Yesterday there was a lovely event at Sam Houston State commemorating the March on Washington. Students and faculty read from speeches, music from the era evoked the culture of the time period, and artist Ronald Oliver painted during the program.
It was a fun and unique way to mark this important historical event. Many thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Littlejohn from the History Department for organizing the proceedings.
At the event I read the following piece reflecting on the death of W.E.B. Du Bois which occurred the night before the march and was announced at the march on August 28, 1963:
The week before the March on Washington, half a world away in Accra, Ghana, the venerable scholar/activist W.E.B. Du Bois had been following news of the march on Ghanaian radio and in the Ghanaian Times newspaper.
Du Bois had moved to Africa in 1961 upon the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah to work on an Encyclopedia Africana. His departure from the US had been bitter because the federal government had revoked his passport for much of the decade of the 1950s and indicted him for his work with the Peace Information Center during the repressive years of the early Cold War.
Du Bois had taken Ghanaian citizenship when the federal government failed to renew his visa in 1963. However, at the age of 95, his health was failing and he would not finish the encyclopedia project.
A friend brought news that a contingent of American ex-patriots, led by Maya Angelou, planned to march to the US embassy in Ghana the day the march commenced in Washington. However, Du Bois had died in his sleep the night before the march.
As the crowd gathered around the reflecting pool in DC, news of the death of the great forerunner filtered to march organizer Bayard Rustin. Rustin approached Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, with the news. Wilkins was at first reluctant to publicly acknowledge Du Bois’ death, noting his left-wing ties, until veteran labor leader A. Philip Randolph commented that if Wilkins did not announce Du Bois’ death, he would do it himself. Though Du Bois’ split from the NAACP in the late 1940s had been acrimonious, Wilkins managed to speak respectfully about the distinguished intellectual’s career:
“Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of the The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois published in 1903.”
It was perhaps poetic that Du Bois exited this earth just as a young generation of freedom fighters picked up the baton in the struggle for equal rights. He had been a founder of the NAACP, a leader of the Pan-African Congress movement, and a keen observer of American society in a plethora of books and articles. The editors of Freedomways journal, who knew Du Bois well, pondered the poignancy of Du Bois’ departure at the very moment that a groundswell of support for civil rights was emerging. They reflected that “the night of August 27 hung over the earth like mourning crepe in tribute to the great leader who had ended his journey among us.” However, “the morning of August 28 burst brilliantly upon our country as though it were ignited by the heaven bent ascent of his ‘bright and morning star.’”