Anthony Monteiro : Feb. 23, 2013 is the 145th anniversary of the birth of Du Bois, considered a founder of the civil rights movement and father of Pan Africanism.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On February 23 it will be the 45th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois. He’s been known as the father of the American civil rights movement, the founder of pan-Africanism, and a figure of both controversy and one of great, you could say, adulation.
Now joining us to talk about the life of Du Bois and what he means to us today is Anthony Monteiro. He’s a professor of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Thanks very much for joining us.
ANTHONY MONTEIRO, PROFESSOR OF AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So why—of many leaders in African-American history, there’s only a real few that have kind of lasted the century and still remained, it seems, so relevant to today. Why is that true of Du Bois?
MONTEIRO: I think that’s so because he contributed on multiple levels to African-American struggles and to the transformation of America. He was this great scholar, the first person to get a PhD from Harvard, and he writes his dissertation on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and then he writes probably the first scientific work of urban sociology, The Philadelphia Negro. And then he goes on to found what is in the 20th century the first civil rights organization, the Niagara movement. It is this tremendous intellectual and scholarly production that puts him on the map. But then on top of it he is this unbelievable activist, everything from civil rights to pan-Africanism to labor rights, and ultimately anti-imperialism and socialism.
So he lives 95 years, and he’s productive for a good part of that time, and he’s left a tremendous legacy and made a tremendous impact.
JAY: Let me first of all tell viewers, we’re going to sometime in the next couple of months really work our way through the history of Du Bois and go through all the big beats of his life. Right now we’re just going to focus on a few things in a couple of segments leading up to the anniversary of his birth.
So talk about his split with Booker T. Washington and what that was about.
MONTEIRO: Yeah. It’s an important split at the beginning of the 20th century. He really crystallizes it in one of the chapters in his famous book The Souls of Black Folk. And he differed with Booker Washington on the issue of education, higher education in particular, whether or not the black college elite should be given a liberal education equal to that that white elites were getting in the top white universities. But he also differed on the question of whether or not black folk should sacrifice civil rights and voting rights for the promise of support from northern capital for economic and vocational training in the South.
JAY: Yeah, talk a bit about what this—. This was actually codified in something called the Atlanta compromise, right?
MONTEIRO: Oh, yeah, yeah, the Atlanta compromise speech. And Du Bois named it that. And it was this grand compromise that Booker T. Washington conceived. He said, look, the nation is not willing to grant us voting rights and civil rights; that is, the North and South were not prepared to live up to the promise of reconstruction. So he said, look, let’s forget that. The nation needed black labor in the past, and as it industrializes, it will need black labor in the future. And what we must do and what black leadership must do is to prepare black people for the coming industrialization and the need for labor that the future held.
Du Bois believed, however, that the bargain cost black people too much, that we could not give up civil and political rights, that even if conceivably economic benefit would come from it, we could not defend those economic benefits unless we had the vote, unless we were full citizens, unless we had civil rights.
JAY: The Atlantic compromise, it actually accepted segregation as a legitimate thing. That was part of the deal, wasn’t it?
MONTEIRO: And Booker Washington anticipated by about a year the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court which legalized and said it was constitutional to separate the races under the fiction of separate and equal. What it actually did, and I think Du Bois anticipated this, was to protect white privilege.
JAY: So Du Bois becomes a very public figure. If I understand it correctly, by the early 20th century he’s, you know, amongst a couple of the most well known African Americans, and he—in fact, I guess, next to Booker T. Washington, who he opposes. And is this in many ways the roots of the civil rights movement, then?
MONTEIRO: Oh, yes, it is, because the path of Booker T. Washington was the path of denying or repudiating the struggle for civil rights, at least for the foreseeable future. The path that Du Bois and his followers adopt is the path of the fight for civil rights.
So if, let us say, black folk had chosen in the 20th century, as we went forward, the path of Booker T. Washington, conceivably we would have never had a civil rights movement.
JAY: And do you see a reflection of Booker T. Washington type of interest and ideology today? Is there a reflection of that?
MONTEIRO: Oh, yes, oh, yes. I think among sections of the black middle class and petty bourgeoisie there are strong resonances of Booker Washington. I argue that the race policies, if you want to call them that, of the Obama administration have more in common with Booker T. Washington’s conceptualization of things than they do with either Du Bois or Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement of the ’60s.
JAY: What’s an example of that?
MONTEIRO: You take his State of the Union speech, where he talks about opportunity if you work hard, you take the example which parallels this of counseling black folk that what you need to do is clean up your cultural act, clean up your behavior, and then you will have greater opportunity for fitting into the middle class and the opportunities that are afforded to it,—
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We’ll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and do more to encourage fatherhood—’cause what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.
—this is neo-Booker T. Washingtonism, and what it does is the opposite of what Du Bois was doing in the Niagara movement, which was to question the color line and to point to the color line and racial disparity and racial inequality as the source of the problems that black people face. The Washingtonites and the Obama-ites argue that the problems are not generated externally but are rooted in the black community itself.
JAY: Yeah, you saw that within that back-and-forth with Reverend Wright. Then-candidate Obama, I guess it was, more or less talked about being in a post-racial society, that somehow Reverend Wright was stuck in the past.
MONTEIRO: That’s right. That’s right. And that’s the great Philadelphia speech that he gives in 2008 on race, which a lot of liberals and even progressives celebrated. But what it was was a Booker T. Washington type of speech.
JAY: Well, this is just the beginning of a discussion about the life of Du Bois. So please join us for the next part of this interview with Anthony Monteiro on The Real News Network.