The 150th Commemoration of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Birth and His Letter to John F. Kennedy

By Howard Lisnoff

A week into John Kennedy’s presidency, the great civil rights leader and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois typed a letter to the new president. The letter is among the massive scholarly work of Du Bois at the University of Massachusetts and is now on display in a glass case at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of this giant among world leaders.

Du Bois begins his letter with an appeal to the new president to take up the work for the nation and make the federal government the leader in ending the barriers to equality of black people in the United States. Du Bois’ writing is a petition to Mr. Kennedy. Du Bois calls for an end of “gradualism” in taking down the barriers to equality and calls on the government to look to the federal role in championing civil rights in the shadow of the movement for states rights which was the buzzword of the time for the existence and enforcement of segregation.  He calls on the president to “end segregation and Jim Crow.”

He advises the president to use “moral strength” to end bias and to “bring respect for the inalienable rights of man” (It should be noted that Du Bois was a strong and early supporter of women’s rights.).

Du Bois then leaves the lofty plain of rhetoric and writes about the practical needs of black people for rights and equality. He discusses the need for employment and “job tenure,”  voting rights, education, and the necessity of good housing. What is remarkable when reading this letter, or reading his seminal books The Souls of Black Folk andBlack Reconstruction in America, is how prescient and contemporary Du Bois’ writing and activism was and is. He then continues his petition to the president in the form of 10 points.

He calls for the end of superiority of one group over others by the inappropriate use of legal and police power. Next he calls for the appointment of a “Secretary of Civil Rights,” a call for an “End Segregation Conference,” to begin a “crusade against racist ideology,” identify black ghettos as “distressed communities,” and “eliminate … poverty, misery, illiteracy and chronic ill health,” cut off aid to universities and colleges that “propagate segregation,” eliminate federal contracts with employers who segregate in their workforce, establish the universal right to vote, establish a committee to address housing issues, and make it the mission of federal agencies to make these goals the goals of the government.

Reading Du Bois’ letter to John Kennedy nearly six decades later feels like setting down in a time machine and knowing that Du Bois’ petition is as powerful today as it was then. It is also an issue that casts a long shadow of what equality means in the U.S. today when a person who endorsed white supremacy and white supremacists is President of the United States and Nazis march along side white supremacists and condone and perpetrate murder. It is, in some measure, as if the words of Du Bois needed to be written all over again!

Only a few, short miles from the Mason Library is the homestead among the Berkshire Hills where Du Bois spent the first several years of his life. It is near these still bucolic farm fields and foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that he came to love the environment where he grew up and went to school and where he learned an abiding love for the natural world, paying special attention to the beauty and needs of the Housatonic River that ran through the town where he was born.

On the way up to his homestead and the peacefulness of the forest and mountains that surround it, is the Mahaiwe Cemetery where Du Bois buried his young son, Burghardt, his first wife, Nina, and his daughter, Yolande. Du Bois must have felt great sadness when he returned to his beloved former home in 1961 to bury his daughter, just after writing the letter to Kennedy that he never sent. But his words and his incredible scholarship and activism for the freedom of all men and women can almost be heard echoing today among these hills carried on a wintry wind. All that a person needs to do first is learn how to listen.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.