57 years ago today, August 27, hundreds of thousands of people were preparing for a historic mass march on Washington which would become a turning point in American democracy. It would be the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but also powerful addresses by the John Lewis and Rabbi Joachim Prinz. On that same day, thousands of miles away in Accra, Ghana, the great civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois died at the age of 95.
The news of his death was announced, rather reluctantly because of Du Bois’ embrace of communism late in life, the next day to the huge crowd on the national mall: “at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause.” I learned of this intersection of history on a visit this week to the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The national historic site consists of a trail though the property when Du Bois grew up and which he later owned. There are displays along the way with pictures, quotes, and explanations of his life and influence. The path leads to the footprint of the long ago demolished house. There one must imagine the home he occupied as a child and which he had a deep attachment to.
One of the organizations Du Bois cofounded, the NAACP, helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is still going strong today. Unfortunately its Philadelphia chapter has been in the news because its president posted an anti-Semitic image on his Facebook page. The national organization has now taken control of the chapter and removed the local leadership.
Du Bois most likely would have been saddened by his organization’s association with hateful images toward Jews. Early on, he understood the barbarism of the Holocaust spoke out against it.
Earlier, he also had a keen understanding of how different groups in America saw each other. In a 1923 interview in the Forverts Yiddish newspaper, Du Bois explained it this way:
“When the immigrant from Eastern Europe meets the Negro in New York,” Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois told us, “he is curious. He has never before seen a colored man; he therefore gazes at him as something new and novel. In his next step, through the process of Americanization, the immigrant will be told to avoid the Negroes, not to have any dealings with them, etc., etc. and later the final step, he will unconsciously begin to absorb the current prejudices against Negroes.”
These new immigrants had no ill will toward African Americans because they knew nothing about them. It was the process of Americanization which created prejudice.
Du Bois was no idealist about harmony among different groups. In the interview he says “a persecuted people sees other people with the eyes of the persecutor.” With a lack of knowledge about the other, we tend to form our opinions from what we see in the media. The great challenge is to overcome this divide and see others as they would like to be seen, to develop deep empathy so that we can see other people with the eyes of the persecuted. That is how many Jews eventually came to identify with and support the civil rights movement, and how we today can help in the fight to truly end systemic racism once and for all.