Dr. Martin L. King Jr. on What W. E. B. Du Bois Taught Us
"We were partially liberated and then re-enslaved. We have to fight again on old battlefields but our confidence is greater, our vision is clearer and our ultimate victory surer because of the contributions a militant, passionate Black giant left behind him. -- Dr. Martin L. King Jr., “Honoring Dr. Du Bois”
On February 23, 1968, Martin L. King Jr. delivered one of his last major speeches at Carnegie Hall in New York in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of W. E. B. Du Bois. The historian and good-trouble activist, Du Bois, died on August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana. The March on Washington was the next day, August 28, 1963.
King begins by calling Du Bois “one of the most remarkable men of our time.” For “more than an intellectual giant exploring the frontiers of knowledge,” Du Bois was “a teacher.” Du Bois, King informs his audience, “would have wanted his life to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation…”
On Du Bois’ watch, “a two-dollar poll tax, a literacy test,” a record of an arrest or incarceration for a petty crime, or a failed attempt at reciting “from memory” the state constitution, writes biographer David Levering Lewis (W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of A Race, 1868-1919), “effectively disenfranchised all but a handful of African Americans and several thousand poor white people as well.”
We need the ballot, Du Bois declared in The Souls of Black Folks. We need the ballot out of sheer self-defense.” As Lewis writes, Du Bois’ perspective was that of “his beleaguered people who were deprived of the ballot and lynched in the South, shut out of labor unions and socially ostracized in the North, taxed to pay for public education systems that exclude them.”
Americans refused to hear about their nation’s dependence on the enslavement of Black people. Ignorance was bliss.
Americans refused to hear about their nation’s dependence on the enslavement of Black people. Ignorance was bliss. Or at least allowed for the denial of full citizenship and for the lynching with impunity of Black people. The education taught in schools, presented “happy” Black people, if on the plantation; and if freed Blacks, inferior and criminal.
Knowledge of the indifference to human life on display in the bowels of slave ships crossing the Atlantic, of the brutality inflicted on men and women, of the trauma of children pulled apart from their mothers and sold, and of the day in and day out exploitation of free labor would only indict a collective belief in the superiority of white Americans. It would be better to uphold the myth of whiteness by relegating blackness as something in need of marginalizing and controlling. Any violence necessary in order to spare the nation from engaging in self-reflection.
In an essay entitled “The Souls of White Folks,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, Du Bois talks about the discovery of “personal whiteness” as a “modern” phenomena of the 19th and 20th century. What is this “whiteness,” Du Bois asks, if not the creation of a narrative granting to white people “ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Individuals and nations that believe in it! It can be witnessed, he writes, in “the strut of the Southerner, the arrogance of the Englishman amuck, the whoop of the hoodlum who vicariously leads your mob.” It becomes all pervasive, making it easy, “by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul.” Every great deed, a white’s deed, every dream, a white man’s dream. “And if all this be a lie, is it not a lie in a great cause?”
So yes, blackness is antithetical to whiteness. One lie births another lie, and in time, the lies become facts. Merchant, scientists, soldier, traveler, writer, and missionary, writes Du Bois, believe blackness is antithetical to whiteness. “Darker people are dark in mind as well as in body,” they believe. “Dark, uncertain and imperfect,” the darker people are “frailer, cheaper...they are cowards in the face of mauser and maxims.” The darker people “have no feelings, aspirations, and loves; they are fools, illogical idiots,--‘half-devils and half-child.’” This is what America thinks of its Black population. And so, America can uphold a detrimental ideology that is “whiteness,” suppression all other truths to the contrary.
“Is not this the record of present America?, Du Bois asks.
I imagine Du Bois looking out on a divided America—one, having risen from the aches of Southern plantations, is striving to move forward, away from defeated cities and towns, in pursuit of an inclusive America. Nonetheless, Du Bois sees another America—one, having conquered an Indigenous people and enslaved and exploited another, now, in the wake of the Civil War, sees herself “as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time.”
