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W. E. B. Du Bois Biography of a Race, 1868-1919
By David Levering Lewis
Owl Books (NY) Copyright © 1994 David Levering Lewis
All right reserved.
THE REASON WHY
Sitting at his large, uncluttered desk at The Crisis on a damp October morning in 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois must have wondered if he would ever see the last of such images as the one before him. The editor was examining a photograph grisly enough to cause the stomach of someone less inured to retch. It had been taken by the Chicago Tribune reporter so soon after the final agony in Omaha, Nebraska, that the body still sizzled. The blackened, naked remains, twisted and scabious like a badly burnt pretzel, sank into a pyre heaped up by the grinning white mob at a downtown intersection. The victim, a young male, was one of the last black Americans to die in the more than twenty-five race riots during what had become known as the Red Summer of 1919. "The picture is a splendid one and we will bill you at the usual [two-dollar] rate for this type of photo," the Tribune's picture editor advised Du Bois, if he wanted to run it in the NAACP's monthly magazine. By the time the Omaha atrocity appeared in the December 1919 Crisis, seventy-six black men and women had been lynched--eighteen morethan in the previous year--these mainly in the rural South. Some two hundred fifty more were slaughtered in urban riots in the North and during a pogrom in the Arkansas Delta.
The Red Summer's long powder train had ignited on May 10, a Saturday night, in Charleston, South Carolina, less than six weeks after Du Bois's boat docked from France at New York Harbor. The grandly symbolic Pan-African Congress successfully concluded and documents revealing the mistreatment of Negro troops in France packed in a steamer trunk, W.E.B. Du Bois had returned to New York to resume his post at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) resolved to do his considerable part in the service of racial democracy in America. Whatever their skepticism about the near-term, tens of thousands of Crisis readers applauded the brave assurances of "Returning Soldiers," his ringing May editorial. "Make way for Democracy," Du Bois had proclaimed. "We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States, or know the reason why." Such sentiments resonated deeply with a thousand or more commissioned officers and 367,000 doughboys of African descent whose attitudes about race and rights in America had been forever changed by their war experience. His words were like marching orders for the bellhops, Pullman porters, and Post Office employees now swelling the ranks of the older, smaller group of professional men and women--teachers, preachers, doctors, and undertakers--who had been the backbone of what Du Bois himself famously baptised the Talented Tenth. To the smartest and the boldest of the migrants shaking off the red clay of Georgia in Manhattan or the loam of Mississippi in the Windy City, Du Bois's elevated language, if accessible only when mediated through the palaver of barbershop and beauty parlor, began, nevertheless, to register powerfully. "Returning Soldiers" spoke to all of them in their new, self-proclaimed, exhilarating incarnation: The New Negro.
Fifty-two on his next birthday, Du Bois was the founding editor of one of the most remarkable journals of opinion and propaganda in America. Its monthly circulation of 100,000 and better exceeded that of Herbert Croly's four-year-old New Republic and Oswald Villard's just reorganized Nation, and was four times larger than Max Eastman's Liberator, the successor to the banned Masses. The September Crisis promised an additional sixteen pages in the redesigned number debuting in November--all for a mere five-cent increase in price. Sounding like any successful businessman, Du Bois announced "this year the [gross] income will probably reach $72,000" and boasted to readers of twelve full-time employees in the association's headquarters at 70 Fifth Avenue and twelve hundred subscription agents across the country. A children's magazine would appear in January 1920, to be called The Brownie's Book, prompting a precocious seven-year-old to send a dollar for a year's subscription because it was the "propper [sic] time for me to begin to learn something about my own race." Officially, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races was the almost ten-year-old organ of the NAACP. In reality, it was the expression, in monthly installments, of its editor's intellectual and moral personality. Often enough, the association's board of directors endured this arrangement with exasperation, alarm, and fruitless attempts at editorial supervision.
