Today is the birthday of one William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born on this date in 1868. He came into this world, just three years after the Civil War had ended. He was an African American, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. So thankfully, he had a bit of a more “tolerant” upbringing, then if he had been born in the south.
The world knew him as W.E.B. Du Bois. I am not sure why he went by his initials. Maybe he liked all three names, and didn’t want to give up a single one. Anyway. He grew up to be a Civil Rights Activist. Old WEB.
Racism was the main target of his energies. He strongly protested against racism. Against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. People hear “Jim Crow” laws, but some may not realize what they were and how they came to be. It is pretty miserable really.
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws. They wholly enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. All of those laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By white people in charge. The ones who ran state legislatures after the Reconstruction period. (As a point of note. The laws were “officially” enforced until 1965. But they extended well beyond that year).
Anyway, in practice, those strict Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities. This, as I mentioned, in the states of the former Confederate States of America. The laws began to show up in the 1870s and 1880s.
But here is the thing that gets me. That hits me in the gut. Those laws were upheld in 1896, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” measure. (The legal case was called “Plessy vs. Ferguson” if you want to know). Our U.S. Supreme Court ruled that black people should undergo segregation. This makes me a little crazy. That this could ever happen. That things like this could happen again. Especially given our world today.
The story continues. That legal principle of “separate, but equal” racial segregation. Ugh. It was extended to public facilities and transportation. Blacks were not allowed to go where Whites went. To make it worse were the actual facilities that were “set aside” for African Americans and Native Americans. Those places were consistently inferior and underfunded. Sometimes there weren’t any at all. This is just the tip of the iceberg I’m giving you.
But W.E.B. Du Bois was a huge fighter in this battle. He spent his whole life on it. He fought for educational and economic opportunities for blacks. Civil Rights, all the way across the board. He was the leader of the Niagara Movement, (a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for blacks). In 1895, Du Bois became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was a founder of the NAACP. It would take me an entire book to tell you about his accomplishments and his involvement in our history, in our way toward Civil Rights. He was a brilliant man who saw a cause and worked his life around it.
When I read about someone like this, I am thankful, and amazed. But the road ahead toward equality still worries me. The U.S. certainly has a long way to go. Not to mention, the rest of the world.
“A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.”
― Gilles Deleuze
“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves”
― Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works – Volume XII
“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
― William Faulkner, Essays, Speeches & Public Letters