Thursday, March 4, 2010

'Fist Held High" by Amy Bass

On May 11, 1976, a few months before the United States plunged into celebrations of its bicentennial, secretary of the interior Thomas S. Kleppe announced the approval of the Du Bois site in Great Barrington, Massachusetts as a National Historic Landmark. The W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite gained its title to Landmark status as part of the Heritage Preservation Service, authorized by the Secretary of the Interior as a nationally significant area because it "holds exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States; a place that forges a common bond between all Americans."The National Park Service's "statement of significance" reads as follows:

"Only ruins mark the site of the boyhood home of prominent sociologist and writer William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. A major figure in the African-American civil rights movement during the first half of the 20th century, he helped found the NAACP. He authored more than 20 books and several hundred articles. He was the first African-American to receive a PH.D. degree from Harvard, and his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade.' became the first volume in the Harvard Historical Studies..."

As part of an effort to rebuild interest in Du Bois after several years of relative inactivity and quiet, the Berkshire Eagle spotlighted Du Bois in a feature article in its magazine, Berkshires Week, written by freelancer Steve Turner, formerly of Great Barrington. Entitled "Black Sheep of the Native Sons", the piece summarize the creation of the Landmark honorto Du Bois and noted that " the whirl-wind of controversy that existed in the life of W.E.B. Du Bois continues to swirl through his hometown" and argued that the storm had an undeniable racial aspect to it:

"Small country towns, as a general rule, have memorials to their world-famous native sons. But when the town is white and the native son is black, and a brilliant black radical at that- a racial organizer as well as a scholar, educator, novelist, poet and diplomat, a leader in the attempt to unseat powerful social and economic elites and an early advocate of black pride- then the rule meets the exception. Add a touch of declared membership in the Communist party, and the rule just...What rule?"

Turner observed that, in 1968, after the community protested the idea to memorialize "this renowned black man" with "every device short of violence," there had been little progress in the eight years that followed. Describing the other Berkshire landmarks as "structurally splendid places", Turner noted that because of the lack of buildings and signage, making the site difficult to locate, "the Du Bois site comes up a lttle short," with only the cellar hole and crumbled chimney where Du Bois spent his childhood. But the lack of development of the site, he continued, belied its historical significance. The homestead represented the family of Du Bois's mother as well as the famed civil rights leader, descendants of one whose good turns in the American Revolution gave him his freedom and put his roots in Great Barrington with the earliest of its settlers. The site represented early African American New England, a community that helped create the first black doctorate graduated from Harvard, And Du Bois remembered that community, burying his first wife and child in the town's cemetery, and hoped to someday to renovate the home of his boyhood for his retirement.

As for the controversy over Du Bois as "a longtime proponent of socialism," "a contradiction developed," Turner argued. "The country might happily offer monuments and cultural tributes to infamous crooks such as Blackbeard and Jessie James, not to mention an enormous clutch of anti-democratic financiers, robber barons and renowned racists; but a memorial to a left-wing black hero was unacceptable."

Turner called the year in which the Du Bois Memorial Committee formed- 1968- the most riotous in the area since Shay's Rebellion. He claimed that in addition to the town's attempt to close down the park because of zoning, there were "at least 30" threats to blow up the park, and that many members of the committee were threatened. An article in the Berkshire Courier, Turner pointed out, advised opponents of the park to boycott the dedication ceremony and "leave the monument to those who will undoubtedly take out their wrath on it in the weeks to come." Such vitriolic opposition came from somewhere, but Turner determined that no one would admit what really stood at the core: race.

In an interview, Turner asked George Francis, editor and publisher of the Courier, why the hostility had grown to such levels. Francis answered:

"The black thing didn't enter into it at all. A lot of us were duped into the Vietnam war then. It hadn't proved to be such a monstrous waste of men and materials. And with us losing people in Vietnam, it seemed the wrong time to put up a monument to a communist."

On the other hand, Walter Wilson, founder of the Memorial Committeee, dismissed Francis's rationale: "Du Bois was the most important man ever born in the Berkshires, but he was being ignored here long before he joined the party..,.The Communist issue is not pertinent at all." But Turner also found people who were beginning to separate the different aspects of Du Bois's life. "Some people may agree with him and some may not," said Paul Ivory. "But his deeds and publications had an impact on American history, and that's the measure for recognition." Even Francis seemed to have come around somewhat. "Attitudes have changed" he admitted. "I don't think there'll be any opposition to the Landmark at all. The Watergate thing and the war kind of took the wind out of the opposition's sails. They're not so willing to wave the flag and say "My country, right or wrong."

However, one response to Steve Turner's piece in the Berkshire Week indicated that much remained the same. Gerard Chapman, an op-ed page contributor to the Berkshire Eagle wrote " I do not believe that the indifference or even violent opposition to a memorial is based on racial animosity, but the fact that he went over to the enemy in the last years of his life...

