By **Charles Euchner**
Western Union had delivered hundreds of telegrams of congratulations to the March on Washington tent. One came from W. E. B. Du Bois.
“One thing alone I charge you, as you live, believe in Life!” Du Bois said in a final message composed two months before, during his final illness. “Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the Great End comes slowly, because time is long.”
Then came the news that Du Bois had died the day before in Accra, Ghana, at the age of ninety-five. Maya Angelou led a group of Americans and Ghanaians to the U.S. embassy in Accra, carrying torches and placards reading “Down with American Apartheid“ and “America, a White Man’s Heaven and a Black Man’s Hell.”
In Washington, the news fluttered through the audience and onto the platform.
Over a seventy-year career, Du Bois took every conceivable approach to the race problem. He was a provocative propagandist and measured scholar. He was for integration and then for separation. He believed in the American dream and disdained it. He believed in the power of politics and the ambiguity of culture. He brawled and he stood aloof. He embraced indigenous liberation and global communism.
Du Bois wrote thirty-eight books on the experience of race—on slavery and reconstruction, rebellion and war, psychology and economics, America and Africa, war and democracy, ideology and crime. He wrote thousands of articles and reports. He debated Booker T. Washington and coined the expression “the talented tenth,” to describe the vanguard that could lead the black race out of bondage. As an American facing the cruelty and degradation of Jim Crow, Du Bois embraced the pan-African ideal of a global race.
Lifetimes ago, in 1909, Du Bois helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He left the NAACP in 1948 when he was rebuked for holding a civil rights march in Washington. In 1961 he became a Communist Party member, renounced his American citizenship, and became a citizen of Ghana.
However mainstream in his approach, Wilkins maintained a hard line against segregation. “It’s just poison and no matter whether you have a teaspoonful or you have a barrelful of it, it ain’t no good,” he said.
When Bayard Rustin got news of Du Bois’s death, he worked his way across the crowded stage to deliver the news to Roy Wilkins. As the head of the NAACP, surely Wilkins would want to say a few words about this historic figure.
“I’m not going to get involved with that Communist at this meeting,” Wilkins told Rustin. “I’m not going to announce that Communist’s death.”
So Rustin crossed back to confer with Phil Randolph. How to announce Du Bois’s death?
“Tell Roy that if he doesn’t announce it, I will.”
Rustin crossed the stage again. He told Wilkins that Randolph was ready to speak.
“I don’t want Phil Randolph doing it,” Wilkins said.
But someone had to announce the death of the century’s most enduring civil rights leader at the nation’s greatest demonstration.
“Well, you tell Phil I’ll do it,” Wilkins said.
That was the ornery Roy Wilkins—the same Wilkins who had attempted to block Rustin’s appointment as the organizer of the March on Washington…who insulted Martin Luther King at Medgar Evers’s funeral…who complained bitterly about the attention given the younger activists in the Deep South…who poked John Lewis…who dismissed the possibility of change resulting from demonstrations.
But a sweeter Roy Wilkins also showed up that day. For a man who did not believe in the power of mass demonstrations—who believed that real progress happened when elites lobbied presidents and congressmen and filed lawsuits against carefully selected targets—Roy Wilkins was positively buoyant on the day of the march.
His whole life, Roy Wilkins had been determined to live within the system. The grandson of former slaves, Wilkins was raised by an aunt in Duluth after his mother died of tuberculosis and his father abandoned him. After studying sociology at the University of Minnesota, he took a job in Kansas City with the black newspaper the Call. “Kansas City ate my heart out,” he said. “It was a Jim Crow town through and through. There were two school systems, bad housing, police brutality, bombings in Negro neighborhoods. Police were arresting white and Negro high school kids just for being together.”
Early political victories forge political character. Wilkins’s first victory came in 1930, when he joined the successful effort to defeat President Herbert Hoover’s nomination of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court. A coalition of labor and civil rights organizations targeted Parker for his yellow-dog contracts and his opposition to black suffrage. Later that year, blacks cast the decisive votes to defeat Senator Henry Allen of Kansas, who supported Parker. “I was ecstatic,” Wilkins said.
“Here at last was a fighting organization, not a tame band of status-quo Negroes.” Fighting, though, was confined to the formal arenas of politics. Like intellectuals of the period, including William Kornhauser and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Wilkins believed that Hitler had forever discredited mass politics.
