W. E. B. Du Bois

February 23, 1868 — August 27, 1963

Sociologist, historian, writer, and founder of the NAACP

W. E. B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was one of the most influential figures in American civil rights history. He launched the activist Niagara Movement in 1905 and then cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. A powerful intellect, Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard and was a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois made significant contributions to the field of sociology with prolific publishing; his 1935 work Black Reconstruction in America was a definitive reexamination of the Reconstruction era.1 Du Bois also wrote the classic essay collection The Souls of Black Folk and many articles and essays.

Du Bois departed from religion during his college years and described himself as a freethinker throughout his life. He was a strong proponent of science and education as tools of reform and saw the church as discriminatory institution that undermined reason; he wrote that as an adult he “increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.” He added, “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.”2 Du Bois’s life is a shining example of humanist civil rights activism.

  1. David Howard-Pitney, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Scholar and Social Activist,” in African-American Humanism: an Anthology, ed. Norm R. Allen Jr. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), 25–35.

  2. Du Bois, W.E.B. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (New York: International Publishers, 1968), pp. 285-286.