BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois?
DAVID LEVERING LEWIS (Author, "W.E.B. Du Bois Biography of a Race, 1868-1919"): Yes. He always insisted on that pronunciation. He did not like the Gaelic pronunciation, though in his antecedence, he was partly French.
LAMB: So how would you pronounce it?
LEWIS: Du Bois. Du Bois.
LAMB: I mean, the other way? Du BWA?
LEWIS: Du BWA. Du BWA, I suppose. But he preferred, as I say,
decisively Du Bois.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
LEWIS: You know, I say in the acknowledgments that I did, and I realized
when after I'd finished a lot of research that it had to be about 1947, when I
was standing with my father on a college campus in Ohio. And my father and Du
Bois were acquaintances, if not friends. And Du Bois apparently approached
and asked me what I intended to do with my life, and I was then about nine
years old. And I could now tell him a good part of my life was taken up
answering that question by writing the first of this two volume biography of
LAMB: Give us just a capsule and we'll go back and deal with all the little
details. Who was he?
LEWIS: W.E.B. Du Bois was a man who lived about 95 years, and so his life
really spans the 20th century and its issues and its major personalities. He
was born in the north, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a small town in the
Berkshires, and educated elementary and high school there and then attended
college at Fisk University in Tennessee and then took a second bachelor's at
Harvard and then went on to obtain the PhD in history from Harvard, the first
African American to be rewarded the doctorate. And before he did that, he
spent about two years at the University of Berlin pursuing economic studies.
And those two years had quite an impact upon him, as I've taken some pains
When he came back, he taught here and there at the University of
Pennsylvania; wrote a book called "The Philadelphia Negro," which is one of
the first books of urban sociology in America. And then he went on to Atlanta
University, and for 10 years, he superintended the really pioneering
studies the Atlanta University studies, which simply took the whole gamut of
African American and Southern life. And then he retired from teaching
to the activity of being editor of the NAACP's magazine, the Crisis, from 1910
to 1934. And he was, of course, also a co founder of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People, and it was he who insisted that it be
`colored' not `Negro,' not `African,' not `black,' but `colored' because he
wanted the association, indeed, to have a mission and mandate which would
address itself to the larger issue of darker peoples everywhere. He was
always thinking a bit ahead of the administrators, bureaucrats and colleagues
for whom the immediate and pragmatic was more compelling.
He was controversial. Every position he struck up was the only position, from
his point of view. And with great articulation, both verbally and in prose,
he would espouse the position. But then a few years later, he might well
strike up another position, which was not in direct contradistinction to
the previous position more than a shade different. And so many of his allies
found themselves puzzled, as in his long life he took a variety of positions
that were somewhat paradoxical.
Underneath them all, though, was a principal consistency that racism must be
combated, that human rights must be affirmed and that economic justice was
the key to the eventual accomplishment of parity and the enhancement of
the great majority of the life chances of peoples.
LAMB: You open the book with, basically, the end of his life.
LEWIS: I do.
LAMB: And he ended his life in Ghana.
LEWIS: He did. He died in Ghana just on the eve of the March on
Washington, that historic assemblage here around the reflecting pool in 1963
on August 28th. And I say there that he timed his death, his departure almost with cinematic poignancy because just before Martin Luther King stepped up to the microphone to deliver his memorable address, "I Have A Dream" speech, Roy Wilkins, the head of the association, stepped up to the mike to say that Du Bois had died.
Many people weren't quite sure who he was, but almost everyone realized that
this was a significant passage. And those who did know said quite
significant things, which I quote in those opening pages. And so, in a
sense, the baton passed from this great figure, who had been the source
of so many ideas and so much of the strategies combating civil rights, to a
younger man with a somewhat different approach, but nonetheless certainly an
heir to Du Bois.
LAMB: Was he a Communist in the end?
LEWIS: He was. He joined the party, in fact, when almost everybody else
was leaving it; when it was if not on its last legs, institutionally battered
to the point that, really, its membership was reduced to a rump. He joined at
the end of the '50s in 1950 1960, as a matter of fact, in October, just as
the Russian Revolution's anniversary was being celebrated. And he did so in
order to, I think it's fair to say, to Homerically thumb his nose at what he
saw as the increasing rigidification of politics in America, the triumph
of the Cold War, as he saw it, the division of the world into two
armed camps. And, indeed, he was even skeptical about the long term significance of the civil rights victories of the '50s because, once again, he looked beyond the desegregation of facilities and the integration of schools and those firsts that were so impressive: the Jackie Robinsons and others.
He looked beyond that to the economic reality that not much had changed and
that there was no good reason to anticipate that a great deal would. And to
the extent that things even did change, they went down to the credit or the benefit of a small African American middle class. And so you would then have a class divide within the group, which would further impede the struggle for civil rights.