I think there is still a lingering feeling that Du Bois was a fool and the worse for going over to the communists; Du Bois "blew it". Unquestionably he was a man of great abilities and accomplishments, and some day he will be recognized for them. But Russia is till our enemy, despite the cultural exchanges and detente, and until Russia throws its power on the side of peace and civilized behavior, those who embrace it will be out of popular favor. Yes, Du Bois blew it, he was so discouraged over the lack of progress from his efforts to ameliorate the lot of blacks that his emotions got the better of his critical faculties, perhaps because of his advanced age. He undid much of what he accomplished. There are many blacks in this country who have suffered discrimination but who have been smart enough to know that for all its faults, the United States is gradually approaching acceptance of "ethnic" minorities...Russian solicitude for minorities is an illusion. Russia makes a great show of accepting them for education, but actually such minorities are kept under wraps most of the time, to be trotted out for propaganda purposes on occasion. Du Bois, in his dotage, did not perceive this, and that, rather than his being black, was -and is- the reason for lack of interest in his memorial.

Ironically, Edward W. Brooke, who in 1966 was the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate in eighty-five years, a member of the original memorial committee, defended his support for the project in 1968 on similar grounds, painting Du Bois as an old man who had been so irreparably scared by racism that he had made an irrational decision- rather the studied and thoughtful conclusion- to choose communism over democracy:

"The memorial could serve as a living reminder to all of us what can happen when the forces of intolerance, racism and injustice make despairing men believe that causes like communism provide the only alternative to a decent life in their homeland".

Today, in 2009, whether the Du Bois Center, the revamped W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Committee, the signs or the various Du Bois events that continue to find their way into the local calendar will lead to a more permanent home in Great Barrington's history cannot yet be determined. For the townspeople of Great Barrington, Du Bois became, to borrow a phrase from historian Paul Boyer, a 'litmus test of patriotism" Thus, the story of his story remains somewhat the same: anti-communist, often racially expressed sentiment seems to meet each step of commemoration that Du Bois's relatively small group of supporters take, much in the manner that it greeted Walter Wilson's dream for a small piece of field to be made special.

The opposition does not remain silent, for, as David Bright has observed, "all memory is prelude." As the Cold War becomes grounded in the past, the sentiments and actions it created slide almost seamlessly into the post-9/11 era. Binaries of "us versus them" exist in amorphous yet devastating ways; someone- on behalf of and for the good of the general public- is continually trying to figure out who the "us" is, since the "them" remains part of an imaginary state of emergency, albeit one with very real ramifications, as it continues to drive U.S. foreign policy in much the same way it did in the Vietnam era.

Thus, the legacy of disavowal that continues to surround Du Bois in his hometown, in the wake of and regardless of signs and ceremonies, ensures that we must continually push to understand how national and global situations continue to be digested and dealt with at the most local of levels. Then, perhaps, we can better expose the power of racial enmity hidden in the efforts that proclaim to be focused on security and well-being, and well masked in patriotic language that seems available to only a few who are lucky enough to reside in America's quintessential small towns, yet feel compelled to take on the battles of the world. Only then can we learn just how silent we actually are, for only after the debate is over- regardless of how long or loud it is- can we see how very little came of all that noise.

"Those About Him Remained Silent; The Battle Over W.E.B. Du Bois" by Amy Bass; University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis;2009



    Mexico City, Olympic stadium, October 1968.

    The Stars and Stripes waves triumphantly on the highest flagpole, while the strains of the national anthem of the United States rings out.

    The Olympic champions mount the podium. Then at the climatic moment, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both black, both Americans, raise their black-gloved fists against the night sky.

    "Life" photographer John Dominis captures the scene. Those raised fists, symbols of the Black Panther Party, denounce before the entire world racial bigotry in the United States.

    Tommie and John are immediately expelled from the Olympic Village. Never again will they be allowed to take part in any sports competition. Race horses, fighting cocks, and human athletes have no right to spoil the party.

    Tommie's wife divorces him, John's wife commits suicide.

    Back home, no one will hire these troublemakers. John gets by as best he can, and Tommie, who holds eleven world records, washes cars for tips.

    -Eduardo Galeano in "Mirrors"-

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    They didn't have it so bad as Galeano suggests. Still, I thought the iconic "fist Held High" moment was appropriate, especially since at the first dedication of the memorial park in 68 the rumor that Black Panthers might show up brought both uniformed police and plain-clothed FBI agents to the scene. The FBI may have played a role in inciting local residents to protest Wilson's plans- especially in seeing to it that the local VFW was fully informed about Du Bois life. The evidence is not conclusive since local agents occasionally falsified reports of their activities to convince 'the boss' they were following his cockamamy orders.

  3. There were some very serious racial riots in connection with a Paul Robeson concert in nearby Peekskill New York in 1949 which animated the imaginations of all Greater Barrington residents in the run-up to the original memorial park dedication in 1968 but most of the action was fairly typical of "letters-to-the-editor" battles so familiar to small town folks in , say, for instance, Burlington, VT....Sound and fury, signifying... NOTHING! Like the recent controversy over voting procedures.

    UMass has been careful to preserve and develop all the stuff on W.E.B. Du Bois.