To know Du Bois was to become acquainted with the problem of the twentieth century--the problem of the color line--in one of its most intensely complex embodiments, and the experience of knowing Du Bois was frequently a searing one. The author of The Souls of Black Folk comported himself as the avatar of a race whose troubled fate he was predestined to interpret and to direct. For that very reason, most American Negroes who read seriously or listened carefully, who were increasingly alienated from the educational philosophy of Booker Washington, or who raged against a fraudulent national doctrine of separate racial equality, looked to the editor for inspiration. Although many of the large and growing number of white Americans who subscribed to The Crisis must have frequently been discomforted by its militancy, and not a few of them infuriated by Du Bois's periodic defense of racial intermarriage, they regarded the magazine as an indispensable source of information about black America. If some whites were distressed, many working-class black people were indifferent or hostile to both the magazine and the association, as Du Bois's good friend, Colonel Charles Young, found in his travels on behalf of the NAACP. "They regard the NAACP as a Negro snob affair," the retired army officer wrote the editor, "and I have been trying from Philadelphia to Topeka in the West to disabuse their minds of such a preposterous idea."
Despite Young's alarming discovery, his letter came at the very moment Du Bois sent the board of directors a glowing publications report: For August--"usually our worst month of the year"--Crisis circulation figures reached 103,000 copies. "The general condition of The Crisis is excellent." Whatever their numbers, indifferent black and irritated white readers receded, at least during this spectacular period, into relative unimportance. Du Bois allowed the magazine's proper and precise business manager, Augustus Granville Dill, whose years of service since leaving Atlanta University were a model of uncomplaining dedication, to take a vacation "for the first time in two years." Du Bois added Jessie Fauset to the masthead as literary editor, a well-deserved reward for running the magazine during his European sojourn. Fully salaried, she was finally able to leave her teaching position at the District of Columbia's elite Dunbar High School and escape a murky sexual scandal involving a dubious Dutch anthropologist whose research entailed photographs of nude female public school teachers. As far as the editor was concerned, the nude photography affair was a scientific venture scuttled by bureaucratic bungling and hysteria. The annual July "Education Number" and October "Children's Number" had achieved a popularity that now made them staple reading even in circles where The Crisis was otherwise seldom available. After the three issues covering his investigations of army racial policies and the performance of Negro troops in France (March, May, and June 1919), The Crisis mail room was flooded with letters, documents, and even diaries from officers and enlisted men responding to Du Bois's appeal for information and money to help prepare a three-volume history of the Great War, optimistically projected to appear in October.
In the beginning, far more African Americans had known the name Jack Johnson, ex-world heavyweight boxing champion, than they had that of W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights militant. But by 1919, the editor's influence and renown began to give every indication of attaining household familiarity even among unskilled factory workers and trapped tenant farmers. The issues of the magazine during summer 1919 powerfully stoked the fires of New Negro rage and discontent, and the accents of Du Bois's "Returning Soldiers" were to be clearly heard in the Jamaican poet Claude McKay's ardent "If We Must Die":
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
But Du Bois and the NAACP were civil rights militants, not social revolutionaries--defenders of the Constitution, not exponents of class war--and like the association he sometimes unpredictably represented, the editor occasionally could appear exceedingly sensitive, if not squeamish, about charges of espousing political subversion and social unrest. There had been the April editorial that ran during his absence in France, probably authored by Fauset, that seemed to write off the beleaguered Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies" of the IWW) because of the union's opposition to the war. Immediately upon returning, the editor set the record straight, praising the IWW as one of the few movements that "draws no color line" in its membership; but though admirable in their objectives, he was compelled to doubt that the "methods of the IWW are today feasible or advisable." The editor made it clear, repeatedly, that the Bolshevik Revolution was not in his eyes what it was in Asa Philip Randolph's--"the greatest achievement of the twentieth century." Du Bois would stick pretty much to the argument advanced in the July 1921 "The Negro and Radical Thought"--essentially one of militant petit bourgeois opportunism--throughout the decade.