LAMB: You say in the book that at the funeral, there was no one there from
the American Embassy.
LEWIS: In Ghana, there was no one from the American Embassy. It's
understandable. He had renounced his citizenship. He had joined the party.
He had left and expatriated himself to Ghana. So the ambassador certainly was
not there and would not have been there even if he'd been in the country, and
he was not, in fact.
LAMB: And you say that he was only one of three people in Ghana that had a
LEWIS: Correct. Yes. The Russians had great admiration for Du
Bois. He was quite useful to them. And, indeed, more than that, Khrushchev
and Du Bois hit it off famously in their several meetings, and so the Russian
ambassador was instructed to give Du Bois that behemoth
limousine, the ZIL. And so he had one, the ambassador, of course, and then
Nkrumah, the president of Ghana also.
LAMB: You say that he got cables when he died; were sent from Mao
Tse tung, Zhou Enlai, Nikita Khrushchev and that in attendance was Gus Hall
of the American Communist Party. Why did they like him so much, or why did
they want to pay homage to him?
LEWIS: Well, his value to the Soviet cause was enormous. Here was
the most impressive African American intellectual, a man who was deemed widely to be the father of Pan Africanism, the founder of the civil rights movement. And now in the '50s, his politics were such that the Soviet Union
thought it appropriate to bestow upon him the Lenin Peace Prize. And
then when his passport was restored, having been lifted from about 1951 to
'58 that was a time when Paul Robeson's passport was restored and a whole
raft of people were, once again, able to travel.
He went to the Soviet Union and was treated like a head of state,
virtually, and then to China with the same sort of treatment. And so if
the Soviet Union hoped to encourage people within the United States and
elsewhere to look upon Marxism, communism, scientific socialism with
increasing favor, then Du Bois was useful in that regard.
LAMB: What do you think his reaction would be if he were sitting with us
today here, 30 years later, after his death 30 years after his death to
LEWIS: Mm hmm.. Hard to say. I am a professional historian, and so I could perhaps say we don't predict. But it's hard not to. It's a tantalizing question and, really, a fair question for a biographer. So, you know, with all things considered in terms of the fallacy of that supposition being valid, I think he would probably say it's too soon to write off the experiment. I think he would probably think that there's some sort of dialectic at play in history so that 10 years, 20 years from now, socialism, in one form or another, will be recrudescent. That would be my guess.
LAMB: Where do you work on a day to day basis?
LEWIS: I'm at Rutgers in the history department, New Brunswick. I'm
there Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with students. I commute from
Washington because, for a year and a half, I was on leave writing this fat
book. And much of my family is here, and so rather than live in New Brunswick
full time, I've chosen to do a lot of traveling.
LAMB: How big is Rutgers?
LEWIS: Oh, it's enormous. I think it's the third largest American
university, which means 40,000 plus, I suppose.
LAMB: Why did you end up there?
LEWIS: Well, in 1968 or thereabouts, the people of New Jersey created a chair named after Martin Luther King. And when that chair was vacated by its first holder, there was a search for a new occupant. And I was one of the people who was invited to submit to his candidacy. I did, and the search committee looked with favor upon it and so I have been there since 1985. I took the chair in the history department, and I've been quite pleased to be there with that affiliation.
LAMB: Where were you before '85?
LEWIS: University of California, San Diego.
LAMB: What does it mean to have the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair at Rutgers?
LEWIS: Well, it does mean tenure. It's a lifetime appointment. It means a certain margin of maneuver when it comes to my time. I must carry the same load as my colleagues. But there are resources with that chair, and so when I am researching a book, it's a little easier for me to push it along because of the advantages of the chair.
LAMB: What does W.E.B. stand for?
LEWIS: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.
LAMB: What did people call him?
LEWIS: They called him in the first years, his intimates called him
Willie in Great Barrington. But by the time he reached Harvard, he was
Will. And soon it's interesting and I don't know precisely at what point
in time that would have happened, but I've interviewed about 230 odd people
who knew Du Bois, some of them as old as 102, 103 two women who were his
teachers whom he taught at Atlanta University. And I've interviewed people who knew him at the end of his life. And all of them refer--addressed him as
Dr. Du Bois. He was an august figure, a regal figure in many ways, very formal. And so the title was always there, Dr. Bu Bois.
LAMB: How tall was he?
LEWIS: It's interesting you would ask that because the impression was
that he was a man of above average height, but he was quite short. He was
about 5'6", which even for a male of his generation was about two inches under
average. And he was also left handed. And neither of those things is there
ever a suggestion of Du Bois' writings. And most people think of him, as
I say, as being a man of some stature.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken right here?
LEWIS: That picture would have been taken in the office of the Crisis,
the magazine Du Bois edited for the NAACP probably about 1915 or thereabouts.
LAMB: Is your father still alive?
LEWIS: He is not, no.
