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"When I became head of a department at Atlanta, the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading in prayer [...] I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. [...] I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools."
William Du Bois's paternal great-grandfather was James Du Bois of Poughkeepsie, New York, an ethnic French-American of Huguenot origin who fathered several children with slave women. One of James' mixed-race sons was Alexander, who was born on Long Cay in the Bahamas in 1803; in 1810 he immigrated to the United States with his Father. He traveled and worked in Haiti, where he fathered a son, Alfred, with a mistress. Alexander returned to Connecticut, leaving Alfred in Haiti with his mother.
William Du Bois claimed Elizabeth Freeman as his relative and wrote that she married Jack Burghardt. But Freeman was 20 years older than Burghardt, and no record of such a marriage has been found. It may have been Freeman's daughter, Betsy Humphrey, who married Burghardt after her first husband, Jonah Humphrey, left the area "around 1811", and after Burghardt's first wife died (c. 1810). If so, Freeman would have been william Du Bois's step-great-great-grandmother. Anecdotal evidence supports Humphrey's marrying Burghardt; a close relationship of some form is likely.
Sometime before 1860, Alfred Du Bois emigrated to the United States, settling in Massachusetts. He married Mary Silvina Burghardt on February 5, 1867, in Housatonic. Alfred left Mary in 1870, two years after their son william was born. Mary Burghardt Du Bois moved with her son back to her parents' house in Great Barrington until he was five. She worked to support her family (receiving some assistance from her brother and neighbors), until she suffered a stroke in the early 1880s. She died in 1885.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina (née Burghardt) Du Bois. Mary Silvina Burghardt's family was part of the very small free black population of Great Barrington and had long owned land in the state. She was descended from Dutch, African and English ancestors. william Du Bois's maternal great-great-grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave (born in West Africa around 1730) who was held by the Dutch colonist Conraed Burghardt. Tom briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, which may have been how he gained his freedom during the 18th century. His son Jack Burghardt was the Father of Othello Burghardt, who was the Father of Mary Silvina Burghardt.
Relying on money donated by neighbors, Du Bois attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1885 to 1888. His travel to and residency in the South was Du Bois's first experience with Southern racism, which at the time encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, suppression of black voting, and lynchings; the lattermost reached a peak in the next decade. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Fisk, he attended Harvard College (which did not accept course credits from Fisk) from 1888 to 1890, where he was strongly influenced by his professor william James, prominent in American philosophy. Du Bois paid his way through three years at Harvard with money from summer jobs, an inheritance, scholarships, and loans from friends. In 1890, Harvard awarded Du Bois his second bachelor's degree, cum laude, in history. In 1891, Du Bois received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard.
In 1892, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work. While a student in Berlin, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. He came of age intellectually in the German capital while studying with some of that nation's most prominent social Scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Heinrich von Treitschke. After returning from Europe, Du Bois completed his graduate studies; in 1895 he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
In the first decade of the new century, Du Bois emerged as a spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington. Washington was the Director of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and wielded tremendous influence within the African-American and white communities. Washington was the Architect of the Atlanta Compromise, an unwritten deal he struck in 1895 with Southern white Leaders who dominated state governments after Reconstruction. Essentially the agreement provided that Southern blacks, who overwhelmingly lived in rural communities, would submit to the current discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement, and non-unionized employment; that Southern whites would permit blacks to receive a basic education, some economic opportunities, and justice within the legal system; and that Northern whites would invest in Southern enterprises and fund black educational charities.
Du Bois was married twice, first to Nina Gomer (m. 1896, d. 1950), with whom he had two children, a son Burghardt (who died as an infant) and a daughter Yolande, who became a high-school Teacher in Baltimore after attending Fisk University. With her father's support, Yolande married Countee Cullen, a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance. As a widower, Du Bois married Shirley Graham (m. 1951, d. 1977), an author, Playwright, Composer and Activist. She brought her son David Graham to the marriage. David grew close to Du Bois and took his stepfather's name; he also worked for African-American causes. The Historian David Levering Lewis wrote that Du Bois engaged in several extramarital relationships.