Seeing little relevancy in the Bolshevik triumph in Russia to the United States, and abhorring the politics of violence, Du Bois would insist in a June 1921 editorial, "The Class Struggle," that "we do not believe in revolution. We expect revolutionary changes to come mainly through reason, human sympathy and the education of children, and not by murder." The Hamiltonian progressivism of Harvard classmate Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life had greater appeal than did the hard-edged gospel of Lenin's What's to Be Done?. Still, The Crisis sprang to the defense of the Messenger in late 1919, when federal authorities appeared ready to suppress it again. The editor held no brief for the Messenger, Negro World, "and other periodicals, but they have a right to speak." He didn't "believe in Revolution," but he did believe profoundly "in free speech and freedom to think, and it is the duty of every Negro to see that the right of black men to think and write and criticize shall not be abridged and taken away under the guise of curbing revolution." A lengthy report, forwarded in late September 1919 to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer by a twenty-four-year-old graduate of George Washington University Law School, aimed to accomplish that very objective. "Radicalism and Sedition Among Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications" was signed by John Edgar Hoover, the darkly ambitious head of the Justice Department's new General Intelligence Division (GID), created in emergency response to a terrifying monsoon of anarchist bombings raining on Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Paterson (New Jersey), Boston, Pittburgh, and Philadelphia. With assassination attempts against the attorney general of the United States, a justice of the Supreme Court, members of the United States Senate, the secretary of labor, and prominent public officials barely foiled or failing through luck, and a final blast in September 1920 ripping through the heart of Wall Street itself, killing thirty people, many Americans believed the country was experiencing the terminal chaos before Armageddon.
Bomb-throwing anarchists, antiwar Socialists, levelling Wobblies, and conspiring Communists seemed bent on recasting America in shapes as alien as many of their foreign-sounding names. In Seattle, the shipyard upheaval in January sent temblors rolling across the country over Judge Elbert Gary's U.S. Steel mills and Boston's police force by September, then shaking the coal mines of West Virginia in November, until four million workers had gone out on strike. What became known as the Red Scare of 1919 unfolded against a backdrop of revolutionary consolidation in Russia, establishment of the Third International, rapid advance of soviets in Germany and Hungary, and the formation of two feuding blocs of North American Communists (Charles Ruthenberg's Communist Party and John Reed's Communist Labor Party). The U.S. House of Representatives expelled Socialist Victor Berger, and the New York state legislature promptly kicked out its five Socialist members. Disabled by a stroke suffered in his manic campaign to drum up public support for the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson languished bedridden through the remaining months of his presidency. Law and order was in the hands of Attorney General Palmer, the ambitious "Fighting Quaker," whose uncomplicated solution to the national crisis was to terrorize those who couldn't be deported and deport those who, because they were aliens, were ipso facto terrorists or subversives. "Not for at least a half century, perhaps at no time in our history," declared one historian of the period, "had there been such wholesale violation of civil liberties."
Du Bois's Crisis provided Palmer's Department of Justice with abundant and unambiguous evidence of sedition and conspiracy, or so it would claim. Unintimidated by the Post Office delay of the controversial May issue containing the expose of military documents and the defiant editorials "Returning Soldiers" and "The League of Nations," Du Bois had continued to write and speak about the new militancy of the race. Negroes would not be passively butchered nor would they allow themselves to be indiscriminately barred or ousted from their wartime labor gains. Addressing the association's spirited tenth-anniversary national conference in Cleveland that June, but clearly speaking beyond the NAACP to white America, the editor called racism the handmaiden of Bolshevism: a sentiment overwhelmingly endorsed by the 265 delegates from thirty-four states. South Carolina congressman James F. Byrnes, whose political ambitions were as broad as his racial ideas were narrow, heard the message. Anarchists and Wobblies were far less vexatious to Byrnes than was a Harvard-educated Negro editor whose inflammatory writings were being read and talked about by thousands of black people in his part of the country. Future secretary of state, presidential aspirant, and Supreme Court justice Jimmy Byrnes demanded that the Justice Department do something about Du Bois. Byrnes charged the editor with causing race riots in Washington and Chicago and with posing the gravest threat to race relations and order in America. For good measure he read a Crisis editorial into the Congressional Record. Cordially thanking Byrnes for providing him a readership of "some seventy-five million of our fellow citizens," a sardonic Du Bois countered the politician with his own indictment in the October Crisis, making Byrnes and his kind responsible not only for the urban race riots of the Red Summer, "but also of encouraging for fifty years the lynching of 4,000 Negroes, the disfranchisement of a million and a half voters, the enforced ignorance of three million human beings and the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in wages."
