From Du Bois to Black Lives Matter

Aldon Morris

One of W.E.B. Du Bois’ most powerful ideas was also most discomforting to the establishment: A belief in rigorous scholarship that was also engaged in the project of political transformation. It’s a legacy we ought to reclaim.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by Tony Webster

At the 2015 conference of the American Sociological Association, five eminent scholars of W. E. B. Du Bois came together to discuss his works and his contributions to sociology. This essay has been adapted from the ASA panel discussion.    


Today black blood flows in streets throughout the nation. A century ago, the great sociologist and activist. W. E. B. Du Bois, witnessed white mobs murder and maim African Americans to keep them at the bottom of American society. Little did I know when I started my research over a decade ago for my just-published book on DuBois entitled The Scholar Denied that his role as scholar/activist would provide a lens for me to think and act in 2016.  But I find myself seeking counsel anew from his work.

We all know that racial violence and oppression is hardly new. And it was not new a century ago when Du Bois wrote, “We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little children.” The Black community sobs today. Racial oppression has not lifted. Black poverty still stalks the land and as Du Bois observed in 1903, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

The disproportionate rates of poverty, murder, and incarceration of people of color today demonstrate that white skin color continues to be privileged while Black lives in particular are denigrated

Over a century ago, Du Bois founded a field of sociology that demands that we hold up for examination hard truths about racism and that forces one to separate myth from reality. He uncovered the ways in which the “white” West dominated people of color globally.  His scholarship set out to prove all races were equal and that race was “socially constructed.” Through his penetrating scholarship on racial oppression, Du Bois set out to do nothing less than produce an academic and public sociology that sought to further social justice. Du Bois was one of the first scholars to examine the origins and purposes of whiteness. It was clear to him that a white identity was crafted by human beings and not by nature or happenstance. For Du Bois, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” Whiteness was created to establish racial hierarchies among peoples so that those with the designated superior skin color could exploit those deemed as having inferior pigmentation. As he observed: “I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” The disproportionate rates of poverty, murder, and incarceration of people of color today demonstrate that white skin color continues to be privileged while Black lives in particular are denigrated.

While activists have used a new social movement moniker “Black Lives Matter” to give voice to a sense that racial injustice continues to dominate the lives of people of color, I find myself wondering about what responsibilities I have as a black scholar to speak out.  It’s risky to be an activist sociologist: as often as not it derails careers, limits social networks and curtails upward mobility in the profession and in the public media.  But, again, Du Bois illuminates my own path, declaring: “I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty for Beauty to set the world right.” Like Marx, and The Berkley Journal of Sociology, Du Bois believed that scholarship had a political purpose: The point, after all, is to change the world. Through scholarship and political activism Du Bois was always a scholar/activist who performed the two roles seamlessly throughout his career. Clearly activism is no hindrance to first rank scholarship.

I have concluded that one of the primary tasks of black sociologists — actually all sociologists – is to produce pointed and critical scholarship, even when it is discomfiting to the powers-that-be. As black intellectuals we need to follow Du Bois’s lead in speaking truth to power. White sociologists should also follow Du Bois’ lead and execute research enabling them to speak racial truth to power. But, ah, white privilege is a stubborn beast, standing in the way of truths. The Scholar Denied challenges social scientists to think critically about scientific disciplines. The book raises questions whether disciplines’ theories of their origins contain myths and inaccurate accounts that exist because what is thought to be scientific knowledge is often driven by existing power relations and reigning ideologies. The Scholar Denied argues that power, money, politics and the ideology of white supremacy led to W.E.B. Du Bois being ‘written out’ of the founding of sociology and having his intellectual breakthroughs marginalized in the field well over a century. Time is long overdue for major curricula and pedagogical changes to be made in sociology. The field should include sociological works of Du Bois so that scholars can engage the social world with a critical eye and become more reflexive regarding their own biases absorbed from a world still practicing globe racism and human exploitation.

One of the primary tasks of sociology is to produce pointed and critical scholarship, even when it is discomfiting to the powers-that-be

That great Black bard, Countee Cullen, in a poetic conversation with God concedes, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Our calling is to sing sociological truths. Black scholars should heed Frederick Douglass’ insight: “He who would be free must himself strike the first blow!” As I try to show in The Scholar Denied, our work needs to be political, engaged, rigorous—Du Bois has paved the way for us in his path breaking, brilliant body of scholarship and activism. The scholarship of the oppressed, and those seeking a more just world, must be more scientific and rigorous than that of the guardian of the status quo precisely because there is so much at stake.

Aldon Morris is the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Morris is the author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Morris was a consultant for the documentary, “Eyes on the Prize.” A film, “The Scholar Affirmed,” featuring Morris’ work and life was released in 2018. In 2019, Morris was elected 112th President of The American Sociological Association. Morris received the 2020 W. E. B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award of the American Sociological Association.