In July 1897, Du Bois left Philadelphia and took a professorship in history and economics at the historically black Atlanta University in Georgia. His first major academic work was his book The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on the field work he did in 1896–1897. The work was a breakthrough in scholarship because it was the first scientific study of African Americans and a major contribution to early scientific sociology in the U.S. In the study, Du Bois coined the phrase "the submerged tenth" to describe the black underclass. Later in 1903 he popularized the term, the "Talented Tenth", applied to society's elite class. Du Bois's terminology reflected his opinion that the elite of a nation, both black and white, were critical to achievements in culture and progress. Du Bois wrote in this period in a dismissive way of the underclass, describing them as "lazy" or "unreliable", but – in contrast to other scholars – he attributed many of their societal problems to the ravages of slavery.
Du Bois was inspired to greater activism by the lynching of Sam Hose, which occurred near Atlanta in 1899. Hose was tortured, burned and hung by a mob of two thousand whites. When walking through Atlanta to discuss the lynching with newspaper Editor Joel Chandler Harris, Du Bois encountered Hose's burned knuckles in a storefront display. The episode stunned Du Bois, and he resolved that "one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved". Du Bois realized that "the cure wasn't simply telling people the truth, it was inducing them to act on the truth".
In 1900 Du Bois attended the First Pan-African Conference, held in London from July 23 to 25. (This was just before the Paris Exhibition of 1900 "to allow tourists of African descent to attend both events".) It was organized by men from the Caribbean: Haitians Anténor Firmin and Bénito Sylvain and Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams. Du Bois played a leading role, drafting a letter ("Address to the Nations of the World") to European Leaders appealing to them to struggle against racism, to grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies the right to self-government and to demand political and other rights for African Americans. By this time, southern states were passing new laws and constitutions to disfranchise most African Americans, an exclusion from the political system that lasted into the 1960s.
In 1901, Du Bois wrote a review critical of Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery, which he later expanded and published to a wider audience as the essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" in The Souls of Black Folk. Later in life, Du Bois regretted having been critical of Washington in those essays. One of the contrasts between the two Leaders was their approach to education: Washington felt that African-American schools should focus primarily on industrial education topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills, to prepare southern blacks for the opportunities in the rural areas where most lived. Du Bois felt that black schools should focus more on liberal arts and academic curriculum (including the classics, arts, and humanities), because liberal arts were required to develop a leadership elite. However, as Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and economists Gunnar Myrdal and Thomas Sowell have argued, such disagreement over education was a minor point of difference between Washington and Du Bois; both men acknowledged the importance of the form of education that the other emphasized. Sowell has also argued that, despite genuine disagreements between the two Leaders, the supposed animosity between Washington and Du Bois actually formed among their followers, not between Washington and Du Bois themselves. Du Bois himself also made this observation in an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1965.
In an effort to portray the genius and humanity of the black race, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of 14 essays. James Weldon Johnson said the book's effect on African Americans was comparable to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The introduction famously proclaimed that "the Problem of the Twentieth Century is the Problem of the color line". Each chapter begins with two epigraphs – one from a white poet, and one from a black spiritual – to demonstrate intellectual and cultural parity between black and white cultures. A major theme of the work was the double consciousness faced by African Americans: being both American and black. This was a unique identity which, according to Du Bois, had been a handicap in the past, but could be a strength in the future: "Henceforth, the destiny of the race could be conceived as leading neither to assimilation nor separatism but to proud, enduring hyphenation."
Although Du Bois was not personally religious, he infused his writings with religious symbology, and many contemporaries viewed him as a prophet. His 1904 prose poem, "Credo", was written in the style of a religious creed and widely read by the African-American community. Moreover, Du Bois, both in his own fiction and in stories published in The Crisis, often analogized lynchings of African Americans to Christ's crucifixion. Between 1920 and 1940, Du Bois shifted from overt black messiah symbolism to more subtle messianic language.
Following the 1905 Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Du Bois became impressed by the growing strength of Imperial Japan. He considered the victory of Japan over Tsarist Russia as an Example of colored peoples defeating white peoples. A representative of Japan's "Negro Propaganda Operations" traveled to the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, meeting with Du Bois and giving him a positive impression of Imperial Japan's racial policies. In 1936, the Japanese ambassador arranged a trip to Japan for Du Bois and a small group of academics.
