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W.E.B. Dubois: In a Time of Crisis

The early decades of the 20th Century proved to be a prodigious and formative time for William Edward Burghart Dubois, otherwise known as W.E.B. Dubois. A sociologist, writer, political thinker, and activist, Dubois would go on to author more than 30 books over the span of his life, teach history and economics at Atlanta University, and establish and lead several grassroots organizations promoting equal rights for Black Americans. For Dubois, everything he did informed this larger purpose: a fight for equal rights. 

However, probably his greatest influence came when he accepted the role of editor for the NAACP’s quarterly magazine, The Crisis, in 1910. As the editor of the magazine, Dubois used the platform to promote many of his early ideas on education reform and children in black communities.  In his 1903 collection of essays called “The Souls of Black Folk,” he describes a philosophy he referred to as the “Talented Tenth,” an idea that opposed Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise.” Although he initially supported the Compromise, Dubois took issue with Washington’s approach, instead favoring a more progressive and forward-thinking fight for civil rights. He believed that the only way forward was not to simply concede to white political rule but to push for more black representation in higher education and in positions of political leadership. In his editorials and op-eds for The Crisis, many of these ideas would find an audience.

Part of Dubois’ mission for The Crisis was to create a medium that reflected a positive image of black Americans. He put together columns and sections that featured profiles on black men in various professions and wrote newsletters describing success stories and accomplishments by black youth. The advertising even focused on educational institutions, black colleges and universities. However, his commitment to an empowered image of black culture can most evidently be seen in the artwork and poetry he chose to publish. Through this platform, many of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, found publication and renown. By including black art, poetry, political cartoons, and photography, Dubois believed he could bring the beauty of what it means to be black into the minds of his readers. In a time of crisis, W.E.B. Dubois was a true leader, whose words and ideas would continue to resonate throughout the 20th Century. 

Today, he stands as a model for every civil rights activist who came after. The most seismic shifts in 20th century Civil Rights thought and legislation owe a great debt to Dubois. He laid the groundwork for other black leaders, such as Martin Luther King, who gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech only a day after Dubois died on August 27, 1963. Although Dubois would not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed into law, the legislation echoes and embodies the reforms he had fought for, for over half the century.