Dr Nicholas Evans
Wilberforce Institute and the School of Humanities, University of Hull
In recognition of this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, commemorated today, Dr Nicholas Evans talks about the life and work of W.E.B Du Bois, who fought tirelessly against racial discrimination for a fairer society.
On 21 March 1960, one of the most painful moments in the decades-long struggle against racial segregation in South Africa took place. At Sharpeville, on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the northern part of South Africa, 69 innocent people were killed at a peaceful demonstration against the imposition of so-called ‘pass laws’ blighting the everyday lives of all non-white South Africans during Apartheid. Such was the universal condemnation of the massacre that the United Nations has since adopted today as The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a day that we at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute observe as we strive for a fairer world.
Du Bois was born in 1868, three years after the end of the US Civil War and the ending of slavery in the United States. Whilst brought up in the more tolerant state of Massachusetts, much of his life centred upon trying to realise the freedom most assumed had been won with the end of the war. Educated at Harvard University, he was the first African-American to hold a doctorate and later the first to secure an academic appointment at an American university. He quickly rose to become an intellectual titan who spent his career opposing prejudice.
Rather than fighting an armed struggle, Du Bois used writing as a tool to secure black suffrage, proving to his harshest critics the cultural and intellectual abilities of African-Americans and thereby destroying racial stereotypes popularised during the Jim Crow era. An educational polymath, he mastered history, economics and sociology, literature and public policy. His most famous works were The Souls of Black Folk, The Philadelphia Negro and The Negro. All revealed the triumph of African-American people despite entrenched race-based inequalities in the so-called ‘land of the free’. Rather than perpetuating victimhood, he sought to raise awareness of black achievement in the face of overt racism.
Outside of academia, the civil rights pioneer played a key role in many grassroots organisations campaigning for greater equality in America. These included being one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that sought ‘to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination’. Internationally, he attended the second meeting of the Pan-African Congress in Paris where he persuaded delegates that resolutions should ensure Africa is ruled by Africans. Throughout, his campaigning sought to promote black capabilities during the harsh conditions of Jim Crow legislation in America, and European imperialism overseas, and he was widely revered during his lifetime as a truly gifted scholar. Prevented from attending the ceremonies marking Ghanaian independence in 1957, because anti-McCarthyism resulted in his passport being taken from him for eight years, he decided to move to Ghana once he was free to travel again. Upon his death four years later, he was given a Ghanaian state funeral.
When our Institute opened in Hull’s Old Town in 2006 we rightly added Du Bois’ name to our Names On The Wall, which bridges the city’s Mandela Gardens and the world’s oldest slavery museum – the Wilberforce House Museum. His plaque reminds residents and visitors alike of those who have led campaigns for greater freedoms. In 2007, some of our community were able to visit Du Bois’ final home, now a museum, in Accra, to pay homage to his work fighting racism.
And so on this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we salute all those, past and present, who, like Du Bois and the protestors at Sharpeville, campaign to make the world a fairer place. We ask you to pause for a moment and remember the figures who inspire you in fighting for a fairer society. They may not be intellectuals like Du Bois, or former victims of Apartheid, however racism tragically remains a barrier to a fairer world in most societies. It is dispiriting that 63 years after events at Sharpeville, and now 29 years after multiracial elections signalled the beginning of multiracial democracy in South Africa, racism remains ‘unfinished business’, a scourge on the lives of so many men, women and children.
Image: The memorial to W.E.B. Du Bois on the wall at the Institute.