Nor did he stop with a blast in the magazine. In an unprecedented feature article in the New York Sun for October 12, "Causes of Discontent," Du Bois wondered, ironically, whether Americans had "lost their sense of humor?" Could they really seriously believe that Negroes were increasingly discontented because they were being "unduly excited by the Russian Bolsheviki?" Learning that the Justice Department intended to investigate the causes of racial discontent was even more reason to laugh in order not to cry, Du Bois groaned. "We black folk have for some years been trying to get the United States Department of Justice to look into several matters that touch us." The danger facing the nation came not from Communist revolution but from the consequences of its own moral and humanitarian failure. "Negroes are in a fighting mood," he asserted, and mainstream America would have to learn to live without the class of race leaders who told whites that "Negroes wanted nothing but the right to work at such wages as the white people wished to give them." Du Bois and Hoover were never to meet in person, but their encounter in print during the late summer and fall of 1919 imbued both with prejudices that would fester in the years ahead with fateful consequences.
"Radicalism and Sedition Among Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications," his 1919 report to Palmer, won young J. Edgar Hoover (as he now signed himself) a starring role in the Red Scare capers. The head of the new General Intelligence Division had saved his severest censure for Randolph's Messenger--"the most able and the most dangerous of all negro publications"--but there was no doubt that he and his superiors regarded Du Bois's Crisis as a major menace to the status quo. The report made him invaluable to the attorney general and commenced his unique role as purveyor to congressional bodies of confidences about the actions, ideas, and morals of American citizens. Palmer incorporated Hoover's report into the Justice Department's comprehensive report forwarded to the Senate in mid-November. A curious coincidence unnoticed until now was that "Radicalism and Sedition Among Negroes" was remarkably similar in analytical power and scope of detail (covering the NAACP, the UNIA, the Messenger, Hubert Harrison Liberty League, and Cyril Briggs's West Indian Marxists in the African Blood Brotherhood) to a document submitted to the director of military intelligence by Major Walter Loving, a man of impressive culture and one of the army's most effective wartime Negro undercover agents. Loving's report the pros and cons of Du Bois's officer's commission two years earlier had been a major factor in Colonel Marlborough Churchill's decision to withdraw the army's offer. Loving's fifteen-page essay, "Final Report on Negro Subversion," had been handed in to military intelligence on August 6, just in time for young Hoover to acquire his expertise in this area.
Congressman Byrnes had taken a more accurate measure of Du Bois's significance as a leader of his people than had the inexperienced Hoover. The editor's power to inspire returning soldiers, ambitious migrants, and determined college men and women to stand up for their basic citizenship rights was far more dangerous in his eyes than any prospect of Negro Americans being converted in significant numbers to communism, as Byrnes (and even Hoover) knew, whatever was stated in official documents or barked into the Congressional Report. And never was inspiration more needed as 1919 flamed out. The riot in Charleston had been contained fairly quickly by the authorities, but there were two black fatalities. The three-day convulsion in the nation's capital, triggered partly by The Washington Post's incendiary journalism at the end of July and extinguished as much by heavy rains as by two thousand infantry ordered up by Secretary of War Newton Baker, injured more than a hundred people and killed six. In Washington, as was the case in the Chicago riot beginning on July 27, people of color defended themselves with guns, bricks, and other makeshift weapons. Reporting on the situation in the capital, NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson was positively euphoric: "The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight." In Chicago, black and white workers and demobilized soldiers and sailors skirmished for twelve days back and forth along Wentworth Avenue, the line dividing the white, blue-collar stockyard neighborhoods from those in what Chicagoans called the Black Belt. Fifteen white people joined twenty-three black people in death, while more than five hundred Chicagoans were treated for their wounds and another thousand emerged stunned and homeless from the Windy City's mimicry of a battle in the just-ended European war. Knoxville came at the beginning of September; then, at the end of September, the riot in Omaha, suppressed only by the intercession of the U.S. Army.
