Read Time: 7 minutes
W. E. B. Du Bois died on this day in 1963. Few figures were more influential in shaping the struggle against colonialism.
On August 27, 1963, W. E. B. Du Bois passed away in Ghana at the age of ninety-five. The famed civil rights leader had relocated to Ghana just two years earlier, but it was only fitting that he should find his final resting place in the West African country, a nation that held deep symbolic significance for black people the world over.
Following its independence in March 1957, Ghana had emerged as a symbol of triumph and hope for people of African descent, and over the next decade, thousands of black activists and intellectuals, including Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou, Pauli Murray, and Julian Mayfield, would visit or move to Ghana.
Du Bois’s journey to Ghana can be understood as part of this wave of migration. Yet Du Bois stood out even in this distinguished company — few figures were more influential in shaping anticolonial ideas and movements. Alongside a vanguard of black activists and intellectuals — including C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey, Jeanne and Paulette Nardal, Claudia Jones, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and George Padmore — Du Bois was one of the chief progenitors of the anticolonial struggle that swept the globe during the twentieth century.
Fifty-five years after Du Bois’s passing, it’s worth reflecting on his anticolonial thinking and activism.
The Global Color Line
W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the key political thinkers of his day. Born in 1868, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895 and spent some of his early years sparring with Booker T. Washington over the best route forward for black Americans. In 1909, he helped found the NAACP.
By then, the anticolonial vision that would span his voluminous writings and speeches had already crept into his prose. “The problem of the twentieth century,” he warned in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color line — in relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
For Du Bois, the growth of global racism and colonial expansion reinforced an international racial hierarchy that placed people of color at the bottom and whites on the top. These forces, Du Bois argued, formed a crucial part of the international capitalist order — an order that could only be dismantled if the oppressed, particularly people of color, united to challenge it. If colonialism was the core driver of global conflict, ending it would pave the way for peace and social progress.
This argument ran through Du Bois’s diverse writings, including his articles in the Crisis, the NAACP magazine he edited from 1910 to 1934; his unpublished books; and his lesser-known short-fiction works and poetry. In his 1920 literary work Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, Du Bois placed war and imperialism at the center of his analysis. Written against the backdrop of the Great Migration and World War I, Darkwater delivered a scathing critique of capitalism, colonialism, and the global racial color line in experimental prose:
Colonies, we call them, these places where ‘nig***s are cheap and the earth is rich; they are those outlands where like a swarm of hungry locusts white masters may settle to be served as kings, wield the lash of slave-drivers, rape girls and wives, grow as rich as Croesus and send homeward a golden stream. They belt the earth, these places, but they cluster in the tropics, with its darkened peoples: in Hong Kong and Anam, in Borneo and Rhodesia, in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, in Panama and Havana — these are the El Dorados toward which the world powers stretch itching palms.
Du Bois’s 1928 historical novel, Dark Princess, returned to these themes. Narrated through the perspective of the protagonist Matthew Townes, a young black man, Dark Princess told the story of his budding romance with Princess Kautilya of the Tibetan Kingdom of Bwodpur. While a passionate tale of love, Du Bois’s political commentary was there as well — a call for Afro-Asian solidarity and an anti-imperialist critique of world affairs.
Du Bois’s 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America — often framed as a rebuttal to the racist Dunning School and praised for its incisive Marxist analysis — can also be seen as an “anti-colonial manifesto.” The book grappled with themes of race and empire, drawing explicit links between racism in the United States and colonial subjugation in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and other parts of the globe. “The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor,” Du Bois wrote, “and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”
With these words, Du Bois framed American slavery as central to the making of imperialism, thrust enslaved black people into the role of revolutionary proletariat — and connected the anticolonial struggle with the fight to end capitalism.
Du Bois As Activist
Like other black intellectuals of the period, Du Bois merged thought and social action.
In 1900, three years before the release of Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois attended the first Pan-African Conference in London, organized by the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams. Five years later, he helped establish the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, to agitate for black equal rights. The group’s “Declaration of Principles” emphasized some of the same ideals as the first Pan-African Conference, including racial unity and resistance to racial oppression. In helping to form the NAACP several years later, Du Bois also advanced the cause of universal black liberation — the organization went on to play a central role in advocating for the emancipation of Africans and Asians across the globe.
