A Hundred Years of the Struggle for Freedom


2-12-07, 9:06 am

Editor’s Note: W.E.B. Du Bois is correctly considered the father of the modern African American freedom movement. He helped both initiate and organize it, rendering practical and theoretical leadership for almost a century. Dr. Du Bois helped set the movement’s agenda, plan its broad strategy and tactics, train its leadership, and popularize its goals.

While an always militant and uncompromising opponent of racism and a champion of full citizenship rights, Du Bois’s understanding of the African American national question evolved, maturing over the years and increasingly acquiring a revolutionary and working-class trajectory – a trajectory that led to his joining the Communist Party.

This article originally appeared in Paul Robeson’s magazine Freedom in 1953. While much of what Du Bois calls for has been won by the Black liberation movement and its allies, many of the article’s sociological arguments and theoretical conclusions about the national question and its solution within the confines of a single state and culture, as well as the relationship of African Americans to whites remain pertinent. While much of what Du Bois called for at the end of this article has been won, still much remains to be won through unity and struggle.

Any attempt to write on African American freedom in the United States involves curious contradictions. One could scarcely imagine greater social change than between the years 1853 and 1953. The group of three and one-half million dark people a century ago has grown to 15 million, about as many persons as live in the Union of South Africa, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia.

A century ago this mass of intermingled African, American, Indian, and European blood was nearly 90 percent slaves, and bought and sold in open market. In the year 1853 particularly, the spirits of their leaders were low, and many of them practically had surrendered the fight for freedom in the United States and looked for hope in migration. Others fought with white abolitionists, led by Garrison and Phillips, but they had been almost driven to the wall. The slave owners of the South were triumphant in political power and social philosophy. It was the current scientific opinion that Blacks could not progress and that any attempt to emancipate African American slaves in the United States meant disaster to Black and white.

Contrast this with the situation of 1953. The 15 million descendants of those African Americans are legally free men. They are, to be sure, subject to certain caste conditions in residence, employment, education and public esteem. Most of their children are in school, and from an illiteracy of over 90 percent certainly three-fourths of the African Americans 10 years of age can read and write; 90,000 Black students are in college, and the number of Black Americans who have achieved distinction in the professions, in science and in literature and art is considerable. Black ownership of land and property had increased, white lynching and mob violence against then have greatly decreased. Their political power is such that in the election of 1952 they were recognized as having the balance of power in many cities and states. Of eight and one-half million possible Black voters perhaps 3,750,000 voted or 43 percent, as compared with 60 percent of the nation. This is due, naturally, to the legal and customary disfranchisement of most African Americans living in the South. From a largely rural people they have become 50 percent urbanized and have migrated by millions from the former southern slave states to the northern and western states. This has greatly increased juvenile delinquency and added to the number of the poor, unfortunate and sick, which counteract the movement forward of the group in general.

By stressing figures illustrating this change, a story of almost miraculous progress can be written. I myself have many times emphasized this progress and compared it favorably with similar progress of any group of people at any time. On the other hand, no sooner are statements of this sort made than there arise curiously contrasting and contradictory conclusions. Many Americans would say: 'With such a record of progress why is there continued complaint and agitation among African Americans? How much faster could they reasonably have been expected to develop?' But the very fact that this nation boasts of its democracy and freedom emphasizes the failure in the case of a tenth of its population. Foreigners, people from Europe, especially visitors from Asia and Africa, continually point out the discrepancies in American democracy.

Indeed, in the greatest study of the American Black problem ever made, conducted by the Swede, Gunnar Myrdal, 1938-1942, assisted by native and foreign students, Black and white, the main conclusion was that the treatment of the Black is America’s greatest failure, and his almost universal segregation, America’s outstanding denial of its own faith in human equality.

Curious Contradiction

Finally, among African Americans themselves there is a curious dichotomy in their attitude toward their own history and progress. They are at once proud and ashamed. They have done well, but could have done better if they had not been deliberately retarded. They see immigrant groups like the Irish, Italians, and Slavs surpass them continually in accomplishment and preferment mainly because they are white.

On the other hand, there are large and increasing numbers of African Americans who are not complaining because they personally are content; their comfort may be due to exceptional circumstance; it may be due to winking at color discrimination by whites, or to exploitation of fellow African Americans by themselves. In any case they are content and uncomplaining. They have adequate incomes for their standard of living, and that standard of living as compared with the world average is reasonably high. They do not complaint and they do not countenance complaint from other African Americans. They admit discrimination but point out the changes and progress. They are apt to think success is personal and failure racial.