Two calamities in the autumn of 1906 shocked African Americans, and they contributed to strengthening support for Du Bois's struggle for civil rights to prevail over Booker T. Washington's accommodationism. First, President Teddy Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black Soldiers because they were accused of crimes as a result of the Brownsville Affair. Many of the discharged Soldiers had served for 20 years and were near retirement. Second, in September, riots broke out in Atlanta, precipitated by unfounded allegations of black men assaulting white women. This was a catalyst for racial tensions based on a job shortage and employers playing black workers against white workers. Ten thousand whites rampaged through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find, resulting in over 25 deaths. In the aftermath of the 1906 violence, Du Bois urged blacks to withdraw their support from the Republican Party, because Republicans Roosevelt and william Howard Taft did not sufficiently support blacks. Most African Americans had been loyal to the Republican Party since the time of Abraham Lincoln.
In May 1909, Du Bois attended the National Negro Conference in New York. The meeting led to the creation of the National Negro Committee, chaired by Oswald Villard, and dedicated to campaigning for civil rights, equal voting rights, and equal educational opportunities. The following spring, in 1910, at the second National Negro Conference, the attendees created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At Du Bois's suggestion, the word "colored", rather than "black", was used to include "dark skinned people everywhere". Dozens of civil rights supporters, black and white, participated in the founding, but most executive officers were white, including Mary Ovington, Charles Edward Russell, william English Walling, and its first President, Moorfield Storey.
Back in the world of academia, Du Bois was able to resume his study of Reconstruction, the topic of the 1910 paper that he presented to the American Historical Association. In 1935, he published his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America. The book presented the thesis, in the words of the Historian David Levering Lewis, that "black people, suddenly admitted to citizenship in an environment of feral hostility, displayed admirable volition and intelligence as well as the indolence and ignorance inherent in three centuries of bondage." Du Bois documented how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and also showed how they made alliances with white politicians. He provided evidence that the coalition governments established public education in the South, and many needed social Service programs. The book also demonstrated the ways in which black emancipation – the crux of Reconstruction – promoted a radical restructuring of United States society, as well as how and why the country failed to continue support for civil rights for blacks in the aftermath of Reconstruction.
When Du Bois became Editor of The Crisis magazine in 1911, he joined the Socialist Party of America on the advice of NAACP founders Mary Ovington, william English Walling and Charles Edward Russell. However, he supported the Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential campaign, a breach of the rules, and was forced to resign from the Socialist Party. Du Bois remained: "convinced that socialism was an excellent way of life, but I thought it might be reached by various methods."
Throughout his writings, Du Bois supported women's rights, but he found it difficult to publicly endorse the women's right-to-vote movement because Leaders of the suffragism movement refused to support his fight against racial injustice. A Crisis editorial from 1913 broached the taboo subject of interracial marriage: although Du Bois generally expected persons to marry within their race, he viewed the Problem as a women's rights issue, because laws prohibited white men from marrying black women. Du Bois wrote "[anti-miscegenation] laws leave the colored girls absolutely helpless for the lust of white men. It reduces colored women in the eyes of the law to the position of dogs. As low as the white girl falls, she can compel her seducer to marry her ... We must kill [anti-miscegenation laws] not because we are anxious to marry the white men's sisters, but because we are determined that white men will leave our sisters alone."
The private sector was not the only source of racism: under President Wilson, the plight of African Americans in government jobs suffered. Many federal agencies adopted whites-only employment practices, the Army excluded blacks from officer ranks, and the immigration Service prohibited the immigration of persons of African ancestry. Du Bois wrote an editorial in 1914 deploring the dismissal of blacks from federal posts, and he supported william Monroe Trotter when Trotter brusquely confronted Wilson about Wilson's failure to fulfill his campaign promise of justice for blacks.
The Crisis continued to wage a campaign against lynching. In 1915, it published an article with a year-by-year tabulation of 2,732 lynchings from 1884 to 1914. The April 1916 edition covered the group lynching of six African Americans in Lee County, Georgia. Later in 1916, the "Waco Horror" article covered the lynching of Jesse Washington, a mentally impaired 17-year-old African American. The article broke new ground by utilizing undercover reporting to expose the conduct of local whites in Waco, Texas.
