William Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on 23rd February, 1868. His father, Alfred Du Bois, left his mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, soon after his birth. Paul Buhle has argued: "He grew up with an impoverished and crippled mother utterly dedicated to her only offspring. He had few bouts with racism as a child and graduated from high school a promising scholar."
When his mother died in 1884 Du Bois was forced to find work at a timekeeper in a local mill. Encouraged by Frank Hosmer, the principal of Great Barrington High School, Du Bois won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville. To help pay for his studies Du Bois taught in rural Tennessee during summer vacations. This gave him first-hand experience of Jim Crow laws and turned him into a civil rights activist.
After graduating in 1885 Du Bois spent two years at the University of Berlin before returning to the United States. Du Bois now had a strong interest in African American history and went to Harvard University to work on his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade. In 1895 Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard.
In 1897 Du Bois began teaching economics and history at Clark Atlanta University and in 1903 published his ground-breaking The Souls of Black Folks. The journalist, Ray Stannard Baker, commented: "His economic studies of the Negro made for the United States Government and for the Atlanta University conference (which he organised) are works of sound scholarship and furnish the student with the best single source of accurate information regarding the Negro at present obtainable in this country. And no book gives a deeper insight into the inner life of the Negro, his struggles and his aspirations, than, The Souls of Black Folk."
The Souls of Black Folks included an attack on Booker T. Washington for not doing more in the campaign for African American civil rights. Du Bois own solution to this problem was to join forces with William Monroe Trotter to form the Niagara Movement in 1905. The group drew up a plan for aggressive action and demanded: manhood suffrage, equal economic and educational opportunities, an end to segregation and full civil rights.
William Du Bois began to read the works of Henry George, Jack London and John Spargo. He eventually became converted to socialism and in 1907 he wrote that "socialism was the one great hope of the Negro in America." He also became friendly with socialists such as Mary White Ovington and William English Walling.
The Niagara Movement had little impact on influencing those in power and in February, 1909, Du Bois joined with other campaigners for African American civil rights to form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Other members included Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida Wells-Barnett.
In 1910 Du Bois returned to his attack on Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute movement and along with twenty-two other prominent African Americans signed a statement claiming: "We are compelled to point out that Mr. Washington's large financial responsibilities have made him dependent on the rich charitable public and that, for this reason, he has for years been compelled to tell, not the whole truth, but that part of it which certain powerful interests in America wish to appear as the whole truth."
The NAACP started its own magazine, Crisis, in November, 1910. The magazine was edited by Du Bois and contributors to the first issue included Oswald Garrison Villard and Charles Edward Russell. The magazine soon built up a large readership amongst black people and white sympathizers. By 1919 Crisis was selling 100,000 copies a month.
In Crisis Du Bois campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, sexual inequality. He told his readers in October, 1911, that: "Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women's suffrage; every argument for women's suffrage is an argument for Negro suffrage; both are great moments in democracy. There should be on the part of Negroes absolutely no hesitation whenever and wherever responsible human beings are without voice in their government." In 1912 he supported Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president. He particularly admired the way that Debs refused to address segregated audiences in the South.
Du Bois supported United States involvement in the First World War. This caused him to break with the editors of other African American journals such as Chandler Owen, Philip Randolph and Hubert Harrison. Harrison was particularly upset by an article in The Crisis where he argued that: "Let, us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks."
Although Du Bois had originally been sympathetic to Black Nationalism, after the First World Warhe became highly critical of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Du Bois described the leader of the UNIA as "a lunatic or traitor" and Garvey retaliated by calling him a "white man's nigger".
In the early 1930s Du Bois began reading the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In 1933 he began teaching a course entitled "Karl Marx and the Negro". According to Paul Buhle this created the "foundation for what could be described as the most important Marxist work on U.S. history, Black Reconstruction (1935)... by placing American slavery and emancipation at the center of the emergence of world capitalism and imperialism."
Du Bois continued to edit Crisis until 1934 when he became chairman of the Department of Sociology at Clark Atlanta University. He remained active in the NAACP and in 1945 was its representative at the San Francisco Conference which founded the United Nations. In the same year he also presided at the Pan-African Congress in Manchester.
Du Bois wrote a number of books on civil rights issues including The Philadelphia Negro(1899),The Souls of Black Folks (1903), John Brown (1909), The Negro (1915), The Gift of Black Folk (1924), Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Dusk of Dawn (1940) and Colour and Democracy (1945). A former member of the Socialist Party, Du Bois began to develop a Marxist interpretation of race relations in the 1930s.
A supporter of Henry Wallace for president in 1948, Du Bois unsuccessfully stood as a Progressive Party candidate for Senate in 1950. Du Bois, a victim of McCarthyism, was indicted as an agent for the Soviet Union in 1951. Although Du Bois was acquitted of the charge, the State Department denied him a passport until 1958.
Du Bois joined the Communist Party in 1961 with the words: "Capitalism cannot reform itself. Communism - the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute - this is the only way of human life."
At the age of 91 William Du Bois moved to Ghana where he became a naturalized citizen. He died on 27th August, 1963 and was honoured by a state funeral and buried in Accra.