Nevertheless, within the Black group there are certainly those who do complain; who point to failure due to racist discrimination and not to personal fault; who point to poor schools and low wages and scarcity of good homes and jobs, and deny that the present situation is generally good, or that the average is bettering so fast that radical demand for improvement should be decried.

In the midst of such contradictions, it is not easy for anyone to make a satisfactory answer to the question as to how great progress the struggle for Black freedom has made in the last century, and whether or not that progress should be regarded as satisfactory.

There are three sorts of comparisons that could be made, and are made, and which confuse the final answer. For a long time it has been the custom of the United States Census to compare the condition of African Americans with the corresponding facts concerning the white population. This, of course, is a crude and unfair comparison. There is not much to be learned by comparing a group of people less than a century removed from slavery and still suffering grave social and economic discrimination with the mass of white citizens. A much more illuminating comparison could be made by studying the social and economic classes arising with the Black group; and of course the most valuable comparison would be that of contrasting the group with itself at different times and places.

This kind of study of the American Black has not been adequately done. It was started at Atlanta University in 1926, and for 13 years a body of facts which made a study of the inner development of the Black community possible was carried on by Black scholars. It was partially pursued further at Fisk University and at Howard University, but there was no wide concentration of effort on the American Black group and African Americans gradually lost leadership direction in this field.

To supply this lack I tried in 1940 to rehabilitate the Atlanta University studies on a broader scale, and to unite some 50 colored institutions in the southern states in a concentrated series of social studies which might have proven the most interesting sociological experiment in the modern world. This project was allowed to lapse when I retired.

In addition to the comparison between the American Black group and the white group, and the more significant comparison of the Black group with itself at different times and places, there is also an increasingly more significant comparison of the American Black group with other groups around the world, as for instance with the various parts of Africa, with the nations of Asia and the peoples of the South Sea islands, the West Indies, South and Central America. Such comparisons are important because hey point out the relations between the Black group and these other groups, and the relative influence of different environments and social developments.

A Nation or a Cultural Unity?

Such attempts, however, bring up the question as to just what the American Black group is and with what it can be rationally compared. Is it a nation, a closed economy, a cultural unity or what? It is certainly not a nation, for its political power is limited and is seldom exercised as a unit. It is not a closed economy but part of the economy of the whole nation and becoming more and more integrated. It is proportionally more largely engaged in agriculture, domestic service and common labor, and that increased its dependence on the national economy. There is some evidence of group economy where Black professionals, businessmen and artisans serve primarily the Black group, but it is not clear how this development is growing in comparison with the general picture. One thing is certain: the economic survival of the Black in the South depends on close union with white workers, so as to present a united front against the tremendous growth of monopoly capital in the South today. This Black group inherited and has formed a group culture with some customs, language dialects and with a growing literature and other forms of art. Yet, as this goes on, there is increasing integration with the American culture until it is difficult to say how far there is today a distinct American Black culture, and in what direction it will probably grow.

When we compare African Americans with other groups we are not comparing nations or even cultural groups, since African Americans do not form a nation and are not likely to, if their present increasingly successful fight for political integration succeeds. They will exercise political power but not as a unit, since that would contradict their fight against segregation. They do not even form a complete cultural unit, although by reason of suffering and discrimination, and by historic artistic gifts, such a culture may be deliberately cultivated and in the end will unify the Black with other groups rather than divide them. African American, Russian and Irish art can flourish in the same state side by side.

The most illuminating comparison of Black and other groups is to regard the American Black as mainly a group of workers developing toward full political democracy in the same national government, but with a minimum of class divisions into exploiting employers and poor laboring classes. This working group can be compared with the working classes of other nations. But even here we must understand that the exploiting class is beginning to appear among African Americans. Its extreme development must be opposed.

How the political aspect will develop is not clear. The old idea of mass migration of African American to found a foreign state is unlikely to be renewed. The newer idea of an American Black state within the United States is both improbable and undesirable. It contradicts our present effort at complete integration, and also the modern tendency toward fewer rather than more separate political states with state antagonisms, hatreds and war. Cultural units may, on the other hand, develop and grow to the advantage of all.