Besides, he said, protest didn’t work. Even the protests in Birmingham and other cities, he said, “didn’t influence a single vote by a congressman or senator…not a single one.”
Wilkins moved to New York to write for the NAACP’s magazine the Crisis before getting promoted to assistant to Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary. Wilkins’s efforts followed the contours of the movement—first he took on lynching, then school segregation, then public accommodations and voting rights. Brown v. Board of Education illustrated the NAACP’s model of racial progress. The NAACP chipped away at the edifice of segregation—first gaining blacks admission to professional and graduate schools, where the idea of “separate but equal” was impossible to implement because of the complete absence of programs for blacks, and then moving on to universities. Only when the courts had embraced the idea of blacks and whites going to universities together did the Brown case move forward.
Tenacious, pragmatic, distrustful of radical approaches, Wilkins became the head of the NAACP in 1955. Wilkins helped create a black-owned bank to assist blacks in starting their own businesses and avoid reprisals for civil rights activism. He embraced the NAACP’s emphasis on judicial and legislative strategies. But by the summer of 1963, he embraced direct action. On June 1st, he was arrested for picketing a variety store in Jackson.
However mainstream in his approach, Wilkins maintained a hard line against segregation. “It’s just poison and no matter whether you have a teaspoonful or you have a barrelful of it, it ain’t no good,” he said. “Self-segregation is worse than another kind because your own eyes ought to be wide open. Segregation ought to be seen for what it is. It is not, necessarily, the division of people according to color. It can…and it does take that [form] in America; it is a device for control, for isolation and control…A segregated group can always be cut off, be deprived, be denied equality.”
Now, standing before this integrated throng—tan and relaxed, wearing a royal blue overseas hat with the letters NAACP stitched in gold—he began to talk with “my people.” He paused, smiled, looked out on the throng that extended down the Mall, out back under the trees by the snow fence, even up in the tree branches. He was in the mood to play.
“I want to thank you for coming here today,” he said, like a friendly uncle, “because you have saved me from being a liar. I told them that you would be here. They didn’t believe me…because you always make up your mind at the last minute. And you had me scared! But isn’t it a great day?”
Laughter rippled across the Mall. Then Wilkins called for silence down the middle of the Mall. “I want everybody out here in the open to keep quiet, and then I want to hear a yell and a thunder from all those people who are out there under the trees.”
Suddenly, like magic, the crowd quieted.
And then he commanded the people on the edges of the Mall, sitting under the trees, to shout out. The Mall filled with cheers. And Wilkins laughed.
“There’s one of them in the tree!” [Note: You can watch this part of the speech here, preceded by the Eva Jessye Choir]
Wilkins suddenly reveled in mass politics. And humor leavened even his dead-serious points.
“We want freedom now!”
“We come here to petition our lawmakers to be as brave as our sit-ins, and our marchers, as daring as James Meredith, to be as unafraid as the nine children of Little Rock, and to be as forthright as the governor of North Carolina, and to be as dedicated as the archbishop of St. Louis.
“All over the land, especially in parts of the Deep South, we are beaten, jailed, pushed, and killed by law enforcement officers. The United States government can regulate the contents of a pill, but apparently has no power to prevent these abuses of citizens within its own borders.”
He endorsed President Kennedy’s civil rights legislation but insisted on strengthening it. “The president’s proposals,” he said, “represent so moderate an approach that if any part is weakened or eliminated, the remainder will be little more than sugar water. Indeed, the package needs strengthening. The president should join us in fighting for something more than pap.”
After a day of somber and contentious rhetoric, Wilkins chose to be light. He turned toward Congress: “We commend Republicans, north and south, who have been working for this bill. We even salute those Democrats from the South who want to vote for it and don’t dare. We say to these people, ’Give us a little time, and we’ll emancipate you—get to the place where they can come to a civil rights rally too!”
Then he spoke about W. E. B. Du Bois: “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 Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois, published in 1903.”
Half a world away, Shirley Graham Du Bois, his widow, wept in appreciation.
“Now, my friends, you got religion today. Don’t backslide tomorrow. Remember Luke’s account of the warning that was given to us all. ’No man,’ he wrote, ’having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
Copyright 2010 Charles Euchner
This post originally appeared at Beacon Broadside.
Charles Euchner is a longtime teacher and author and a frequent speaker and commentator in media. Euchner is the author of books on urban politics and policy, political and social movements, and baseball.