Nine years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Du Bois extended a trip to Europe to include a visit to the Soviet Union. Du Bois was struck by the poverty and disorganization he encountered in the Soviet Union, yet was impressed by the intense labors of the officials and by the recognition given to workers. Although Du Bois was not yet familiar with the communist theories of Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin, he concluded that socialism may be a better path towards racial equality than capitalism.
Federal officials, concerned about subversive viewpoints expressed by NAACP Leaders, attempted to frighten the NAACP by threatening it with investigations. Du Bois was not intimidated, and in 1918 he predicted that World War I would lead to an overthrow of the European colonial system and to the "liberation" of colored people worldwide – in China, in India, and especially in America. NAACP chairman Joel Spingarn was enthusiastic about the war, and he persuaded Du Bois to consider an officer's commission in the Army, contingent on Du Bois writing an editorial repudiating his anti-war stance. Du Bois accepted this bargain and wrote the pro-war "Close Ranks" editorial in June 1918 and soon thereafter he received a commission in the Army. Many black Leaders, who wanted to leverage the war to gain civil rights for African Americans, criticized Du Bois for his sudden Reversal. Southern officers in Du Bois's unit objected to his presence, and his commission was withdrawn.
After returning from Europe, Du Bois was more determined than ever to gain equal rights for African Americans. Black Soldiers returning from overseas felt a new sense of power and worth, and were representative of an emerging attitude referred to as the New Negro. In the editorial "Returning Soldiers" he wrote: "But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land." Many blacks moved to northern cities in search of work, and some northern white workers resented the competition. This labor strife was one of the causes of the Red Summer of 1919, a horrific series of race riots across America, in which over 300 African Americans were killed in over 30 cities. Du Bois documented the atrocities in the pages of The Crisis, culminating in the December publication of a gruesome photograph of a lynching that occurred during the Omaha, Nebraska race riot.
Du Bois frequently promoted African-American artistic creativity in his writings, and when the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the mid-1920s, his article "A Negro Art Renaissance" celebrated the end of the long hiatus of blacks from creative endeavors. His enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance waned as he came to believe that many whites visited Harlem for voyeurism, not for genuine appreciation of black art. Du Bois insisted that artists recognize their moral responsibilities, writing that "a black Artist is first of all a black Artist." He was also concerned that black artists were not using their art to promote black causes, saying "I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda." By the end of 1926, he stopped employing The Crisis to support the arts.
Harvard's decision to ban blacks from its dormitories in 1921 was decried by Du Bois as an instance of a broad effort in the U.S. to renew "the Anglo-Saxon cult; the worship of the Nordic totem, the disfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander – the world rule of Nordic white through brute force." When Du Bois sailed for Europe in 1923 for the third Pan-African Congress, the circulation of The Crisis had declined to 60,000 from its World War I high of 100,000, but it remained the preeminent periodical of the civil rights movement. President Coolidge designated Du Bois an "Envoy Extraordinary" to Liberia and – after the third congress concluded – Du Bois rode a German freighter from the Canary Islands to Africa, visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.
Du Bois wrote a series of articles in The Crisis between 1922 and 1924 attacking Garvey's movement, calling him the "most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world." Du Bois and Garvey never made a serious attempt to collaborate, and their dispute was partly rooted in the Desire of their respective organizations (NAACP and UNIA) to capture a larger portion of the available philanthropic funding.
Although Du Bois generally endorsed socialist principles, his politics were strictly pragmatic: in 1929, Du Bois endorsed Democrat Jimmy Walker for mayor of New York, rather than the socialist Norman Thomas, believing that Walker could do more immediate good for blacks, even though Thomas' platform was more consistent with Du Bois's views. Throughout the 1920s, Du Bois and the NAACP shifted support back and forth between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, induced by promises from the candidates to fight lynchings, improve working conditions, or support voting rights in the South; invariably, the candidates failed to deliver on their promises.
Du Bois did not have a good working relationship with Walter Francis White, President of the NAACP since 1931. That conflict, combined with the financial stresses of the Great Depression, precipitated a power struggle over The Crisis. Du Bois, concerned that his position as Editor would be eliminated, resigned his job at The Crisis and accepted an academic position at Atlanta University in early 1933. The rift with the NAACP grew larger in 1934 when Du Bois reversed his stance on segregation, stating that "separate but equal" was an acceptable goal for African Americans. The NAACP leadership was stunned, and asked Du Bois to retract his statement, but he refused, and the dispute led to Du Bois's resignation from the NAACP.
