Make America Great, Du Bois-style: Unsent petition to JFK asks for sweeping changes

 W. E. B. Du Bois with Alice Crawford, his cousin, and Arthur McFarlane, his great grandson, at New York airport before leaving for Ghana in 1961.  PHOTO PROVIDED BY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UMASS AMHERST LIBRARIES

W. E. B. Du Bois with Alice Crawford, his cousin, and Arthur McFarlane, his great grandson, at New York airport before leaving for Ghana in 1961.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UMASS AMHERST LIBRARIES

By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle

GREAT BARRINGTON — Nearly 50 years ago, someone wanted a U.S. president to make America great.

A hard-hitting petition written in 1961 by W.E.B. Du Bois to John F. Kennedy — but never sent — mapped out what Du Bois said was the way to gain the world's respect, and told Kennedy that African-Americans held great hope that he would make fast and sweeping changes, like ending states' rights that allowed racism and brutality to fester.

"You, Mr. President, have said that our county has lost prestige in the councils of the world. We believe that this is true and that there is a definite relationship between this fact and the attitude of government toward us, its Negro nationals. Some of us cast our vote impelled by the hope your words generated, and guided by the fact that we cannot live as formerly."

An original copy of the three-page letter was installed Tuesday in a new Du Bois exhibit at the Mason Library on Main Street at the start of a five-week festival to celebrate what would be Du Bois' 150th birthday on Feb. 23. 

Randy Weinstein, director of the Du Bois Center Great Barrington assembled the exhibit from his collection, as well as from items on loan from the UMass Amherst Libraries W. E. B. Du Bois Library, which loaned the original petition.

Known as one of the earliest architects of the U.S. civil rights movement, poet, author and scholar William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington in 1868 — just three years after slavery was abolished.

Written in February of that year, when Du Bois was 93, it never left his study. 

In it he decries "the practice of gradualism," and tells Kennedy he should use the Executive Order to make decisive changes to state and federal laws applying to the treatment of African-American citizens. 

He said the country needed awakening from a "self-denying lethargy" to "end segregation and jim-crow now."

And he appealed to Kennedy's "great influence to bring respect for the inalienable rights of man."

Du Bois advised an all-out crusade.

"Mobilize science and the arts to render shattering blows to the myth of white superiority in every area of our cultural life ... these shameful features of our national life astound and shock the world."

He went on to tell Kennedy to finish what Abraham Lincoln had started, and laid out plans that included appointing an African-American to a new cabinet post known as "Secretary of Civil Rights." This role, he said, would protect African-Americans from racist state agencies working "under the guise" of states' rights. 

As well as voting rights for blacks, Du Bois also called for Kennedy to create programs that would put an end to city ghettos, and root out racism and discrimination in state and federal agencies, and other businesses and institutions.

It is possible the petition was never sent because the NAACP founder and leader got sidetracked, Weinstein said. His daughter Yolande died the following month, and Du Bois brought her body from New York to Great Barrington to bury her in the Mahaiwe Cemetery. 

Weinstein also said that same spring, Du Bois, frustrated with the pace of social advances in the country, joined the Communist Party of the U.S.A. on the basis of what were its tenets of humanizing policies.

"Free education for everyone, free health care for everyone — that's what the Communist Party stood for in 1961," Weinstein said. 

But in a nation still gripped by cold war fever and policies, this didn't go over well. It only increased suspicion of Du Bois, who was already under government surveillance as he went about writing and lecturing about equal rights for African-Americans.

By 1961, Du Bois was weary from years of attack and harassment because of his activism and ideas.

That fall, he left for Ghana to work on the "Encyclopedia Africana," and died in 1963 at age 95, just one year before the Civil Rights Act was enacted in the U.S.

Weinstein said Du Bois' towering contributions, amid living life, continued at an astonishing pace.

"How many people do you know are 93 and function like this?" Weinstein said.

Kennedy had only been in office for little more than a month when Du Bois wrote the petition, which ends with Du Bois saying he believed Kennedy could use his sword of power to cut deep into the belly of this most wicked American beast. 

A man fortified by an unwavering climb up his own stairs of destiny, Du Bois asked Kennedy to step up.

"Yours is the hour of destiny, Mr. President. What we ask is within your power. We urge you to act now."

You can view the document here:

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums312-b229-i026/#page/1/mode/1up

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871