W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois: Pioneers in the Struggle for Civil Rights, Pan-Africanism and Socialism

Repression and exile could not silence these global activists and writers

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W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois

Abayomi Azikiwe
Libya 360°

African American History Month Series

February 23 marks the 145th anniversary of the birth of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868. This area did not have many African Americans and it was only after Du Bois graduated from high school and enrolled at the Historically Black College of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1885 did he have extensive interaction within the context of an African American culture.

Du Bois excelled in his studies when he eventually attained degrees from Fisk, Harvard, the University of Berlin and a Ph.D from Harvard in 1896, reputed to be the first African American to attain such a degree in history from this institution. His dissertation dealt with the suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade from the 17th to the 19th century.

His first teaching appointment was at the Historically Black College at Wilberforce in Ohio. He would later conduct one of the first sociological studies of African Americans in urban life known as The Philadelphia Negro released in 1899.

Du Bois was an activist and a scholar. In 1900 he traveled to London, England as one of the thirty participants in the Pan-African Conference convened by Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian barrister who was concerned about the need for an international struggle to fight colonialism and imperialism. Du Bois served as the secretary for the Conference and drafted its resolutions.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Du Bois taught at Atlanta University where he held annual conferences to encourage research among African American students and scholars on the conditions prevailing among the formally enslaved population in the United States. However, by the conclusion of the decade he would be essentially forced out of the segregated higher educational system due to his criticism of the limitations placed on the role of African American scholars in the South.

In 1905, the Niagara Movement was convened which was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed in 1909. Du Bois founded the Crisis magazine, the publication of the organization, and served as its editor between 1910 and 1934.

In 1934, Du Bois would be forced out of the NAACP for the first time, when during the Great Depression, he advocated the formation of cooperatives and other self-help programs which the leadership considered Black nationalist-oriented. He returned to Atlanta University in 1934 where he published his seminal study entitled Black Reconstruction in America.

Black Reconstruction was a serious Marxist analysis of the civil war and the efforts to construct a non-racial democracy in the U.S. Later Du Bois would serve in the leadership of the Council on African Affairs, along with Paul Robeson and Dr. William Alphaeus Hunton, Jr., a solidarity and educational advocacy organization that pioneered in the struggle against colonialism during World War II and the early Cold War period.

In 1944, Du Bois was retired from Atlanta University and invited back to the NAACP to work on international issues including the formation of the United Nations and the rising anti-colonial struggle. Initially the NAACP praised his efforts and provided him with a prominent position within the organization’s international department.

Due to his further move leftward, Du Bois would be once again forced out of the NAACP in 1948. During that year he openly supported the Wallace presidential campaign which had the involvement of communists and other progressive forces.

Partnership With Shirley Graham and Movement to the Left

After the death of Du Bois’ first wife, Nina Gomer, whom he met as a student at Fisk University, he would become close politically and personally with Shirley Graham, a playwright, biographer, journalist and organizer, who was nearly thirty years his junior. Graham was a member of both the NAACP and the Communist Party and would facilitate W.E.B.’s more formal entry into left circles in the U.S. and internationally.

Graham Du Bois was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11, 1896. She was the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor and had great exposure to Black religious circles.

During this period the Cold War would take hold of U.S. politics with its rabid anti-communism and racism. In 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois was indicted by the federal government for allegedly being an agent of a foreign belief system simply because he advocated peace between the U.S. and the socialist countries of the Soviet Union, China and North Korea.

Although the charges were later dropped after a bogus trial, the Du Bois’ passports were confiscated and their capacity to make a living under such political conditions remained precarious until 1958 when travel documents were returned. These same actions were carried out against other leftists of the period including Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, William L. Patterson and William Alphaeus Hunton, Jr.

The Du Bois’ would travel to the Soviet Union, China and Western Union between 1958-1960. In 1960 they settled in the West African state of Ghana at the invitation of the-then President Kwame Nkrumah, where they were granted citizenship and prominent roles within the government.

W.E.B. was appointed as director of the Africana Encyclopedia, a project aimed at reconstructing the history of the peoples of the continent. Shirley lectured and wrote extensively for the Ghana Government and was later appointed in 1964 as the first director of Ghana National Television.

W.E.B. Du Bois died on August 28, 1963 at the age of 95. Shirley would remain in Ghana until the February 24, 1966 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported coup against the Nkrumah government. She would then live between Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the People’s Republic of China led by Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Shirley Graham Du Bois had barred from re-entering the U.S. after being granted citizenship in Ghana in 1960. A national campaign would reverse this decision by Washington in the 1970s when she toured the U.S. and spoke out extensively in support of the Black Panther Party then under severe persecution by the state as well as in defense of the national liberation movements and revolutionary governments in Africa.

She would make her transition in Beijing, China on March 27, 1977 at the age of 80. Her son, David Graham Du Bois would work as an editor of the Black Panther newspaper during the 1970s.

David Graham Du Bois passed away on January 28, 2005 in Northhampton, Massachusetts at 79. He had worked for years as a journalist and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The Du Bois’ made tremendous contributions to the movements for Civil Rights, Pan-Africanism and Socialism. Their works are still valuable for younger generations of activists and scholars.


Abayomi Azikiwe
is the editor of Pan-African News Wire , an international electronic press service designed to foster intelligent discussion on the affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world. The press agency was founded in January of 1998 and has published thousands of articles and dispatches in newspapers, magazines, journals, research reports, blogs and websites throughout the world. The PANW represents the only daily international news source on pan-african and global affairs. To contact him, click on this link >> Email

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