over U. S. foreign policy initiatives such as the Truman Doctrine led to his permanent dismissal from the organization he helped found in 1948. Shortly after leaving the NAACP, Dubois joined the Council on African Affairs.
Paul Robeson, a longtime friend of Dr. Dubois was the chairman of the organization. At this time the CAA was very active in the struggle for African independence. His new affiliation with the CAA would provide him an international forum for only a short period of time. Cold War tensions had a critical impact on anticolonialists during this period. Any American who openly criticized U. S. foreign policy was quickly branded a communist. Dr. Dubois had been influential in the struggle for black independence not only in America, but in Africa as well.
The communist paranoia of the 1950’s would stifle anticolonialism in the United States. In her book, Cheer The Lonesome Traveler, Leslie A. Lacy describes the McCarthy era as a time when, “… trials were not necessary. The mere accusation of being a communist implied one’s guilt; long hair, the wrong friends, critical remarks about America, or reading the wrong books furnished the evidence. “3 Dubois would stand trial in November, 1951 to answer charges of being a Soviet agent. Luckily, a fair and unbiased judge made his trial a rather short one, but it had achieved its purpose.
The relationship between African liberation and the diaspora would never be the same as in the previous two decades. W. E. B. Dubois had viewed the problems of Black Americans and Africans alike within an internationalist context, effectively linking the African experience of colonial domination and exploitation with Black American experiences of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in their own country. Because of a mutual struggle against oppression as well as a shared origin, Africans and African American intellectuals were able to unite in calling for an end to racial discrimination, and imperialism.