LAMB: What year did he die?
LAMB: So he's been away for a long time.
LEWIS: He has, yes.
LAMB: Now the reason I ask that is...
LEWIS: Mm hmm.
LAMB: ...if you could remember ever having a conversation with him about what
this man was really like.
LEWIS: You know, in a sense, yes, because around the dinner table, Du
Bois was very much a part of conversation, not that it was a nightly
business of Du Bois. But my mother had been one of his students at
Atlanta University. My father knew him. They went to different schools. My
dad had gone to Yale and Du Bois went to Harvard, but they both were
members of the same fraternity. And, indeed, the last letter in the Aptheker Herbert Aptheker's collection, three volumes of the correspondence
of Du Bois, only a small percentage of them to be sure. The last letter in
volume three is from my father to Du Bois that I learned fairly recently.
LAMB: Who was Herbert Aptheker?
LEWIS: Herbert Aptheker is a historian, a man who was of great service to the Communist Party and I would say also a great service to civil and human rights. He wrote one of the major works in the field of what we now call African American or black history, work on slave revolts, oh, shortly after World War II. He's never held off a tenured position in an American university because of his politics. He now, though, does have an adjunct affiliation with one of the California universities. He's still alert, still writing, I hope, his memoirs now.
LAMB: Why'd you write this book?
LEWIS: This is one of the major missing American biographies. This is a large life that impinges upon so many issues, and there was no biography. There had been biographical attempts earlier about 20 years earlier, and there's a very fine political biography that came out not so long ago. But none had access to the correspondence of Du Bois, some 115,000 items deposited with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And so I was fortunate to have first access to them, so that meant it was simply a live option not to be sidestepped, the writing of the
biography, because it could be done. Then, as I say, it was a significant
And then, finally, I wanted to use the life not simply to address and retrieve
the multifaceted personality of Du Bois, but to use it as a window onto
much of the 20th century. Du Bois had said memorably in 1900 in England,
addressing a conference, that the problem of the 20th century was the problem
of the color line. And so I wanted to track that problem through his life on
several continents in the first and second volumes.
LAMB: There's three pictures here, well, first of all, I want to ask you
about this one. How old was he when that picture was taken?
LEWIS: I think that may have been taken about 1903 or 1904. So
he's in his 30s at that point. It's taken, by the way, by a photographer here in Washington, DC, Addison Scurlock. And the Scurlock photographic studio is still extant. That photo had never been seen before because it was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery just two years ago, and as a commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery, when I was made aware of the acquisition of that, I dashed to use it in a proprietary way. And so it will be shortly unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery when there is, in fact, a book party in connection with this biography.
LAMB: Now you say you're a commissioner of the National Port Gallery...
LAMB: ...the Portrait Gallery? What does that mean?
LEWIS: That means that I am one of a number of people who meet twice
a year to review the acquisitions of the gallery.
LAMB: How do you get that position?
LEWIS: Through invitation.
LAMB: And who owns the National Portrait Gallery?
LEWIS: It's part of the Smithsonian, so it's owned by the
taxpayers of -- we own it.
LAMB: Let me, again, open this up to these three pictures here. The one up
top, left, is what?
LEWIS: That is a photo of Du Bois' father, Alfred Du Bois, in his Civil
War Union Army uniform.
LAMB: And the one in the middle?
LEWIS: That is Du Bois' mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, who married
Alfred Du Bois in 1860 '67.
LAMB: And the final picture, do...
LEWIS: And that's young Willie Du Bois, about age, we say, five or
six perhaps a little younger.
LAMB: Was he smart?
LEWIS: Yes. He was very smart. And when I'm asked that people ask me, `Well, why did he do this?' or, `Why did he do that?' or, `How did he do it?' Du Bois is one of those persons who brings a lot of internal fire. There's, if you were measuring the force field of that personality, the needle would go up high. He just comes into the world with quite a bang, quite a bit of pizzazz But then there's a great deal of self conscious cultivation of the mind.
Along the way, I began coming across little graphs of his workday: so much to
do in the morning, so much in the afternoon, so much in the evening. And they
grew longer and longer, until, finally, there were these scrolls which
outlined every single thing he would be doing for a week and then two weeks,
then a month. In the morning, after a cup of coffee, there would be reading
and then there would be writing, then there'd be writing a book, then there'd
be reading a novel, then there'd be correspondence. And this was unvarying.
It's simply a formidable schematic for productivity.
You think of Immanuel Kant. People, you know, and villages in
the university town used to set their watches by Kant as he walked by. Du
Bois had that same kind of precise regularity. And I suppose that was why at
times he appeared brusk, arrogant and aloof, because he knew that he didn't
have time for the sociability that would take time away from that schedule.
LAMB: You refer to oral history -- When he was 92? Did he did he have some oral history at age 92?
