Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

W. E. B. Du Bois’s seminal work, Black Reconstruction in America, was written within the conceptual backdrop of the plight of African Americans during the Great Depression. While the Great Depression was pushing the working class toward urban unemployment and rural subsistence, Du Bois was the intellectual voice of radicalization which took root in the black ghettos.

The immense labor struggles in the years preceding the first World War forced Du Bois to consider the importance of class divisions within American society. He observed that the struggles waged by the working class during the Progressive Era led capitalists to utilize divide and conquer strategies in an attempt to prevent black and white labor from organizing.  The competition over Northern industrial jobs between unskilled European immigrants and blacks migrating from the South further exacerbated the already seismic tensions between blacks and whites which were prevalent throughout American culture in the aftermath of slavery. Black Reconstruction in America reflects this crisis in its analysis of the plight of the minority working class between the Reformation Era and the Great Depression. Dubois asserts  “[t]he emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor, and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”

Dubois praised the efforts of mid-Nineteenth century intellectual leaders such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens in the “new attempt to expand and implement democracy.” He viewed the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, as “the most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that America has ever attempted.” The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 by Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. However, the bureau was prevented from fully carrying out its programs due to a shortage of funds and personnel, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. In 1872, Congress, in part under pressure from white Southern interests, closed the bureau.

Du Bois saw the Freedmen’s Bureau as an attempt to curb landowners and capitalists “in the interest of a black and white labor class.” While it did “an extraordinary piece of work,” its accomplishment was small in comparison with what it might have done, as if Du Bois suggests, it had been made permanent and been given ample funding and personnel.

According to Dubois, “[t]he greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw, or is likely to see for many decades,” was found in the South after the Civil War. However, labor organizers, “with but few exceptions,” did not realize it, and when the South united to disenfranchise the Negroes it “cut the voting power of the laboring class in two.” While the Negroes turned to political action to attain equal standing, Northern white labor moved in the opposite direction to suppress social equality, with the end result being that labor “went into the great war of 1877 against Northern capitalists” not only without the support of the Negro but with no interest in the Negro and his problems.

W. E. B. Du Bois is an important American voice in the struggle for social equality. His work resists easy classification. Cornel West puts Du Bois  in the camp of the pragmatists of the “Emersonian tradition” who sought to evade traditional philosophical problems altogether and turned instead to the empowerment of individuals and communities. More recent scholarship has credited Du Bois with being a highly influential critical theorist, whose work is purposefully  interdisciplinary in nature, utilizing  multiple perspectives to form his critique of power [1].

What distinguishes Du Bois from many of his contemporaries is his affinity towards the oppressed and afflicted. West  describes Du Bois as having an impassioned and focused concern for “the wretched of the earth” guided by a desire to find pragmatic solutions for alleviating their plight [2]. This is the spirit which drives Black Reconstruction in America, as Du Bois boldly asserts, “There can be no compromise” in the fight for social and economic equality, for “this is the last great battle of the West.”

A scanned version of the Book in digital format may be found HERE

[1] Rabaka, Reiland. W. E. B. Du Bois and the Problems of the Twenty-First Century: An Essay on Africana Critical Theory (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2007); p. 2.

[2] West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); p. 138.


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