No nation, Du Bois adds, is fit for this role least of all one that marches “proudly in the van of human hatred,--making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike, --rather a great religion, a world war-cry. Up white, down black.”
To America Du Bois writes, “Ask your own soul what it would say if the next census were to report that half of black America was dead and the other half dying.”
Voter Suppression Then and Now
Du Bois, King tells his audience over 50 years ago, would have wanted “his life to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation.” Under King’s watch, the battle for voting rights picked up where Du Bois left off, with fierce opposition from not just Southerners but anyone determined to claim the country for white’s only.
Where, then, did a “democratic” ideology come into play, asked King. Activists were brutally beaten if not killed. Those Americans, Lewis would recall along with King, gathered to demonstrate their idea of “patriotic” fervor. In the 21st Century, we are left to recall how some Americans, storming the Capitol in Washington DC earlier this year, gathered to impose the supremacy of whiteness.
Maintaining a democracy, King understands, requires work. If nothing else, Du Bois teaches that whiteness works to impede progress. Its continuing existence depends on the proliferation of lies.
What Du Bois “insistently taught,” King tells his audience, was that “a poisonous fog of lies,” depicting Black people “as inferior, born deficient and deservedly doomed to servitude to the grave” should be understood as nothing more than a means of oppressing and depriving a people of their right to citizenship. Their right to be!
It’s the discourse cloaking Black people behind a veil not just of the metaphoric but also of the very real bars and legal apparatus that forces them to ride in the back of transportation and drink at the fountains marked for “coloreds.”
"So long as the lie was believed,” King states, “the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear. The twisted logic ran,” King continues, that “if the Black man was inferior he was not oppressed—his place in society was appropriate to his meager talent and intellect.” Du Bois, King notes, used himself as an example of the truth about Black people, about Black liberation. The reality of Black life in America is that we do indeed suffer from white supremacy, but we thrive through protest.
Du Bois made it clear that he was “passionately” proud to be Black. He was proud of his intellect. As for the later, he applied it in pursuit of fighting on behalf of truth.
King continues: Du Bois “could have offered himself to the white rulers and exacted substantial tribute for selling his genius.” Du Bois, however, had no intentions of either amassing “riches and honors” or living “in material splendor” receiving “applause from the powerful and important men of his time.” There were too many people relegated to poverty in a rich nation. Too many marginalized for being an inconvenient reminder of cruelty and exploitation on the part of a nation wishing Black people would just disappear.
Du Bois set himself up as someone who will challenge America. As “a tireless explorer and a gifted discover of social truths,” he became a scholar on the reality of Black life in America. And for that decision, King states, Du Bois was confronted, in turn, with an “army of white propagandists—the myth-makers of Negro history.” To be expected!
Du Bois was prepared to challenge their right to exist! As King notes, Du Bois “took them all on in the battle.” Confronted with “the powerful structure of historical distortion,” Du Bois employed his skills as a researcher of facts and an observer of truth to “dismantle” the structure upholding the lies.
Before other activists and more than other activists, King claims, Du Bois “demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history.”
Du Bois recorded the lies and inserted the truths, even, King states, if they are not yet “the property of all Americans.” Du Bois, nevertheless, left a record of the truths.
We have that record—even if the truths it entails are not yet “the property of all Americans.” And even when the anti-democratic haters are working to re-establish the veil of bars and legal apparatuses…
“Eastward and westward storms are breaking,-- great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable. I will not believe that all that was must be, that all the shameful drama of the past must be done again today before the sunlight sweeps the silver seas,” writes Du Bois in “The Souls of White Folks.”
When, King states, “despair is all too prevalent,” we should remember Du Bois. “People deprived of their freedom do not give up… The struggle for [freedom] will endure.” Look to Du Bois, King adds, look to his “committed empathy… with all the oppressed and his divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice.”