Race relations seemed to reach a nadir in the Arkansas outback that October. Gunfire from black sharecroppers meeting in a church near Elaine, a town in the Arkansas Delta, had left a deputy sheriff dead and several white citizens wounded in the early morning of October. Having provoked the Wednesday shootout, enraged white planters and farmers chased down black men and women in the high cotton of Phillips County in a frenzy lasting seven days, until the count of the dead approached two hundred. The fact that Elaine's whites had paid for their jamboree with five of their own dead made the "legal" aftermath notably outrageous even for the Deep South of that time. U.S. infantry, arriving from Camp Pike, took the side of the frenzied whites. A thousand or so black men were rounded up by soldiers and vigilantes and packed into a stockade where the sheriff and the big planters selected seventy-nine of them for rapid grand jury indictment. Six of these were sentenced to hang on November 18 and another six on the following day after five-minute deliberations, while the rest were convicted in batches and given prison terms of from five to twenty-five years. Their alleged crime, as The New York Times reported in all seriousness, was conspiracy to seize control of the county by armed force.
Furious about distortions in the press concerning the Arkansas bloodlettings, Du Bois sent a three-page letter to the editor of the New York World that served as a powerful corrective when it appeared in the November 28 edition. The real crime of the Phillips County sharecroppers, he said, was to have the gall to hire a maverick white Arkansas lawyer to help organize and incorporate a farmer's protective association in order to compel landlords to open their books on prices and profits of supplies and cotton revenues. The normal practice in that part of Arkansas, Du Bois explained to the World's readers, was for a farmer to sell to the planter and wait a full year to be told "how much his crop was worth, and what is the balance due" for the supplies bought on credit from the company store. It was slavery by another name, but to dispute such an arrangement was, "in Arkansas custom, to dispute 'white supremacy.'" "There is not a civilized country in the world that would for a moment allow this kind of justice to stand." The editor and officers of the NAACP had inside information about the Arkansas pogrom, thanks to Walter Francis White, the twenty-six-year-old new assistant secretary. White's sensational expose in The Nation of a six-person lynching in two Georgia counties in May 1918 had already caught the attention of northern progressives. A small, trim man of seemingly bottomless, nervous energy and enormous self-confidence, White was the light-skinned, blond, blue-eyed son of an austere postal employee and his civic-minded wife, both of whom were highly respected members of Atlanta's colored community. Du Bois knew the White family well from his years spent at Atlanta University; he regarded young Walter, who played football and graduated from "AU" with high marks, as a model representative of the Talented Tenth.
Because Walter White looked so white, his services to the NAACP were invaluable, but they also placed him in situations of awful danger. Aboard a train leaving a Deep South lynching bee, the assistant secretary was once challenged by a suspicious white passenger who boasted that he could always spot a "yaller nigger" by the absence of half moons on the fingernails. White's half moons saved him. Hurrying back to NAACP headquarters from Arkansas undercover work as a white reporter (the governor gave him a reference and Phillips County vigilantes took him into their confidence), White handed in a detailed report of surreal barbarity. When White's revised report appeared in The Nation under the startling title "'Massacring Whites in Arkansas,'" ten days after Du Bois's letter in the World, public opinion outside the Deep South began to shift to the association. The Arkansas cases became known as Moore v. Dempsey, and as court costs rose in regular five-thousand-dollar increments over the next year, and two years beyond that, Du Bois made contributions to the legal defense fund the litmus test of racial loyalty. The Crisis published a list of delinquent NAACP branches, with Texas and Georgia having the largest number, but the critical state of Illinois had, surprisingly, as many as five. "If the officers of these branches will take no action," the editor admonished, then the members themselves ought to take matters into their own hands and appeal directly to the national headquarters. Meanwhile, the legal battle on behalf of the twelve condemned defendants proceeded like a grim game of volleyball back and forth between the federal courts and Arkansas courts, with The Crisis continuing to play its decisive role in mobilizing public opinion and raising funds for the NAACP's defense treasury.
