Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No. 1, Winter 1960, p.29.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Andrew Pollack for ETOL.
W.E.B. DUBOIS: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis
by Francis L. Broderick
Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 1959. 259 pp. $5.
The life of DuBois—his ideas and activities—is a particularly rewarding choice of study for a number of reasons: He was a conscious leader, a professional leader and an especially articulate leader. In addition, his life covers a long period of time. DuBois was born in 1868 and is still active. This provides an unusual time span to develop and test ideas.
The author’s approach to the writing of biography is clearly stated at the outset. He says:
“A study of the public career of a complex figure like William Edward Burghardt DuBois, who has put so much on record and who has been a controversial figure for over half a century, invites controversy at almost every chapter. It is not the job of the historian to avoid controversy. It is his job to reconstruct the past as accurately as his limitations permit, even when his judgments contradict existing judgments. This is what I have done. My intention has been neither to exalt nor to demean Dr. DuBois; it has been to understand him in the context of his time.”
To the extent that Mr. Broderick did a job of research, analysis of his materials and reconstruction of the ideas and activities of DuBois, he helps give historical perspective to some of the major disputes over program in the Negro movement of the past fifty years—many of them still on the agenda as unfinished business.
For example, in view of the current debate over the advocacy of militant self-defense by Robert F. Williams for which he was suspended as president of the Monroe, N.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the earlier experience of Dr. DuBois with the Association is quite significant.
Broderick cites editorials and articles by DuBois in 1911 and 1916 when he was editor of Crisis, in which he advocated militant self-defense despite the opposition of the NAACP leadership.
“When Negroes in Gainesville, Florida, failed to resist an attacking white mob in 1916,” Broderick writes, “an editorial, Cowardice, insisted that they should have fought in self-defense to the last ditch if they killed every white man in the country and were themselves killed in turn ... lynching, he [DuBois] said, would stop in the South ‘when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.’ Later the same year, in reply to a young woman who wanted more refinement and fewer overtones of violence in the Crisis, DuBois reminded her that no human group had ‘ever’ achieved its freedom ‘without being compelled to murder’ thousands of oppressors. Though he hoped this would not be true for American Negroes, ‘it may be necessary.’”
“DuBois’ threats of violence were only the most extreme manifestations of his divergences from his white associates,” Broderick says. And he adds: “But though programs diverged and tempers wore thin, the entente with the Association held. The Association could ill afford to lose DuBois’ superb editorial talents on a successful magazine.”
But the controversy over advocacy of militant self-defense is only one example of the ideological struggles of DuBois that Broderick reconstructs. Some of the others were the relation of the Negro movement to the labor movement, to the consumers’ co-operative movement, to the socialist movement, to the Russian Revolution, to the Communist party, to colonial struggles; the relation between forms of Negro organization and alliances, to the goals of reforms, equality and integration.
The biographer, who stated quite candidly at the beginning that “it is not the job of the historian to avoid controversy,” turns DuBois’ differences with his contemporaries into a three-way debate through his own implicit or explicit criticisms. (A four-way debate if the reader has some theories of his own.)
The student of the problems of program and leadership of the Negro struggle will find much interesting and useful material in this book.
Last updated on: 5 May 2009