The seer who prophesied in 1903 that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line," William Edward Burghardt Du Bois cast a huge shadow over the black struggle for freedom. Without the piercing scholarship and uncompromising militancy of the co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr., no Malcolm X, perhaps no civil rights movement at all.
Capturing such a momentous figure is a daunting assignment, but David Levering Lewis carries it off with aplomb. W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (Henry Holt; 715 pages; $35) is a stirring yet subtle portrait of a haughty intellectual colossus. It covers the period when Du Bois broadened his campaign for equal rights for black Americans into an increasingly leftward quest for economic and social justice for all the nonwhite peoples of the world.
The first volume of this magisterial biography won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994; the present volume has been nominated for a National Book Award. Lewis again brings Du Bois to life with startling detail and judicious frankness. He notes, for example, how Du Bois favorably contrasted Germany's pre-World War II suppression of Jews with segregation in the U.S. Du Bois, Lewis concludes, was "an extraordinary mind of color in a racialized century," whose frustration with America's imperfect democracy led him to embrace totalitarianism as the path to global racial equality. Du Bois was dead right about what ailed the past century, but dead wrong about its cure.
--By Jack E. White