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John Brown [Du Bois]


A 1909 selection from African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an activist, sociologist, historian, poet, and editor. His numerous books include The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Darkwater (1920) and Black Reconstruction (1935), as well as the biography John Brown (1909). Between 1910 and 1934 he edited the Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For more on his life see David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (New York: Holt, 1993) and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Holt, 2000).


A few years before his assessment of Brown’s legacy in 1909, Du Bois had already begun to awaken the militant abolitionist for a new protest moment. In 1905 he co-founded the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that challenged the ideals and strategies promoted by Booker T. Washington. At the second annual meeting, held at Harpers Ferry in tribute to Brown infamous raid of October 1859, Du Bois told the 100 attendees that the Niagara Movement would complete the emancipation process that Brown began. Another speaker, Reverdy Ransom, proclaimed that Brown’s spirit was beckoning black Americans to seek their full civil rights.


By 1909 the group had merged with the newly-founded NAACP, which drew on the memory of Lincoln and less militant white abolitionists (Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison) more often than John Brown. But that same year, Du Bois published his biography. Quoting at length from Brown’s prison letters and interviews of 1859, he asks how Brown “speaks… to-day?” (374). What is Brown’s “legacy” for “the twentieth century?” (383). Brown’s message, he answers, is that “the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression” (383). Explaining that Emancipation was “only a first step” (386), Du Bois asks his readers to heed Brown’s warning that “the Negro question” must be settled (386), though the cost be “blood and suffering” (386).


In several other articles and books, Du Bois went on to criticize Lincoln for his inconsistencies and hesitations over Emancipation, and continued to celebrate the memory of Brown, a different white emancipator. As late as 1953, a huge crowd in Beijing greeted Du Bois with a rendition of the Civil War marching song “John Brown’s Body.”

- Zoe Trodd