The outbreak and carnage of World War I reordered international geopolitics and split up empires. But colonialism persisted.
From 1919 to 1945, Du Bois helped organize a series of Pan-African Congresses to call for an end to colonialism and white imperial control. The most important of these was the Fifth Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester, England in 1945. Arguably the most influential gathering of black intellectuals of the twentieth century, the conference brought together a diverse group of thinkers and activists from various parts of the African diaspora including the West Indian Marxist George Padmore, Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, and Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey. “We look with jealous pride upon these [imperial] nations,” the leaders of the Fifth Pan-African Congress declared, “and regard them as symbols of realization of the political hopes and aspirations of African peoples still under imperialist domination.”
The same year, Du Bois published Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace, which identified colonialism as the primary cause of World War II and built upon a column the previous year in the Amsterdam News. “The greatest single question is the ending of colonialism,” he had written in the Amsterdam News article. “For unless this is done,” he argued, “the world cannot be democratic. This is the problem to which I propose to devote the remaining years of my life.”
True to his word, Du Bois stepped up his engagement in anticolonial activism in the later years of his life. Among other things, he was a central player in the Council on African Affairs (CAA), one of the leading anticolonial organizations of the period.
His marriage to Shirley Graham in 1951 was also crucial. An accomplished writer and speaker who was deeply involved in politics through her position as the NAACP’s field secretary, Graham’s ideas and activism shaped her husband’s political views. She agitated for civil and human rights, and through her travels, sought out transnational alliances with like-minded activists. In 1960, Graham attended the first conference of African Women and Women of African Descent, held in Accra, Ghana. And a year later, she co-founded the black radical magazine Freedomways.
In 1961, W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois relocated to Ghana, motivated by Pan-Africanism and their support of Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-African socialist vision. The journey had been one of fits and starts. A few years earlier, during a trip to the US, Nkrumah had invited Du Bois to Ghana, where he promised to put significant government resources at Du Bois’s disposal. But the request coincided with the height of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade. Although Du Bois wanted to go, the US State Department had blocked him from traveling abroad. Then in 1958, when the government revalidated his travel documents, Du Bois encountered yet another barrier: failing health. He decided against taking the trip.
In his absence, Shirley Graham Du Bois traveled to Ghana in December 1958, where she delivered her husband’s address to the All African Peoples’ Conference in Accra. “For four hundred years,” Du Bois argued in his prepared remarks, “Europe and North America have built their civilization and comfort on theft of colored labor and the land and materials which rightfully belong to these colonial peoples.” Denouncing capitalist oppression and racism, Du Bois urged Africans to embrace socialism. “You cannot choose between socialism and private capitalism,” he cautioned, “because private capitalism is doomed!” “When Ghana arises from the dead and faces this modern world,” he elaborated in a letter to Nkrumah, it must “avoid subjection to and ownership of foreign capitalists.”
Almost two years after Shirley Graham Du Bois delivered the speech on Du Bois’s behalf, the two had the opportunity to travel to Ghana together. On July 1, 1960, they arrived in Accra as honorary guests of Nkrumah to much fanfare and celebration. Three years later, they became citizens of Ghana.
For Du Bois, the relocation to Ghana and acceptance of Ghanaian citizenship confirmed his Pan-Africanist vision and his deep admiration for the country. His sentiments were captured in “Ghana Calls,” a poem dedicated to Nkrumah that was published in Freedomways one year before Du Bois’s passing:
I lifted up mine eyes to Ghana
And swept the hills with high Hosanna;
Above the sun my sight took flight
Till from that pinnacle of light
I saw dropped down this earth of crimson, green and gold
Roaring with color, drums and song.
Postcolonial Ghana represented the manifestation of Du Bois’s political vision and a realization of the goals set out at the Pan-African Congresses many years earlier. It was the ultimate vindication of his life’s work.
There was still much more to be done. Apartheid would not fall in South Africa until 1994. But that was for the next generation. W. E. B. Du Bois, the revolutionary thinker and activist, could rest easy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is the author of the award-winning book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.