“Change happens by revolution not evolution.” – Scholar, 2018 DuBois/King Symposium
This year marks the 150th birthday of WEB DuBois and the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Considering everything that is happening in our country and world concerning race relations, social and economic inequality, and global conflict, now is the ideal moment to revisit the lives of DuBois and King, two of America’s most distinguished scholars and leaders. By examining the lives, work and legacies of DuBois and King, Americans and others across the world can rediscover the theories, strategies and actions that made them so effective as agents of change.
In February, the Clark Atlanta University Department of Sociology and the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creativity hosted its 2018 DuBois/King Symposium to recognize the invaluable contributions of DuBois and King. With its timely theme “Examining Race Relations and Economic Inequality,” the symposium provided a historical analysis of DuBois and King in the context of contemporary social issues. Distinguished scholars such as Clayborne Carson of Stanford University as well as other scholars from institutions throughout the nation shared their expertise, discussing the multifaceted dimensions of these two American jewels.
It is quite apropos that Clark Atlanta University would host such a conference in Atlanta and in the Atlanta University Center (AUC). With Atlanta considered by many as the Mecca of African American life, having created leaders in every discipline and industry, and with the AUC persisting as the largest consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the world, Atlanta and the AUC are the heart and nucleus of African American intellectual and leadership development. Both DuBois and King are products of Atlanta and the AUC. DuBois and King lived in the heart of the city, only minutes from the AUC. DuBois served as a distinguished professor at Atlanta University and King graduated from Morehouse College. It is particularly significant that DuBois and King, two of the most esteemed and influential African Americans in the world, were shaped and molded in Atlanta and the AUC.
All of the conference sessions were extremely enlightening and engaging. The scholars explored a range of topics focusing on DuBois and King, including their intellectual development, the evolution of their ideas and philosophies, their struggles with the American government, their personal lives, and much more. As they analyzed the lives of DuBois and King, they also discussed their intersection as well as their individuality.
I am a historian, yet in two short days, I learned so much about these men, particularly about DuBois. Because the scholars presented so much information about the lives, work and legacies of DuBois and King, I found it extremely difficult to give an adequate synopsis of the symposium in a short blog.
Despite this challenge, below are my Top 12 Takeaways from the 2018 DuBois/King Symposium. Of course, there is so much more that I can and want to say.
- First and foremost, both DuBois and King were intellectuals, seekers of truth, learned men who spent an immense amount of time and energy developing their minds and shaping their ideologies and strategies for addressing inequality. As scholar activists, DuBois and King embraced and operated in the black intellectual tradition of using knowledge to transform the community. In fact, they were premier public intellectuals, not just theorist but practitioners, who took ideas into the community and acted upon them. DuBois and King exemplify the importance of intellectuals and intellectual analyses to social movements, and as intellectual activists, they taught other activists how to think and act strategically.
- DuBois and King were prophets, who used their moral authority to speak truth to power. As Dr. Robert Franklin of Emory University explained, like the prophets of old, DuBois and King summoned the courage to speak truth, even when they knew there would be consequences.
- DuBois and King were prolific writers, who documented their lives, ideas and critical analyses of their societies. Through their essays and books they exemplified the importance of African Americans creating knowledge, formulating and publishing our ideas as well as writing about our own lives. In doing so, DuBois and King demonstrated that African Americans must tell and record our own stories through the written word.
- DuBois and King were global leaders, connecting the African American struggle to the struggles of other oppressed people around the world. Whether linking the African American experience to continental Africans or other suppressed and exploited people around the globe, DuBois and King showed how issues and experiences were interrelated. DuBois and King also worked to connect activists around the globe in order to increase their effectiveness in creating social change.
- Dubois’ and King’s lives illustrate the dire consequences that African American activists suffer when they challenge the American power structure. There are inevitable consequences to black activism and any attempt create the slightest form of black power. Despite these realities, DuBois and King devoted their lives to social change.
- As the first scholar to conduct a sociological study of American life, DuBois is regarded as the “Father of American Sociology.” In his study “The Philadelphia Negro,” DuBois challenged the idea of black inferiority and argued that America’s racialized social system needed its own sociological mode of analysis. Beyond sociology, DuBois also contributed to the other social sciences. It was interesting to hear scholars in almost every discipline at the conference claim DuBois as their own—literature, statistics, philosophy, political science, economics, as well as others.
- By the mid-19th century DuBois had modified and refined his concept of the Talented Tenth. In an effort to address his critics who contended that the Talented Tenth was an elitist concept, DuBois’s had revised his idea by the mid-twentieth century. According to Dr. Earl Wright II of the University of Cincinnati, DuBois had answered his critics by revisiting the concept in an unpublished paper. DuBois had redefined the Talented Tenth as self-sacrificing, ethical leaders committed to working on behalf of the masses. They were globally-minded, strategically positioned, college educated as well as non-degreed individuals with exceptional abilities, who dedicated their lives to black liberation. Contemporary America needs to embrace this updated version of the Talented Tenth.
- Like a relay race where the torch is passed to the next runner, DuBois’s and King operated in this fashion. DuBois as the “Father of Sociology,” laid the intellectual, theoretical and philosophical foundation for King. King took these ideas and implemented them as a “public sociologist.” DuBois’s and King’s lives and work exemplify how each generation of African Americans has the potential to advance the race by building upon the contributions of those that preceded.
- Many scholars at the conference argued that social change activists need to study DuBois and King in order to better understand and address contemporary local, national and global issues issues. Activists need to learn and apply the teachings and philosophies as well as the strategies and tactics of DuBois and King. In the world of alternative facts and realities, DuBois and King also exemplify the importance of seeking truth and speaking truth to power. Steeped in and empowered by knowledge about DuBois and King, activists will be more strategic and effective in challenging inequality. Knowledge is key. Leaders and activists must be scholars, thinkers and writers.
- Educators must teach about DuBois and King in order to center them in American historiography. Educators must also humanize them as they teach by showing their imperfections and humanity. By doing so, students and activists will recognize that what DuBois and King accomplished is also achievable for them. DuBois and King were gods but humans who had faults, insecurities and misgivings; yet, in spite of their weaknesses, they lived their greatness and contributed to their nation and world.