LEWIS: Yes. He was interviewed by the Columbia oral history project
about 91, 92. Mm hmm.
LAMB: His age 91, 92, which was back...
LEWIS: Yes, right.
LAMB: ...in '61, '62.
LEWIS: Mm hmm. Yes.
LAMB: Did you hear any of that? Have you heard his voice?
LEWIS: Yes, I have. Yes, I have.
LAMB: What's he sound like?
LEWIS: A dry voice, very precise with bad dentures, so a lot of
whistling towards the end.
LAMB: Was it important when you heard the voice? Did you change your feel
for the man?
LEWIS: I thought the voice would have a little more rotundity to it, if
I could use that term. It was a little drier than I thought.
LAMB: Did you ever see him make a speech on film or...
LEWIS: I have. Yes, I have.
LAMB: And what did you see when you saw that? And what kind of feel did you
LEWIS: A man in complete command of the data that was being discussed,
moving quite systematically without a single word out of place from point A to
B to C with very few mannerisms and movements of his hand. And this is the
impression taken away by people I interviewed: that Du Bois was almost like a machine, but not at a great clip; pacing as he discussed an issue and as the facts were presented and as the concept became firmer and firmer and larger. Must have been quite an experience.
LAMB: If you had a group of experts on civil rights or black history
sitting around a table, where would they put this man in the hierarchy of
importance of the history of either black leadership or civil rights?
LEWIS: At the very top.
LAMB: Very top.
LEWIS: At the very top for one reason, because he's first. He has
advantage of being one of the first, if not the first. He fawns with a number of others the NAACP. He articulates the ideas of
Pan Africanism, though there were others who had these ideas.
LAMB: What does Pan Africanism mean?
LEWIS: Pan Africanism was the philosophy of the common destiny and
purpose of people of African descent, who must begin to work across
boundaries, across lines in concert in order to throw off the shackles
of imperialism, whether it was the naked variety of actual occupation on land
or whether it was the market manipulation of countries by a more powerful
northern and European palatines and governments.
LAMB: Why did he feel that the black person hadn't done as well as he felt
they should have when he was writing about this? What was the reason?
LEWIS: The reason was probably best summed up in his turning point book,
"Black Reconstruction," which he wrote in 1935 or which was published in
1935. People in slavery, obviously, would have a performance level
that would leave a great deal to be desired, and that was by nature the
working of the institution. After emancipation, however, the
consensus of American historians was that African Americans hadn't come up to
snuff; that there had been an experiment called Reconstruction. It had
been a great mistake and extravagance in terms of corruption and
stupidity and that obtained.
And it was Du Bois who was to go back to the sources and to show that, in
fact, Reconstruction had been quite a different experiment and that its
failings had to do with the refusal of the federal power to follow through
on the one hand. And on the other, the decision to allow the white South
to erect a system of racial supremacy. And that in that situation where the civil rights of the African American and his economic rights were repressed and controlled by white Southerners, largely, it was simply not in the cards that African Americans would achieve their full potential.
And it was Du Bois' careful documentation along the way of how this system
of redemption, as it was called, of the white South after Reconstruction
and the laying on of segregation how that had been enacted and the politics
of it and the economics of it that transformed American historiographers so
that today, when we write about the Reconstruction period and, therefore,
about the history of African Americans and freedom, we have a very different,
mellow, nuance, sophisticated and far less racist appreciation. And I take
it that black reconstruction deserves a great deal of the credit for that new
LAMB: When was the Reconstruction period?
LEWIS: From 1868 to 1876.
LAMB: And in your book, it's 1868 to 1919. Do you intend to write about the
rest of his life at some point?
LEWIS: I do. I've done the bulk of the research, and very shortly, I will begin writing the second and final volume, bringing the story up to 1963.
LAMB: Which period, this period you wrote about or the next period is the most interesting to you?
LEWIS: I think they are both. They're different. They're different. This period entailed a lot of the things that historians do at their peril, psychologizing of Du Bois. But I found that necessary because Du Bois had been so adroit and so seductive in his own autobiographical re creation of his early years and his early professional life. But as I went behind his presentation of that world, I found that, not surprisingly, he had been quite skilled at turning the facts in such a way that his life had a kind of purpose and grandeur from the beginning that pointed in the direction of leadership and mastery of scholarship.
Well, I mean, there was a time when he was a kid and when he was a very frail
kid and when he was a bit beleaguered and when, indeed, his relations with his
absent father weighed heavily upon him. And so I'd spent time finding that Du
Bois and explaining the wellsprings of insecurities and then the compensatory ego that he developed on top of that.
Well, so now that I've wound him up, I suppose you might say that volume two
is a sort of a Duracell battery volume. He'll keep going, taking over. I
think that many of the readers will be more interested in volume two because
that gets us into the more recent past, and it will cover the terrain of the Red Scare and the post war period and the failure of progressivism and the beginning of the civil rights revolution.