In 1932, Du Bois was selected by several philanthropies – including the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board – to be the managing Editor for a proposed Encyclopedia of the Negro, a work Du Bois had been contemplating for 30 years. After several years of planning and organizing, the philanthropies cancelled the project in 1938, because some board members believed that Du Bois was too biased to produce an objective encyclopedia.
After arriving at his new professorship in Atlanta, Du Bois wrote a series of articles generally supportive of Marxism. He was not a strong proponent of labor unions or the Communist Party, but he felt that Marx's scientific explanation of society and the economy were useful for explaining the situation of African Americans in the United States. Marx's atheism also struck a chord with Du Bois, who routinely criticized black churches for dulling blacks' sensitivity to racism. In his 1933 writings, Du Bois embraced socialism, but asserted that "[c]olored labor has no Common ground with white labor", a controversial position that was rooted in Du Bois's dislike of American labor unions, which had systematically excluded blacks for decades. Du Bois did not support the Communist Party in the U.S. and did not vote for their candidate in the 1932 presidential election, in spite of an African American on their ticket.
Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. Borrowing a phrase from Frederick Douglass, he popularized the use of the term color line to represent the injustice of the separate but equal doctrine prevalent in American social and political life. He opens The Souls of Black Folk with the central thesis of much of his life's work: "The Problem of the twentieth century is the Problem of the color-line."
Du Bois took a trip around the world in 1936, which included visits to Nazi Germany, China and Japan. While in Germany, Du Bois remarked that he was treated with warmth and respect. After his return to the United States, he expressed his ambivalence about the Nazi regime. He admired how the Nazis had improved the German economy, but he was horrified by their treatment of the Jewish people, which he described as "an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade."
When the Cold War commenced in the mid-1940s, the NAACP distanced itself from Communists, lest its funding or reputation suffer. The NAACP redoubled their efforts in 1947 after Life magazine published a piece by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. claiming that the NAACP was heavily influenced by Communists. Ignoring the NAACP's desires, Du Bois continued to fraternize with communist sympathizers such as Paul Robeson, Howard Fast and Shirley Graham (his Future second wife). Du Bois wrote "I am not a communist [...] On the other hand, I [...] believe [...] that Karl Marx [...] put his finger squarely upon our difficulties [...]". In 1946, Du Bois wrote articles giving his assessment of the Soviet Union; he did not embrace communism and he criticized its dictatorship. However, he felt that capitalism was responsible for poverty and racism, and felt that socialism was an alternative that might ameliorate those problems. The Soviets explicitly rejected racial distinctions and class distinctions, leading Du Bois to conclude that the USSR was the "most hopeful country on earth." Du Bois's association with prominent communists made him a liability for the NAACP, especially since the FBI was starting to aggressively investigate communist sympathizers; so – by mutual agreement – he resigned from the NAACP for the second time in late 1948. After departing the NAACP, Du Bois started writing regularly for the leftist weekly newspaper the National Guardian, a relationship that would endure until 1961.
The FBI began to compile a file on Du Bois in 1942, but the most aggressive government attack against Du Bois occurred in the early 1950s, as a consequence of Du Bois's opposition to nuclear weapons. In 1950 Du Bois became chairman of the newly created Peace Information Center (PIC), which worked to publicize the Stockholm Peace Appeal in the United States. The primary purpose of the appeal was to gather signatures on a petition, asking governments around the world to ban all nuclear weapons.
In 1943, at the age of 76, Du Bois was abruptly fired from his position at Atlanta University by college President Rufus Clement. Many scholars expressed outrage, prompting Atlanta University to provide Du Bois with a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Arthur Spingarn remarked that Du Bois spent his time in Atlanta "battering his life out against ignorance, bigotry, intolerance and slothfulness, projecting ideas nobody but he understands, and raising hopes for change which may be comprehended in a hundred years."
