This week in history: W.E.B. Du Bois debates a racist

In March 1929, a debate brought Black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois and eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard to Chicago to argue for and against Black civil rights. Here’s how it went down.

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Profile Of W. E. B. Du Bois

Profile portrait of American-born author, educator, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 - 1963), 1910s. His signature can be see in the lower left.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On March 14, 1929, Chicagoans opened their papers to read an announcement about an upcoming debate to be held at the Coliseum.

“‘Shall the Negro be Encouraged to Seek Cultural Equality’ will be the subject of debate between W.E. Burnhardt [sic] DuBois, one of the leading colored workers in the country, and Lothrop Stoddard, Ph. D., lecturer and author on race problems, to be held Sunday afternoon, in the north hall of the Coliseum, it is announced by Fred A. Moore, executive director of the Chicago Forum council, under whose auspices the debate is to be held,” the Chicago Daily News said that day.

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The news would have been striking to readers. The first Black Harvard Ph. D. graduate and author of the acclaimed book “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, who was born this week on Feb. 23, co-founded the NAACP and served as the editor of its influential magazine, “The Crisis.” Under his guidance, the magazine published articles covering the ongoing fight against lynchings, Jim Crow laws, labor issues and Pan-African issues. Readership reached 100,000 people by 1920, according to the NAACP.

On the other side, Stoddard made a name for himself as a white supremacist, eugenics scientist and Ku Klux Klan sympathizer. Also a Harvard graduate and a close friend of eugenicist Madison Grant, Stoddard promoted birth control as a way to force populations of any non-white group to decline. His 1920 book, “The Rising Tide of Color,” argued that European whites (with Nordic people being the dominant race) put aside their regional differences and stop non-white groups, especially people from Asian countries, from extending their influence.

The event, scheduled for March 17, drew a massive crowd — but not a Daily News reporter. Though both men had influential platforms, the paper did not cover the debate. The Chicago Defender did, however.

Under a headline that read “Thousands jam hall to hear Du Bois debate/Cheered as he proves race equality,” the Defender recapped the debate that drew a “very appreciative mixed audience” of over 5,000 people to the Coliseum, plus hundreds more standing outside. Du Bois and Stoddard each spoke for 30 minutes to explain their positions, then the two debated.

Du Bois spoke first, defining cultural equality and asking the audience, “What could you conceive as better than a world in which all of the citizens of that world were not only encouraged to cultural equality, but accomplished it? Wouldn’t it be the best conceivable sort of a world?”

He argued that the strides the Black community made since Emancipation proved it was just as smart, accomplished and cultural as any other group, but if asked, white people “would say the coming forward of these people does not prove they can make it as great a gift to culture as the white people have made, but, whether they can or not, they must not be allowed to come forward because it threatens civilization,” the Defender recorded.

The white community’s fear, the scholar explained, could partially be explained by quantitative theory: If Black men and women had more, he said, then there would be less for white people. “But the whole analogy falls down,” he argued, “because after all it is not the things which people have that makes the most part of the real civilization, and so back of that we go with the argument, and we say, it is not perhaps a matter of distribution, it is a matter of domination.”

Stoddard began his statements by asserting that “the Negro had been the victim of delusion ever since the Civil War, and nothing is more unfortunate than delusion,” the Defender said. Since segregation was nearly as old as the American colonies themselves, it therefore had been “thoroughly worked out,” he added, and that the Black community “has adjusted itself.”

The eugenicist blamed educated Black men and women living in the North after the Great Migration for raising “fresh hopes and corresponding unrest” among Black people still in the South, which he believed would lead to further “increased disillusionment, bitterness and unhappiness.”

The two men then responded to each other in 10-minute speeches, but the Defender did not include much of their responses. They also did not name a winner, although other publications declared Du Bois the victor.

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