Comparisons show that the American Black, compared with the main groups of the world are relatively high. Its literacy is nearer to Europe than that of Asia and Africa, and far exceeds South America and the West Indies. Its economic situation is far better than that of India, China, the Middle East or any part of Africa.

Present Situation

Let us now turn to the question as to just what the present situation of the American Black is, so far as it can be reduced to understandable and measurable terms. In physique, including health, reproduction and family life, the Black is standing up well and is disappointing those prophets of doom who formerly believed that no group of African Americans in competition with the people of a white nation could survive. The Black has survived and multiplied, and while his health is below the average of the favored nation, it is above the average of most comparable groups; and what is of greater importance, it is and for 100 years has been steadily improving. The expectation of life has notably increased and in view of the world conditions can be called above normal.

All the factors of survival, however, have been affected by the urbanization of the Black, his industrialization and the problem of occupation. The preset economic condition of African Americans is uncertain. There is serfdom on southern plantations, lower wage differential throughout the South, and while the Black is widely employed in industry, there is discrimination in pay even in the North and tardiness in upgrading. He is widely employed as laborer and servant at wages too low for an American standard of living. Here again, however, he is pushing forward. The national FEPC law, while it lasted, and the few state and city laws are giving him legal help, and nearly every Black family can look back on lower living conditions than it now enjoys.

That means, however, that the present conditions are bad in the country districts and in the city slums. In the higher grades of employment, in professions, arts and sciences, there is still a lack of opportunity for African Americans and poor preparation offered; there is difference in opportunity for apprenticeship, not only in technique but in science and art. All of these things, though difficult to measure, are real and have much to do with the pessimistic attitude of most African Americans.

Social Equality

Fundamental, of course, to all this is the matter of education. Most Black school children go to separate schools, and the Black schools are poorer than the white schools, the differences in appropriation sometimes being fantastic and nearly always considerable. This means a vast difference of opportunity for preparation for better work and in general intelligence. It is one of the greatest hindrances for African Americans.

Then there is the matter of civil, social and political rights. They cannot be easily separated, and relate in general to the place that Blacks occupy in daily American life. There is no question as to the social discrimination against these 15 million Americans. They are either not legally allowed or unwelcome in most areas of civil life, where it be hotels, churches, public meetings, restaurants, attendance at social functions or exercising political rights. African Americans are still widely discriminated against in voting throughout the South where more than 60 percent of them still live.

There are other discriminations which are not so much of pressing importance as of continuous insult and psychological degradation. In 29 states of the United States, for instance, marriages between whites and African Americans are automatically void, and 'miscegenation' is a crime. Moreover, just what a 'Black' is, under this definition, is a matter of special legislation in 20 states. Naturally, most people of color do not marry most white people and have no particular plans on the subject; but it is a continual insult to have this matter of marriage a question of statute, and sometimes of insulting legal action. This attacks a fundamental human right.

There are also all kinds of laws on ways and places where Blacks and white people may meet; on trains and buses, in elevators, in hotels, in public assemblies. In most cases such laws are for the most part confined to the 16 former slave states and vary there from custom to fierce enforcement; but where the law is silent custom intervenes. It makes the life of a Black American often a nightmare – always in uncertainty, anywhere in the nation.

Future Prospects

The Black problem is thus, on the whole, a question of what has mainly been called 'social equality.' How far is a person of African descent, whether he shows it in appearance or not (indeed, whether he knows it or not), liable to special treatment and particularly to insult and segregation because of that fact? In no other modern civilized country are persons subject to such caste conditions as in the United States except in the Union of South Africa.

When now we ask the question as to how soon this kind of discrimination, customary and legal, is going to disappear, considering what has happened in the last 100 years, naturally no definite answer can be given. It will, of course, gradually disappear if civilization persists, and as African Americans advance, organize and insist. It will disappear more quickly under definite statute law than it will if left to the inertia of slowly fading custom. The Color Line will fade away not only by slow, natural evolution but by determined effort – the more quickly, as that effort is accelerated and we work for: the abolition of 'jim crow' laws of caste, like prohibition of inter-marriage, segregated travel, etc. The passage of national and state FEPC laws. Increasing cooperation between white and Black union labor, especially in the South, until complete integration is reached without color or race discrimination. Universal suffrage and doing away with the 'rotten borough' system. The socialization of wealth by more suitable distribution of the results of labor. Universal free education of the young, without segregation by religion, race, color, or wealth; under the control of the state, with technical and higher learning according to wish and gift, and with systematic adult education.