LAMB: How many times did he marry?
LEWIS: Twice. His first wife died in 1950, and he married Shirley
Graham Du Bois, a woman he had known for many, many years. There she is.
There is Nina, the first wife.
LAMB: Right here.
LEWIS: He married her in 1865 and I'm sorry, in 1895, '96. And she died in 1950.
LAMB: Who's the child in the picture?
LEWIS: The child was the son, Burghardt. Handsome lad. He died just
shy of age two, and he died of diphtheria and died without the benefit
of medical attention. And that embittered Mrs. Du Bois. It not only
embittered her, but it seems for a time to have unhinged her. And it was a
factor in Du Bois' desperate desire to leave Atlanta he was then teaching at Atlanta University to leave Atlanta for the sake of his wife's convalescence.
And he wrote a marvelous apostrophe to his son in the "Souls of Black
Folk," that wonderful collection of 18 essays which appeared in 1903 called
"Of the Passing of the First Born." And, of course, it expressed not only his
grief, but the grief of African American youth restricted, confined and kept down by a system of segregation.
LAMB: Did I remember you saying that his second wife was, like, 57 when he died at 90 something. Was she that...
LEWIS: The second wife was about that age, yes.
LAMB: When did he marry her?
LEWIS: He married her in 1951. She had been on the scene for many
years. They had been quite close. She was more of a help mate in the public world than his first wife. She was a member of the party. I'm sure that was true. She was a novelist of some success; a dramatist. She had written music early on. So she was quite a gifted woman. And she was quite important to him in his final decade or so of life.
LAMB: Where were you born?
LEWIS: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but I had not thought about
it much until recently, since I left when I was about seven.
LAMB: Then where'd you move to?
LEWIS: Ohio. Wilberforce, Ohio.
LAMB: Where there is still a school?
LEWIS: There is still a school, yes. There is still...
LAMB: What's the origin of Wilberforce?
LEWIS: It's named after the great abolitionist, British-abolitionist William Wilberforce, who was responsible for the ending of the slave trade in the British empire. And so this small school was named after him in about 1850. It's the oldest African American institution of higher learning, in fact, and continues, though at some point it divided and there is another institution, which once was a part of it, Central State University. And so they co exist there.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
LEWIS: I suppose from about 1947 until my parents returned south. Both
my parents were originally from Atlanta, Georgia, and my father went south
to assume a college presidency. And so I guess about 1948, '49.
LAMB: Which school?
LEWIS: A school called Morris Brown College, one of the five Atlanta
LAMB: And then where did you go to school?
LEWIS: I went, in fact, to the same undergraduate institution Du Bois
attended to get his first doctorate, his first bachelor's Fisk University in
Tennessee. And then I went on to do graduate work at Columbia and the
London School of Economics.
LAMB: And what was your PhD thesis on?
LEWIS: Well, I'm more quickly responsive to the book I've written
than I am that. What was it? It was a dissertation on liberal Catholicism in
France. I took my doctorate in modern French Third Republic history,
in fact. And it had to do with a man named Emanuel Mounier, who was a liberal
Catholic and tried to achieve a sort of synthesis in the immediate after war
period between socialism and Catholicism. He didn't succeed too well.
But he was quite a figure for a time.
LAMB: Here's a Fisk University graduating class right here up top.
LAMB: Mr. Du Bois in that picture there?
LEWIS: Du Bois is seated second from left looking dead straight into the
eye of the camera.
LAMB: Where is Fisk?
LEWIS: Fisk is in Nashville.
LAMB: Named after what person?
LEWIS: Named after General Clinton B. Fisk, one of the Union Army
officers who fought in the Tennessee theater and then took employment or
served what was called the Freedmen's Bureau, that quasi government
agency established to sort of put the South back on its feet. And he was
instrumental in founding this institution that soon bore his name.
LAMB: And when Mr. Du Bois went there, was he one of the first people to go,
one of the first classes?
LEWIS: No. No. Fisk was founded in 186 let me get this right -- I
guess '65, '66. Du Bois entered in 1885.
LAMB: And I remember reading I think in your book, you said that the
original class of a couple hundred were all from former slave families.
LEWIS: Yes. Yes. I think that's true. There may have been some who
were from families that had been free, even before the Civil War.
LAMB: Why did he go there?
LEWIS: He went there in fact, it wasn't his preference. He had hoped
to go straight away to Harvard after graduating from the Great Barrington High
LEWIS: Massachusetts. But he didn't have the funds. And Frank Hosmer,
the principal of the high school, who had early on seen the great potential Du Bois had and had guided Du Bois into the college program rather than have him continue on in vocational preparation Hosmer was able to interest three congregational New England churches in supporting Du Bois. And so he was given a stipend from these three churches, which lasted for the duration of his matriculation at Fisk.
