Race, Reconciliation, and the Work of Du Bois
By Edward J. Blum, Ph.D.
W.E.B. Du Bois was the most brilliant critic of American society in the first half of the 20th century. He opposed racism and racial discrimination; he supported the right to vote for all women; he railed against selfish imperial wars; and he pushed for the liberation of colonized nations. Du Bois was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard; he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and he traveled throughout the world.
Throughout his long life, which spanned more than 90 years, Du Bois was committed to reconciliation, community development, and leadership. For these three elements, he was especially interested in churches and other religious institutions.
Racial Segregation in the Pews
Speaking before the Philadelphia Divinity School in 1906, Du Bois blasted churches in the United States for promoting racial segregation and hindering racial reconciliation, the development of white and black communities, and for the failure of leadership. Racial segregation in churches was a terrible moral failing, he argued, one that had devastating social and spiritual consequences.
For whites, church segregation ruined their faith. “This utter denial of the very first principles of the ethics of Jesus Christ,” Du Bois boomed, “is today so deep-seated and unquestionable a principle of Southern Christianity that its essential heathenism is scarcely thought of, and every revival of religion in this section banks its spiritual riches solidly and unmovedly against the color line, without conscious question.”
For blacks, Jim Crow’s lordship in the house of Jesus Christ distanced them from much-needed guidance and brotherhood. “Among the Negroes,” Du Bois continued, “the results are equally unhappy. They needed ethical leadership, spiritual guidance, and religious instruction.” Yet whites were unwilling to offer genuine friendship and aid. Invoking a theme popularized by William T. Stead’s exposé If Christ Came to Chicago (1894) and Charles Sheldon’s best-selling novel In His Steps (1896), Du Bois wondered aloud, what would Jesus do if he went to the South. To Du Bois, the answer was simple: White Americans would crucify their alleged savior for standing against racial etiquette and white supremacist religion. “Who can doubt that if Christ came to Georgia to-day one of His first deeds would be to sit down and take supper with black men, and who can doubt the outcome if He did?”
When I first read Du Bois’ assessment of the power of racial segregation in churches, I was stunned. I was one of those whites. I had grown up a white child in upper-middle class New Jersey. I was a child of privilege — not only economic, but also racial. I attended a church with all whites, and where white images of angels, God, and Jesus populated posters and paintings. I imbibed a notion of the world that all that was good, spiritual, and beautiful was white. My education kept the social and spiritual insights of a man such as Du Bois from me.
Guided Down a Different Path
Thank goodness for university life. As an undergraduate, I was confronted with claims like that from Du Bois. I was forced to look at the ways my social background and culture — a culture of racial segregation in school, neighborhoods, and church — reinforced the long history of racial discrimination in the United States. When I read Du Bois and his famous works, including The Souls of Black Folk (1903) or Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (1920), I was forced to confront that my experiences as a youth in the 1980s and 1990s — in a world that was extremely segregated — continued to hold up the color line — that invisible line that separates people psychologically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
It was at the university that I found men like Du Bois to become my intellectual and religious guides to find a different path, to find paths of racial reconciliation, of genuine and authentic community development, and the recognition that real leadership is the kind that helps to create a world of justice, equity, compassion, and love (rather than merely obtaining for my individual self accolades and glory). The university is a place where reconciliation can begin. It started for me in the library — as I read the words of this brilliant scholar and intellectually crossed the color line; it led me to African-American history courses; it led me to faculty members of various races and backgrounds; and ultimately, it led me to dedicate my scholarly and personal life to racial reconciliation in education and religion.
For genuine reconciliation, community development, and leadership training, we need to think and act like Du Bois: always across the color line. He pushed for education that would link whites and blacks; he called for spiritual lives that refused racial discrimination or preferences. Only in the messy interaction, he proclaimed, could all of us find growth and development. I think Du Bois was right in the past. And I think he is still right today.
Edward J. Blum is a professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism (2005) and W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007).
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