Our Opinion: NAACP leader fighting Du Bois’ familiar fights
The battle against bigotry that Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, fought for decades is now being fought by NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks. It’s fitting then, that Mr. Brooks would speak Wednesday at Bard College of Simon’s Rock’s W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Lecture in Great Barrington.
Mr. Du Bois was an educator, historian and pioneering civil rights activist who left a deep imprint on 20th Century America. However, he is more than an historic figure, Mr. Brooks told his audience, asserting that Mr. Du Bois serves as a model for those who are continuing the civil rights battle today.
More than half a century after Mr. Du Bois’ death, the fight against racism is being waged in full. More than 1,000 hate crimes have been confirmed in the United States since last November’s elections, the NAACP leader said. While schools are no longer segregated, those that predominantly teach minority students are disproportionately underfunded. Mr. Brooks noted that the NAACP’s ongoing efforts to fight voter suppression were inspired by similar efforts by Mr. Du Bois (Eagle, April 27).
As a scholar of Mr. Du Bois, Mr. Brooks may know of the complicated relationship Great Barrington has had with its accomplished native son. Mr. Du Bois was a harsh critic of America’s treatment of African-Americans and in the latter years of his long life he embraced communism. At the time of his death, he had settled in Ghana.
In 1969, six years after his death, an effort to put a park and memorial plaque on the site of his boyhood home drew intense opposition in Great Barrington, with a military veteran telling The New York Times: “The man was a Marxist as far back as 1922 and we oppose a monument to a Communist any place in the United States.” A Berkshire Eagle editorial countered: “In his long career before that as a writer, co-founder of the NAACP and eloquent spokesman for civil rights, he earned a state memorial many times over.”
We’re long past the Cold War and the Red Scare era and Mr. Du Bois’ late embrace of communism can be understood in the context of his frustration with his native land’s racism. He wrote with great affection of Great Barrington and neighboring towns, including “sweet, old Sheffield,” and the town has slowly warmed to him. The Du Bois Center in Great Barrington not only honors him but offers perspective on black history in America and the civil rights movement. Signs entering town point out that it is his birthplace. The Du Bois Memorial Lecture is now in its 21st year. In 2004, however, an opportunity was squandered to name the new elementary school in Great Barrington after Mr. Du Bois, which would have been particularly appropriate given his status as an acclaimed educator.
It will be 150 years since Du Bois’ birth next February, giving Great Barrington an opportunity to celebrate his accomplishments, writings and influence in a way the town wasn’t close to being ready to do in 1968, a year before the park and plaque controversy. The celebration would also be a reminder that Mr. Du Bois, as Cornell Brooks said, was more than a figure from the pages of history. His cause and his fight both continue.