The legendary black leaders W. E. B. Du Bois and Walter White were civil rights pioneers during the Jim Crow era who laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Du Bois was a radical intellectual, forever the cultural critic, while White looked for change within the system—working with political leaders like President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Both men became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and used the organization to pursue their goals for racial and ethnic equality in America.
A historian and sociologist, Du Bois had hoped that social science could help eliminate segregation, but he eventually came to the conclusion that the only effective strategy against racism was agitation. He challenged the dominant ideology of black accommodation as preached and practiced by Booker T. Washington, then the most influential black man in America. Washington urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and elevate themselves through hard work and economic gain to win the respect of whites. In 1905, Du Bois took the lead in founding the short-lived Niagara Movement, intended to be an organization advocating civil rights for blacks. Although the Niagara Movement faltered, it was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909. Du Bois played a prominent role in the organization's creation and became its director of research and the editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
Walter White was one of the outstanding civil rights leaders in America during the first half of the 20th century. He joined the NAACP in 1918 and almost immediately became its chief investigator of lynching crimes in America. Because of his blue eyes and blonde hair, he could easily pass for Caucasian. But instead, he chose to go through life as a black man.
In 1929, White became executive secretary of the NAACP, succeeding James Weldon Johnson. During White’s 26-year tenure as the leader of the NAACP, the organization grew to become a potent force in national politics, leading national campaigns against lynching and segregation and significantly advancing the cause of civil rights for African Americans.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
Narrator: Making life better for African-Americans in the early 1930s was a formidable task. As Langston Hughes said, "the Depression had knocked everyone down a peg or two, and Negroes had but a few pegs to fall." The NAACP, like the rest of America, was struggling to survive.
Patricia Sullivan: People want to see results, they want to feel that what they're doing is going to lead to something, and I think it was very hard for the NAACP to provide that. There was no political leverage, you know, black people of the South couldn't vote. There's not any movement forward on the main issues, anti-lynching legislation, sharecroppers getting fair prices for their labor. Things aren't changing.
Narrator: In 1932 Walter White takes over the leadership of the NAACP as its general secretary.
Patricia Sullivan: Walter White was so deeply committed and immersed in this organization that I don't think he would let himself consider whether they were failing or not. The point was to keep moving.
Ken Janken: Walter White was um… he was able to keep the organization together when many people were thinking about quitting. Du Bois talked about disbanding the NAACP and getting it started on a new basis. There was a fair amount of distrust for Walter White, for many people on the NAACP staff—Du Bois chief among them. Walter White was the sort of administrator who liked to keep his fingers on everything, including The Crisis, which he believed was not reflecting the work of the NAACP so much as reflecting the beliefs and opinions of W.E.B. Du Bois. This was Du Bois' vehicle for making known his views. It broadcast a variety of opinions on important questions of the day, such as what should the Negro's attitude be toward Marxism. Walter White was not so much concerned about many of these theoretical questions as he was concerned with making sure that The Crisis covered what the NAACP was doing. In 1931, he made a play to get control of The Crisis, which was something that Du Bois was aghast at.
David Lewis: They look at each other and begin to say things about each other in a shockingly sharp way. So that Du Bois attacks White as being really a white man masquerading as a Negro, to use the term of the day. And White, of course, is able to give as good as he gets and charges Du Bois with being an egomaniac and an intellectual who doesn't see to the needs of the times.
Howard Sitkoff: For the great, great majority of Americans, the single overriding fact is the Great Depression and the need to combat that depression, the need to get the American economy rolling again. Everything else was secondary.
Narrator: In 1933, a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected. He had promised a New Deal for everyone, but to get the economy rolling, he would need the support of southern senators. Programs to advance racial equality would have to wait. But for W.E.B. Du Bois, waiting was not an option.
David Lewis: Du Bois came up with a proposal that since the New Deal wasn't going to solve the problem of the African-American, the African-American should do it him and herself within the context of the racial segregation that in any case was not going to go away whatever the New Deal did. And to sell that point, DuBois did what he so often did. He made it so controversial that you would have to address it, by writing three editorials using the word "segregation" and "separation." And these were red flags to the NAACP and its many followers, the whole point was racial integration.
James Anderson: He sort of came out in favor of separate schools in the article, which was very, very much against the tradition of the NAACP.
David Lewis: Du Bois knew that everybody would stop and pause and say, "What's going on?" But in fact they stopped and they were so shaken that they didn't find out really what was going on. This was simply, this would have been like Du Bois writing an editorial using the word "nigger."
Voice Of W.E.B. Du Bois : "I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate nitwits as a plea for segregated Negro schools. It is not. It is saying in plain English that a separate Negro school where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and tramped upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick niggers when they are down. " W.E.B. Du Bois
David Lewis: Du Bois was being pragmatic—do you accept the separate equality, the Supreme Court isn't going to do anything about it he thought for 50 years.
James Anderson: What Du Bois was trying to say in that article was that, look, integration is important, but there’s something more important than integration, and that is the education of African-American children and their welfare. See, the thing to remember here is Du Bois believed that African-American teachers were quite capable of teaching African-American kids. The resources weren’t there, but the teachers were there.
Vernon Jarrett: My first grade teacher in a wooden framed school, believe it or not, used to have all the black kids in the first grade. She'd tell us what we were on Wednesday and by Friday we where supposed to walk out before the class always with our chest out and our shoulders up and say, I'm Frederick Douglass and I did this, I did this, I did that. My name is W. E. B. Du Bois and this is what I did. I graduated from Fisk University. I went to Harvard and I wrote a book called "The Souls of Black Folk." We couldn't even read but we were doing it. My name is Sojourner Truth, a little girl. My name is Ida B. Wells and I… I... [laughs] You go right on down the line.
Patricia Sullivan: Du Bois felt that self-segregation was something that was all right, and black institutions were important, indeed critical for building strength within black communities. And he Du Bois felt that self-segregation was something that was all right, and black institutions were important, indeed critical for building strength within black communities. And he articulated this in the pages of The Crisis, and Walter White and a number of the board members just wouldn't tolerate it.
David Lewis: Southern congressmen began to quote Du Bois in the Congressional Record, uh because they were saying, indeed, we should have a code of relief for whites, and a code of relief for blacks, and a code of relief for the South, and uh...uh...So, the association of Walter White now running it says, "Quiet! Shut up! They’re quoting you, the outstanding civil libertarian, in the congressional record. Bilbo says you’re great." Uh and Du Bois says, “Doesn’t matter. Uh this is an issue.”
Patricia Sullivan: White was an organization man. He was going…he loved the NAACP, it was his church, he was going to run it, and Du Bois was gonna, gonna follow in line. And of course Du Bois wasn't going to follow in line. There could be no equivocation on this. And so Du Bois ultimately resigned in 1934. I think in part he may have felt that the NAACP had been spent, that it didn't have the flexibility, that White was too limiting and narrow in his vision.
Narrator: In the August 1934 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois explains. He needed to criticize the NAACP, and the board wouldn't let him. He was leaving not because change couldn't come, but because, he said, "personally, I can do nothing more."
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