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Great Barrington to Commemorate Civil Rights Leader

Jim Levulis

At a time when millions of Americans are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, people from the Berkshires are recognizing another civil rights milestone.

On Saturday, Great Barrington will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of W.E.B Du Bois on August 27, 1963. Du Bois was born in the town in 1868 and lived there until he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University, a historically black college. The day’s events include readings of Du Bois’ work, a tour of the Du Bois Homesite, and a keynote address by Professor Amilcar Shabazz. He is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and hopes to convey the importance of Du Bois today.

“Show our children this is someone to look up to, this is someone to emulate and to be as committed to academic excellence as he was and social responsibility," said Shabazz.

Du Bois was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and wrote various literary works on a wide range of topics. Shabazz says Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP during the 1963 March on Washington, noted the significance of Du Bois’ death the night of the historic event. 

“We stand here today, having been called to this place by W.E.B Du Bois, to make this change, to challenge the country around jobs and social justice," said Shabazz.

Shabazz says the legacy of Du Bois isn’t as impactful as it should be in the Berkshires or around the country. He credits it to Du Bois being a member of the Communist party and being labeled as an agent of a foreign power by the U.S. government during McCarthyism in the 1950s. Shabazz adds Du Bois was a staunch critic and challenger of the white supremacy he witnessed during the nearly 100 years he was alive.

“He’s seeing racism being reproduced generation after generation," he said. "He was an extraordinary critic of that process and how that happened and contributed many of the most brilliant ideas that scholars, universities, and elsewhere are still grappling with today.”

Since Du Bois lived such a long life, he was able to publish works in many areas of study including philosophy, poetry, and ecology. Rachel Fletcher is the founder of the Du Bois River Garden Park in Great Barrington. She says growing up in Great Barrington had a major impact on Du Bois and led him to use this opening line from his autobiography.

“I was born by a golden river, in the shadow of two great hills five years after the Emancipation Proclamation," said Fletcher. "He’s talking about the Housatonic River."

Fletcher says while she was working on the river walk, she studied Du Bois’ ecological work, which she says was greatly ahead of its time.

“We all just had chills feeling as if this man had been directing us from the grave," she said. "He was one of the early, early environmentalists, particularly for rivers.”

Fletcher says keeping Du Bois’ legacy alive in Great Barrington has gone through its share of rough patches, like failing to name one of the town’s schools after him. She notes the town turned its back on him when he was labeled an enemy of the U.S., but he never turned his back on the town. She describes his burial site in Ghana.

“There is a sign above his head that says ‘W.E.B Du Bois-Born in Great Barrington,' she said. "That says it all. He never ever, ever forgot his roots here and you get emotional because of the way he was treated in some ways."

Still, Fletcher says Du Bois continues to be relevant, because of the many issues he wrote about.

“There is another aspect of Du Bois that is waiting to illuminate us because we are ever-changing and he seems to be the constant," she said. "Always with something to teach us.”

A list of the day's events is available here.

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