Race, Religion and Radicalism: King and Du Bois

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing our recent online forum on W.E.B. Du Bois in recognition of the anniversary of his passing on August 27, 1963. 

On the occasion of a dual anniversary—the year we ponder the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and recognize the 150th anniversary W.E.B. Du Bois’s birth—the intersection of their legacy offers fertile ground for reflection.

King is largely remembered for having a dream. And while his “I Have a Dream” speech and other rhetorical flourishes stand at the pinnacle of what Americans know about him, his objectives remain unrealized. King articulated a radical socialist message, still unheard and often disputed, due to his anti-poverty, anti-materialism, and anti-war convictions, perspectives shaped within the framework of challenging American capitalism. Like Socrates, King’s teachings threatened the ruling class and the pervasive comfort of liberals. Today’s proclamation of King, witnessed recently in the appropriation of his words for a Super Bowl LII commercial, presents a revisionary tale. Months before King’s assassination, his assault on capitalism earned him a rebuke by many Black folks, who did not care for his evolving vision in challenging the economic inequalities promulgated by capitalism, and still more white folks, who expressed a disdain toward him.

Du Bois, on the other hand, was a global intellectual within a radical leftist framework; he fought for the liberation of peoples in the darker lands, as well as those occupied by the oppressive forces of capitalism. Du Bois persistently juxtaposed the American race problem with the endemic forces of global imperialism and capitalism. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”: a recasting of that sentence’s inaugural iteration—most famously published in The Souls of Black Folk, but also the concluding sentence of the “To the Nations of the World,” collectively constructed by those attending the Pan-African Congress of 1900. We must also recognize that Du Bois’s radical evolution started with the Russian Revolution (1917). In seeking a solution to Black oppression, he became aware of his inner Bolshevism when and proclaimed, “I am a Bolshevik” after a 1926 visit to the Soviet Union. One must not attempt to recount Du Bois’s life and legacy just as a Pan-Africanist or civil rights activist, which society has done to King, but measure Du Bois and his internal struggles and maturation as an evolving radical and eventual member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). While King and Du Bois shared much in working for a reconfiguration of society, only Du Bois proclaimed in a pronounced fashion his full radicalness, leaving questions about King up for interpretation. Yet, both men had a dream and that dream was a society removed from capitalism’s despair.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois viewing the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 1959. (Photo: W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)

Du Bois’s thought evolved as he wrestled with understanding the domestic and international question of communism and the color line. Du Bois was a contradiction at times. For instance, he shared Vladimir Lenin’s interpretation of modern imperialism; however, he was aware of their differences when it involved the colonizer and the colonized, as he wondered about the full status and welfare of the Russian people post-Revolution. Hence, prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, William Walling’s interpretation of the 1905 Russian Revolution influenced Du Bois’s membership in the Socialist Party (1911). He eventually left the party to endorse presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson over Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs during the 1912 campaign. Such a portrait of Du Bois, as a pronounced intellectual framing a synthesis of analysis for the American Negro, and the darker people of the world, later found expression in his political thought as a “Bolshevik.” During the Josef Stalin years, however, his disappointment in the post-Lenin state offered concerns, even as he celebrated his Bolshevik identity.

Du Bois, who studied Karl Marx and engaged Marxism in writings such as Black Reconstruction, joined the CPUSA in 1961. In his application letter, the Massachusetts-born American sociologist and civil rights activist wrote: “Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.” King also studied Marx, and largely agreed with Du Bois, though he equivocated in his language. He wrote:

I read all of the influential historical thinkers—from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial yes and a partial no. Insofar as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous “no”; but insofar as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite “yes.”

King’s radical capacity did not land him in the CPUSA—nor did it pronounce a tune of “radical revolution” or “workers of the world, unite,” but its pathway from Du Bois, who passed away in 1963, continued to uncover the evils of capitalism. After all, it was at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968, in the final year of his life, where King delivered a commemorative speech on the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth. In his speech titled “Honoring Dr. Du Bois”, King offered one of his most damning messages about American capitalism and the inequality it presented, while offering great praise to Du Bois, as he told Americans “it is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist.” Clearly agitated at America’s deaf ears regarding racism, poverty, and militarism, King observed:

[W]e cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist….Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.

King was keenly aware that American society failed to grasp Du Bois’s greatness, a pioneer who explored truth telling in his short stories, and in his countless editorials published in The Crisis magazine.

If King and Du Bois’s socialist alignment presented a congruent perspective regarding capitalism’s ills, they also creatively invoked religious symbols, sermons, and narratives to convey societal inequality. In 1931, Du Bois expressed some doubt that the Christian church was capable of addressing the color line problem. In his Christian Century essay, “The Church and the Color Line” he discussed the puzzling hypocrisy of the white Christian church. This essay denounced inequality, while telling the white church that it was wrong to assume Black folk were grateful for the marginal advances made. To Du Bois there should not be Black or white, rich or poor, as all stand equal before God. Deception due to race did not align with Christian scripture. Similarly, in Du Bois’s short story “The Gospel According to Mary Brown,” Mary’s child Joshua represented a Black biblical character who found comfort among those who were societal outcasts. The Black Jesus Christ marched with the poor, with sinners, and communists; however, whites did not embrace this Christ. The white South lynched this Christ because they could not accept a Christ who sought the equality of all people, especially the American Negro. Because of this, the very people who awaited him—the Christian South, killed Joshua. Du Bois, who published this narrative in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution, illustrated his socialist leanings through creative religious parables.

It was during the 1930s, however, that he gained a greater sense of his ideological beliefs. During this time he exited from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he began an affair with Shirley Graham, who further helped materialize his maturation as an eventual communist.

King expressed in his 1958 book Radical Love that Christians should be challenged to grow in a way that seeks social justice. King’s radicalism took back Christ from white supremacy; he reminded folks that Jesus was the same symbol used by white supremacy in lynching Black folk. His faith made him radical—armed with the gospels during the civil rights movement, as he rescued Christ—a symbol to some that denounced greed, material culture, and white supremacy. Du Bois damned the white South throughout his life. His faith in God and belief in socialism proved powerful.

King and Du Bois fought the evils of capitalism, racism, and inequality for a combined 134 years—well over a century of life.  They looked to the Gospels of Christ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto to explain the darkness of humanity and an elevated need for a radically reconfigured state.

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Edward Carson

Edward Carson is a residential faculty member in the History Department of Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. His current research examines race, religion, and society, particularly that of W.E.B. Du Bois. He is the co-author with John P. Irish of Historical Thinking Skills: A Workbook for European History. He is currently working on a book titled W.E.B. Du Bois’s Editorial Influence on Western Negro Migration. Follow him on Twitter @ProfCarson44.