The situation demanded a voluntary of prose, an editorial reveille crackling over those of limp resolve and shaken courage. Du Bois's response was predictable. "Progress," the lead essay in the November 1920 Crisis--the tenth-anniversary issue--sought to wrench inspiration from the jaws of desperation. "But above all comes the New Spirit," the editor wrote. "From a bewildered, almost listless, creeping sense of impotence and despair have come a new vigor, hopefulness and feeling of power." The bugle call ended on a confident note: "We are no longer depending on our friends. We are depending on ourselves." Impressive evidence of this new self-dependence came with the latest twist of the Arkansas saga. The Crisis ran an exciting replay in the December issue of a roller-coaster extradition contest between the Arkansas attorney general and lawyers hired by the NAACP in the case of Robert Hill, alleged ringleader of the Phillips County insurgents, who had fled to Topeka, Kansas. With NAACP board member and Kansas U.S. senator Arthur Capper interceding with the governor, and a Shawnee County attorney acting as Hill's lawyer, the sympathetic Kansas authorities refused to honor the extradition writ on the certain grounds that Hill's return to Arkansas would prove fatal. The dismissal of federal charges against the Arkansas farmer in early October 1920 enormously enhanced the NAACPs creditability, making it possible to raise another five thousand dollars above the eight thousand already expended in legal fees. "Thus ends one of the most dramatic legal fights the Association has ever undertaken," Du Bois wrote, rightly predicting that it would have "a most far-reaching effect."
The "far-reaching effect" would finally come in January 1923 when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an opinion, revolutionary in its civil rights implications, that the twelve sharecroppers had been denied a fair trial, thereby reversing the federal appeals court's September 1921 decision against them and remanding the case for reconsideration of the facts. Only eight years had elapsed since the high court's decision upholding the infamous rape conviction of Atlanta Jewish businessman Leo Frank on grounds that the mere observance of judicial formalities was sufficient to preclude reversal of state court decisions involving capital crimes. Given the seven-to-two decision in Frank v. Mangum, Moorfield Storey, the NAACP's honorific and aged president, still highly respected and enormously capable, had confessed serious doubts about winning the justices to his argument that the Phillips County trials had been judicial farces. But when the day came for arguments, Storey had exquisitely refined the brief handed over by Scipio Africanus Jones, the portentously named black Little Rock attorney retained earlier by the NAACP. Attorney Jones's race made an appearance in person before nine glowering justices tactically unwise, but without his meticulous lawyering no victory could have been sustained. Writing for the majority in Moore v. Dempsey, Oliver Wendell Holmes noted such circumstantial peculiarities in the case as the all-white Phillips County juries in a population two-thirds black, the hysteria surrounding the trials, the absence of basic procedural guarantees of counsel, speed of conviction, and other matters, which led the leonine senior jurist to sneer that the trials had been nothing more than a charade in which "the whole proceeding is a mask." The Crisis would record the last Gothic act in the drama in the issue for April 1925 when, after fifty thousand dollars in legal fees and six years of propaganda, all the original defendants--the twelve sentenced to die along with the seventy-six clapped in prison--were finally released. It was "a complete victory for the NAACP," Du Bois wrote, even though he, above all others, must have realized how remote was the time when even minimal due process standards would be found in real-world trials of colored people in the south.
Excerpted from W. E. B. Du Bois by David Levering Lewis Copyright © 1994 by David Levering Lewis. Excerpted by permission.
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