W.E.B. Du Bois

by Bill V Mullen, Pluto Press, £14.99

When W.E.B. Du Bois died in August 1963 he was, writes Bill Mullen, a “hero to friends” and a “pariah to mainstream America”. The nonagenarian raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts had always shown a talent for dividing opinion.

On one hand, his achievements were remarkable. Born just a few years after the formal emancipation of America’s slaves, Du Bois managed to carve out an impressive academic career in prejudice-riddled times: studying at Fisk University, Harvard (“the college of my youngest, wildest visions”), and in Berlin. He went on to become a formidable champion of civil rights, helping to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, on the global stage, lending support to just about every anti-colonial struggle he encountered.

A passionate crusader for pan-Africanism, Du Bois “did more to educate African-Americans and people of the African diaspora about Africa than any other person in US history”.

He also found time to argue for women’s social equality, to grab headlines as a peace activist and, from his study, to shake up scholarly understandings of the Civil War – the image of benevolent white men saving feeble, ignorant black people from their fate gave way to a narrative in which slaves had agency, fleeing plantations in their tens of thousands and, in many cases, joining the Union armies.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection