W. E. B. Du Bois: An Open Letter to Warren G. Harding Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

W. E. B. Du Bois, an activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), took the occasion of Warren G. Harding’s presidential inauguration to restate the case for civil rights for African Americans. Writing in the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, Du Bois chose to write this letter at this specific time for more than simply the occasion of Harding’s inauguration. African Americans had lived as slaves before the Civil War, which started sixty years before Du Bois’s letter was written. They had endured discriminatory laws in the decades since the Civil War. Yet they had continued to fight with other Americans in the Civil War, the Indian wars of the late nineteenth century, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Despite African Americans’ service, discrimination and segregation were part of nearly every African American life. A new president, Du Bois hoped, would bring about the reforms for which he and other activists had been working for so many years.

Summary Overview

W. E. B. Du Bois, an activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), took the occasion of Warren G. Harding’s presidential inauguration to restate the case for civil rights for African Americans. Writing in the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, Du Bois chose to write this letter at this specific time for more than simply the occasion of Harding’s inauguration. African Americans had lived as slaves before the Civil War, which started sixty years before Du Bois’s letter was written. They had endured discriminatory laws in the decades since the Civil War. Yet they had continued to fight with other Americans in the Civil War, the Indian wars of the late nineteenth century, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Despite African Americans’ service, discrimination and segregation were part of nearly every African American life. A new president, Du Bois hoped, would bring about the reforms for which he and other activists had been working for so many years.

Defining Moment

Warren G. Harding took office in 1921, promising a “return to normalcy” in the aftermath of World War I. Unfortunately for most African Americans, “normalcy” was a return to a segregated, racist society. Many African American men, having served in World War I, hoped that their show of loyalty to the nation would finally cause white Americans to see them as full citizens. Encouraged by the success of women’s suffrage in 1919, African Americans hoped that the new decade would see the end of the suppression of African American voting, especially in the South. However, the dawn of the 1920s saw no such changes. Only a few years earlier, in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had been reestablished. The new decade saw a massive publicity campaign across the nation that caused the Klan’s numbers to grow to unprecedented levels not only in the South, but also across the United States.

At the same time that African Americans were facing this discrimination, they were moving from the Southern states to the North and the West and were establishing a culture that would do much to shape twentieth century art, music, and literature. The Harlem Renaissance took African American culture into the American mainstream, as jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and authors, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, gained national, multiracial audiences. This same period saw the first discussions of civil rights, with Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey leading the way. Du Bois sought advancement through higher education and social change; Washington through accommodation and economic empowerment; and Garvey through separation, black nationalism, and, eventually, a return to Africa. Du Bois’s open letter to Harding spells out much of his, and the NAACP’s, position.

An additional controversy regarding Harding’s election may have played into Du Bois’s perspective on him. During the election campaign, a historian named William Estabrook Chancellor published an exposé, claiming that Harding had hidden the existence of an African American ancestor, which, under the racial theories of the time, would have classified Harding as African American. Though the Harding campaign was successful not only in fighting the rumors but also in destroying nearly every copy of Chancellor’s book, the rumors persisted. Du Bois mentions this controversy in his letter, but whether this affected Harding’s reaction to Du Bois’s letter is impossible to know. It does, however, demonstrate the powerful role that race played in national politics at the time Du Bois wrote, and perhaps contributed to Harding’s views on race relations.

Author Biography

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was both a scholar and a civil rights leader. In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University, earning a degree in history. He published numerous books, including Black Reconstruction in America (1935), which is still in print and widely read. In 1905, Du Bois was among the founders of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group made up of scholars. Four years later, he helped found the NAACP and served as the editor of the group’s monthly periodical, The Crisis. He was a member of the Socialist Party briefly in the early 1900s, and though he saw racial problems within the American socialist movement, his belief in its principles never wavered. Late in his life, in 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left the United States for Ghana, where he died in 1963.

Document Analysis

The brief “open letter” that Du Bois wrote to Harding in 1921 lays out the agenda that characterizes Du Bois’s brand of social activism, focusing on equality, rights, and the rule of law. It is a straightforward assessment of the situation African Americans faced in the United States during the 1920s and makes an ethical appeal to Harding and, by extension, all of white America to give African Americans an equal opportunity to achieve in American society.

Du Bois begins with some basic facts: approximately ten percent of the US population is African American (based on the 1920 census), and Harding, as president, is in a unique position to do something for what could easily be a large and important part of his electorate. Du Bois then recalls the controversy over Harding’s race, but only in a gentle way, stating that if the accusations were true, that it would be an honor to black Americans to count him among their number. However, Du Bois quickly dismisses this topic to focus on the more important aspect of Harding’s character: what he will do for African Americans as the descendent of abolitionists and Civil War soldiers.

In the letter, Du Bois addresses four principal problems. First, he points out that African Americans have been consistently denied the ability to exercise their right to vote, as guaranteed in the Fifteenth Amendment. Second, he argues for the right to travel freely, which had long been denied to black Americans. Third, he asserts that to be stopped, lynching, the race-based hanging of black men, requires federal action. Finally, he calls for the removal of US Marines that are occupying Haiti, denying self-government to Haiti’s black population. These four problems were not the only ones facing African Americans during the period, but they were certainly problems that the president could address directly by simply enforcing federal law and making policy choices in the interest of justice.

Though Du Bois acknowledges that even the president has limited power to effect change on these matters, he asserts, at the same time, that Harding as president is personally responsible for starting the process. Essentially, Du Bois is publicly calling out Harding, asserting to the American people that the most important priority for the incoming administration is not to “return to normalcy,” but rather to create a new and better American society for all of the country’s citizens, regardless of race.

Essential Themes

At the conclusion of Du Bois’s letter to Harding, he stated that “If races cannot live together in peace and happiness in America, they cannot live together in the world.” As opposed to Garvey, who urged his followers to give up on American society and move to Africa, Du Bois still believed that the United States was the best hope for a reconciliation of races, despite its history of slavery and discrimination. Harding wasted little time in weighing in on the racial problems facing the nation. Only seven months later, on the occasion of an October 1921 visit to Birmingham, Alabama–where the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would start–Harding delivered a speech on race that drew criticism from both black and white Southerners. Many African Americans believed that the speech, delivered to a segregated audience, did not go far enough, while a number of white Southerners were angered by what they saw as the intrusion of the federal government into local affairs.

Southern Democratic politicians that supported segregation largely panned the speech. Du Bois himself wrote an analysis of the speech in the December 1921 issue of The Crisis. He commended the president for having the courage to advocate a number of the positions Du Bois had made to Harding in his letter earlier that year: that African Americans should have the same right to vote as Caucasian Americans, that they should be educated–a point that held particular importance to Du Bois–and that there should be economic justice for African Americans, many of whom lived as Southern sharecroppers in abject poverty and usually in debt to white landowners.

As Du Bois had noted in his letter, Harding himself had only limited power to make the changes he discussed. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Congress was either apathetic toward the points Du Bois and Harding had made or busy with what they considered more pressing matters, such as the Great Depression and World War II. However, the themes Du Bois wrote of would not die, as African American leaders sought to use the postwar years of the 1950s to make sure that the civil rights agenda did not, once again, become obscured by other matters.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gage, Beverly. “Our First Black President?” New York Times. New York Times, 6 Apr. 2008. Web. 12 June 2014.
  • Lewis, David L. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963. New York: Holt, 2000. Print.
  • Reed, Adolph L. W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. Print.
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