LAMB: There are a lot of different things we can talk about, but one of the
things I kept reading in the book was Booker T. Washington -- they didn't get along?
LEWIS: Well, that's an understatement, I must say, Brian. It was such a titanic misunderstanding and contretemps that it divided the African American community, and there are still echoes of that detonation even today.
LAMB: Who was Booker T. Washington?
LEWIS: Washington was the principal of Tuskegee University, the leading institution in the Deep South that offered vocational and industrial education to its student body. But more than that, he was the man who had famously spoken in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895 at the Atlanta and Cotton States Exposition when the South was putting its best foot forward, claiming that the South now was rising from its ashes and was the place to invest and a place where racial problems, indeed, were well in hand. And so Washington spoke at that international show, and there he proclaimed that the African American should, in effect, renounce his civil rights and, in return, enter into a bargain with the white South, in which for the renunciation of the vote, the white South would encourage the African American in humble pursuits, industrial, vocational. And the trade off would be that in time, with frugality and patience, there would be perhaps a restoration of those rights, but that would be far down the road.
And this was a Faustian bargain, as Booker Washington's splendid biographer, Louis Harlan, has described it, which at first seemed if not ideal, inevitable in any case. And that is, in fact, the way Du Bois saw it. And so in 1895, after Washington uttered these famous words, which resulted, of course, in 1896 in the historic Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which ratified separate equality in the United States, Du Bois thought that if the bargain were honored, that it might not be a bad bargain. Give up the vote in exchange for economic prosperity.
But by 1903 it was clear to Du Bois that a bargain in which you give up the
one thing that gives you leverage is no bargain at all but an institutionalized exploitation. And as Washington continued to push this bargain indeed, with greater and greater resolution, with the backing of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers and the Baldwins, as money poured into his institution, as he created something called the Tuskegee Machine to squash those points of view that were critical or that, if not critical, were somewhat Du Bois realized that he had to increasingly assume the role of adversary.
And so he did so, reluctantly; it took him away from his scholarship. He was
not a leader of numbers of people. He wasn't camaraderie didn't come easily to
him. But, increasingly, he found himself in the cross hairs, as I put it, of
Booker Washington. And so, finally, he throws down the gauntlet in that
essay included "In the Souls of Black Folk" of Mr. Booker T. Washington and
others, which announces that Washington does not speak for as he called
them, `the members of a "talented tenth."' Those were the African Americans
for whom industrial education, vocational education, their renunciation of
civil and social equality was simply appalling.
They were mostly northern, and they were all college educated. And that small
group rallied to Du Bois, and over time it grew as a critical mass. And, finally, Booker Washington is no longer the spokesperson for the majority of his people. Du Bois becomes.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the fact -- you lead off the book by saying that W.E.B. Du Bois was a Communist, he died in Ghana and the people that praised him the most were the Communist leaders from around the world. Can you jump from that, listening to you talk about the admiration that he has that most leaders in this country who are black would then, therefore, endorse his view of communism?
LEWIS: You cannot. And that's exactly another reason for writing this
biography. There were many people who had no knowledge or have no knowledge of Du Bois because he became a virtual person as a result of his political decisions in the last decade of his life; so much so that even people who had grown up as part of that "talented tenth" group that admired Du Bois wanted to distance themselves from him. They felt genuinely that he was making
mistakes; that communism was not only not the way, but that even if it
had some redeeming features, it was too deadly a philosophy during the 1950s
for an African Americans to espouse openly. And so for reasons of
strategy and conviction, virtually everyone who had any profile, significance
within Afro America distanced himself from Du Bois.
He was tried in 1951 here in Washington as a foreign agent, which was, of course, ludicrous. But the Justice Department spent about $1/2 million, which was money in those days, trying to find evidence abroad that Du Bois was the conduit of funds and ideas subversive ideas from at the beckoning of the Comintern. Not so. So much so, in fact, the transparency of the charges was that the judge threw out the case in three days. But Du Bois, looking around for support, didn't find any within the African American community.
There were some exceptions: Langston Hughes; of course Paul Robeson; E.
Franklin Frazier, the distinguished sociologist a few others. But that
"talented tenth" absented itself from his defense. And that had a great deal
to do with Du Bois' decision then or review of his ideas about the role
of this bunch of people. And the review and the disenchantment, I think, then pushed him even farther left. But I don't think it was bitterness that did it as much as it was a genuine alarm on his part that if he didn't begin to say something about the quiescence of this leadership class, its sponginess and its smudginess as some things began to happen that should be applauded in the area of the breakdown of racial segregation, that no one else would and that he then would deserve his mission in life, which was always to be the great scold, the exemplar, the model, the seer, the prophet, so on.