In the spring of 1949, he spoke at the World Congress of the Partisans of Peace in Paris, saying to the large crowd: "Leading this new colonial imperialism comes my own native land built by my father's toil and blood, the United States. The United States is a great nation; rich by grace of God and prosperous by the hard work of its humblest citizens [...] Drunk with power we are leading the world to hell in a new colonialism with the same old human slavery which once ruined us; and to a third World War which will ruin the world." Du Bois affiliated himself with a leftist organization, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, and he traveled to Moscow as its representative to speak at the All-Soviet Peace Conference in late 1949.
In 1950, at the age of 82, Du Bois ran for U.S. Senator from New York on the American Labor Party ticket and received about 200,000 votes, or 4% of the statewide total. Du Bois continued to believe that capitalism was the primary culprit responsible for the subjugation of colored people around the world, and therefore – although he recognized the faults of the Soviet Union – he continued to uphold communism as a possible solution to racial problems. In the words of biographer David Lewis, Du Bois did not endorse communism for its own sake, but did so because "the enemies of his enemies were his friends". The same ambiguity characterized Du Bois's opinions of Joseph Stalin: in 1940 he wrote disdainfully of the "Tyrant Stalin", but when Stalin died in 1953, Du Bois wrote a eulogy characterizing Stalin as "simple, calm, and courageous", and lauding him for being the "first [to] set Russia on the road to conquer race prejudice and make one nation out of its 140 groups without destroying their individuality".
He was finally tried in 1951 represented by civil rights attorney Vito Marcantonio. The case was dismissed before the jury rendered a verdict as soon as the defense attorney told the judge that "Dr. Albert Einstein has offered to appear as character witness for Dr. Du Bois". Du Bois's memoir of the trial is In Battle for Peace. Even though Du Bois was not convicted, the government confiscated Du Bois's passport and withheld it for eight years.
The U.S. government prevented Du Bois from attending the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. The conference was the culmination of 40 years of Du Bois's dreams – a meeting of 29 nations from Africa and Asia, many recently independent, representing most of the world's colored peoples. The conference celebrated their independence, as the nations began to assert their power as non-aligned nations during the Cold War. In 1958, Du Bois regained his passport, and with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, he traveled around the world, visiting Russia and China. In both countries he was celebrated. Du Bois later wrote approvingly of the conditions in both countries.
Ghana invited Du Bois to Africa to participate in their independence celebration in 1957, but he was unable to attend because the U.S. government had confiscated his passport in 1951. By 1960 – the "Year of Africa" – Du Bois had recovered his passport, and was able to cross the Atlantic and celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana. Du Bois returned to Africa in late 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African governor of Nigeria.
The book's thesis ran counter to the orthodox interpretation of Reconstruction maintained by white historians, and the book was virtually ignored by mainstream historians until the 1960s. Thereafter, however, it ignited a "revisionist" trend in the historiography of Reconstruction, which emphasized black people's search for freedom and the era's radical policy changes. By the 21st century, Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as "the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography."
Du Bois became incensed in 1961 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1950 McCarran Act, a key piece of McCarthyism legislation which required communists to register with the government. To demonstrate his outrage, he joined the Communist Party in October 1961, at the age of 93. Around that time, he wrote: "I believe in communism. I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part."
While visiting Ghana in 1960, Du Bois spoke with its President about the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. In early 1961, Ghana notified Du Bois that they had appropriated funds to support the encyclopedia project, and they invited Du Bois to come to Ghana and manage the project there. In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois and his wife traveled to Ghana to take up residence and commence work on the encyclopedia. In early 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport, so he made the symbolic gesture of becoming a citizen of Ghana. While it is sometimes stated that he renounced his U.S. citizenship at that time, and he did state his intention to do so, Du Bois never actually did. His health declined during the two years he was in Ghana, and he died on August 27, 1963, in the capital of Accra at the age of 95. The following day, at the March on Washington, speaker Roy Wilkins asked the hundreds of thousands of marchers to honor Du Bois with a moment of silence. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, embodying many of the reforms Du Bois had campaigned for his entire life, was enacted almost a year after his death.
Du Bois accused American churches of being the most discriminatory of all institutions. He also provocatively linked African-American Christianity to indigenous African religions. Du Bois occasionally acknowledged the beneficial role religion played in African-American life – as the "basic rock" which served as an anchor for African-American communities – but in general disparaged African-American churches and clergy because he felt they did not support the goals of racial equality and hindered activists' efforts.