February 23 is a special day in American, African American, and world history. It is the birthday of W. E. B. Du Bois, perhaps the nation’s greatest intellectual and activist. And in a time of uncertain war, of religious and racial strife, and of national division, his legacy and contributions should be remembered. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, he died in Ghana on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. In his almost one hundred years, Du Bois helped transform the nation and inspired millions across the world.
On February 23, 1968, the centennial of Du Bois’s birth and five years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr., marked the occasion before a packed crowd in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, only weeks before being cut down by an assassin.
King declared, “History cannot ignore W. E. B. Du Bois.” Du Bois recognized the power of remembering the past, of remembering those who had fought for rights and for truth. In King’s words, he “knew that to lose one’s history is to lose one’s self-understanding and with it the roots for pride.” And in 1968 (just as in 2007), Du Bois “needs to be remembered today when despair is all too prevalent.” In uncertain and troubling times, Du Bois “lived and fought.” Those of Du Bois’s generation, those who had lived through rigorous segregation, through regular lynchings, and through citywide race riots, had, according to King, “far more justification for frustration and hopelessness, and yet his faith in his people never wavered. His love and faith in Negroes permeate every sentence of his writings and every act of his life.”
What sustained Du Bois for so long and through so many hardships was a deep and abiding spirituality. This rang through in his own personal celebration for his twenty-fifth birthday. It was then, sitting alone in Germany as a graduate student, that he determined his life’s path. When the clock struck midnight and it was finally February 23, 1893, Du Bois knew it was time to give his life a purpose, and that he would have to do it himself. There would be no cards or well wishes from his parents; he had hardly known his father and his mother had died just after he had finished high school. But alone in his apartment, Du Bois determined to change the world. After thinking of his parents, he cried, and sang “Jesus Lover of My Soul.” Du Bois then turned toward the future. “These are my plans,” he recorded in his personal diary, “to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race. Or perhaps to raise a visible empire in Africa thro’ England, France, or Germany.” A moment of uncertainty struck the young Du Bois at this point, “I wonder what will be the outcome? Who knows?” But with resolve, he turned to the biblical story of Queen Esther, the woman who had stood against the oppressors of the Jews and declared, “I will go unto the king – which is not according to the law and if I perish – I PERISH.”
Throughout his life, Du Bois lived out the promises of this ritual. He made a name for himself in science and in literature. He lifted up his race. And he did it all with a deep spirituality and hope for peace. He labored with the belief that humans really could transform the world for better and that God would help them if they dared take on this task. He did it singing hymns of liberation and writing prayers of human brotherhood. For one of his classes as a professor at Atlanta University, with words later collected and published in 1980 as Prayers for Dark People, he prayed words that should be echoed throughout the United States and world today, “Give us in our day, O God, to see the fulfillment of Thy vision of Peace. May these young people grow to despise false ideals of conquest and empire and all the tinsel of war. May we strive to replace force with justice and armies of murder with armies of relief. May we believe in Peace among all nations as a present practical creed and count love for our country as love and not hate for our fellow men.”
It would be a fitting tribute to Du Bois to put these prayers into action, not just on his birthday, or in February, but every day, until Du Bois’s hope for peace, justice, and world fellowship becomes a reality.
Edward J. Blum teaches history at San Diego State University and he is the author of the forthcoming W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.