LAMB: Recently we did a little tour of the Oval Office and showed the
credenza where the president keeps his books.
LEWIS: Mm hmm.
LAMB: And I don't know if you can do this or not, but back there on that
credenza were two books about President Jefferson, a book of President Lincoln, former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Mr. Havel from the Czech Republic.
LEWIS: Mm hmm.
LAMB: Now if a number of the black leaders today, all of a sudden, found
themselves as president Jesse Jackson, let's say Martin Luther King Jr...
LEWIS: Colin Powell.
LAMB: ...were alive today, Colin Powell, you name it.
LEWIS: Mm hmm.
LAMB: How many of them, do you think, would have this book on that credenza?
LEWIS: Well, I think, thanks to the experience I'm having with you here,
we have a fair chance that by that time the book would be on the credenza.
But I'd like to say this: that there's no reason why President Clinton
could not have the book on the credenza. We don't need to wait for an
African American president to appreciate this biography.
LAMB: But what would be the -- if there's a singular message about the
teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois, what would that be? Is there a singular message?
LEWIS: Well, I think Du Bois is exceptional, above all, in this way, I think: that at 95, he is more radical than he was when he was 25, and he's more radical in most Americans' eye. And that is really quite extraordinary; that a man who has the option to accept any number of honors chooses, rather, this lonely vigil of reproach and imprecation and exhortation. And while it wouldn't be my cup of tea or perhaps yours, it is, I think, an admiral role for an intellectual or it is one role for an intellectual and a activist to assume. And he did.
And so I think the message would be that Du Bois, in the service of human
rights, gave up the comfort and the laureates that he might have had. He
put it well himself. He said, late in life, he said, `At 50, had I died, I
would have been championed. At 75,' he said, `my death was practically
requested.' And that, for him, was an achievement in its own perverse way;
that he continued to raise issues, he continued to examine and to probe and to
deplore, until finally, his last decision was so egregious from the point of view of orthodoxy, that people simply ran the other way and pretended to forget about him.
He continued to have great influence, and I think that influence now begins to
resume because while he was ignored for a time and forgotten for a time, it
becomes quite clear that the antecedence of so much of the 20th century can be
traced to him.
LAMB: The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People, was founded when?
LEWIS: In 1909, 1910 at Cooper Union.
LAMB: Where's that?
LEWIS: In New York City. The historic forum for founding movements: labor unions, that sort of thing.
LAMB: And what role did he play in that? And who was there with him at the
LEWIS: Du Bois was present with those Progressives whose names used to
be household: Jane Addams; Oswald Garrison Villard, the owner of the New York Post and The Nation and the nephew of William Lloyd Garrison, the great
abolitionist; William English Walling, one of those well bred socialists of
the period; Mary White Ovington, another socialist power socialist. These
were the people who would find themselves most of them supporting Teddy
Roosevelt for that quixotic run for the presidency in 1912, the Bull Moose
Party, the Progressive Party. They were people who believed that America was
in the grasp of mammon; that the cities were polluted; that politics was corrupt; that government was at the beck of the highest bidder, and they wanted to reform and save America, to make it once again a city on the hill.
And, of course, in the area of race relations, they saw the movement of racial tensions out of the South into the industrial North as a great threat to the civility of society and to its order. There had been a quite terrible riot in 1908, the real trigger for the founding of the NAACP, in Abraham Lincoln's burial place in Illinois, in Springfield really, a pogrom where hundreds of people were maimed and murdered. And so out of that atrocity came `the call,' as they would say, which brought the Progressives, black and white, to Cooper Union to found what became the NAACP.
It had an important component in a movement that Du Bois himself had started
earlier in 1905, the Niagara Movement, exclusively made up of African American
men and later women "talented tenth" types. But Booker Washington was still
vigorous and able to restrict the success of that movement, until it was only when there was a confluence of white progressivism and African American civil rights that a movement that could effectively combat white supremacy and Booker Washington came on line, the NAACP.
LAMB: One of the biggest surprises for me in this book was one sentence
because it involved my hometown when I read it, and I want to ask you about
it. `After seeing "The Birth of a Nation" in Lafayette, Indiana,' where I was
born, 'a white patron would shoot a teen age African American boy to death.'
LAMB: Where'd you get that, by the way? Where does that pop out of
LEWIS: That pops out of a newspaper account of the circuit of injunctions and incidents and violence that followed "The Birth of a Nation," the movie as it made its rounds throughout the nation.
LAMB: What was it?
LEWIS: The movie?
LAMB: Mm hmm.
LEWIS: The movie is one of the great cinematic masterpieces. I think I'm not an expert in the field of film, but I think it's probably accurate to say that we haven't gone much beyond D.W. Griffith in terms of the photographic devices that he innovated: montage and fade out and that sort of thing. And this film, with the case of thousands nothing had ever been seen like this before with great movement and depiction of battle scenes and the whole story of Reconstruction retold from a Southern perspective Woodrow Wilson, who saw the film screened in the basement of the White House, you know, said, `This is history written in lightning.' He later said he didn't mean to say that, as the NAACP really cranked up its opposition to the film.
But it was one of the most effective pieces of propaganda in the history of American culture. For the ordinary citizen who didn't know a great deal about the history of his country and certainly the history of the South, this became the epistemology. This was how one saw what happened through "Birth of a Nation." And so the opposition to that film, the seeking of injunctions by the NAACP, brought the NAACP, really for the first time, to the attention of the greater American public. And the film made the NAACP and the NAACP made the film, in many ways.
LAMB: What did it really show? What was so offensive?
LEWIS: Well, a number of things. For example, there's a famous scene usually extracted when the film plays today, as it does in special settings -- film of the South Carolina Legislature supposedly dominated by recently freed slaves swinging from chandeliers, drinking whiskey, gambling in the aisles while the treasury of the state is handed over to scalawags and carpetbaggers from the North. So the message is that perfidious whites from the North and demonic blacks from the South combined to rape, metaphorically and physically, the South.
And there was a famous shot of Lillian Gish choosing death rather than to embrace of a black soldier. And she leaps from a high place with a lot of dramatic close ups.
LAMB: Is it a silent film?
LEWIS: Completely silent, with subtitles.
LAMB: Does it ever run anywhere today?
LEWIS: Yes, it does. It does. It can be seen at the Library of Congress. It can be seen on campuses. There is now a print of it that is almost intact.
LAMB: Have you ever seen it?
LEWIS: Yes. I've seen it several times.
LAMB: What's your reaction to it when you see it?
LEWIS: It's absolutely brilliant. I think it's on the order of and far superior to Sergei Eisenstein's great films advancing the cause of the Soviet Union or, say, Leni Riefenstahl, her great film about the Nuremberg rallies and the triumph of the will. I think of her because of the recent biography which made national socialism seem like, you know, a great movement to sign up for.
LAMB: Let me ask you a couple quick questions. We're about out of time.
LEWIS: Mm hmm.
LAMB: When did you start the book?
LEWIS: 1985 I began and worked assiduously, as my domestic partner
would certainly confirm.
LAMB: Ruth Ann?
LEWIS: Ruth Ann.
LAMB: That's who you dedicated the book to.
LEWIS: That's who I dedicated the book to.
LAMB: And who is she?
LEWIS: Ruth Ann is my spouse and a woman who puts up with a great deal
as I found myself consumed and absorbed writing the book. And often, of
course, I was away traveling.
LAMB: What does she do?
LEWIS: She's presently with the government, the Library of Congress.
LAMB: Do you have children?
LEWIS: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How many?
LEWIS: I have three by a previous marriage. Ruth has one.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
LEWIS: My son is looking for college, he's 18. My daughter is a recent
graduate. And I have an older son, who's learning disabled and in residential
care in Providence, Rhode Island.
LAMB: Now this book, you finished the actual writing of this book when?
LEWIS: Well, not that long ago. I suppose about March of last year.
LAMB: And the next book, you say you finished the research. You're going to
begin the writing. When will that be published?
LEWIS: I'd think about two and a half years from now, about two and a
half years from now.
LAMB: What is your feeling about the reaction you've had? And what kind of
reaction have you had?
LEWIS: It's been gratifying, exhilarating. I'm a finalist in the National Book Awards. And that verdict, the envelope, please, will be opened on November 17th. I'm one of five finalists. And what more could an author want than except to win? And I also hope I will.
LAMB: And in the end, did you like W.E.B. Du Bois?
LEWIS: I was never bored and I don't dislike him. He's a hard guy to
like. I admire him and am, at times, troubled by him.
LAMB: What was your favorite thing? What did you discover when you had that reaction saying, `I didn't know that, and that's really interesting'?
LEWIS: Oh, there's so many, it's hard to say. I found it amusing that he would agree to have a cigar named after him, provided it was a good cigar. I found, I suppose, that as an intellectual and as a formal man, he was also a great lover. Women found him simply irresistible and so they did. And there will be more of that in volume two.
LAMB: How do you know that?
LEWIS: I know that because there is evidence. He wrote to the women who were romantically interested in him in a way that would not reveal, disclose much. He was writing for history. He did everything for history. But the women often wrote to him with a different point of view, and there is evidence of those affiliations and affections.
LAMB: Just one last question. Where does the Levering come from in your
LEWIS: Oh, it's an old family name. Every male for several generations
in my family has born the name Levering.
LAMB: And this is what the book looks like. It's the biography, first of two
editions, "W.E.B. Du Bois: 1868 1919." Our guest is David Levering Lewis.
We thank you very much for joining us.
LEWIS: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.