Source, Story: History
: Teaching U.S. History in the Archives

Defending Peace: W.EB. Du Bois in the McCarthy Era

CCC Camp

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an activist, scholar, and international spokesman for peace and the rights of oppressed people. At the height of the McCarthy Era, Du Bois and four associates were indicted by the Department of Justice. They were charged with failing to register their organization, the Peace Information Center (PIC) with the federal government. PIC was run by a small group of activists who demanded American nuclear disarmament and promoted peace. If convicted, Du Bois and others faced up to five years in prison, and a $10,000 fine.

Du Bois and his supporters responded to the indictment quickly. They formed the National Committee to Defend Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Associates. The committee publicized, in their view, the unfair persecution of a prominent black intellectual, and raised funds to cover legal fees. Although the charges against Du Bois were eventually dismissed, the finding aid [link] to the Du Bois papers notes, “the attack by an arm of his own government was a bitter experience.”

This selection of documents from the Du Bois papers includes excerpts from Du Bois' FBI files as well as letters, advertisements, and editorials from the National Committee. The FBI documents make it clear that he was being investigated well before PIC was formed. They show that Du Bois' indictment was largely the result of the anti-Communist hysteria, and not his failure to register the PIC.

The charges against Du Bois and other members of the PIC were eventually dismissed, but, as the finding aid [link] to the Du Bois papers notes, “the attack by an arm of his own government was a bitter experience.”

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Lesson plan (pdf)

National Committee to Defend Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Associates

These documents illustrate not only the kind of rhetoric that Du Bois' defenders to make his case, but also some of the tools for grassroots organizing available to activists in the early 1950s.

In August 1951, the Committee distributed blank post cards addressed to President Truman. The cards recommended that the government drop its indictment of Du Bois. 1951 Aug. digital object
A portion of the Committee's activities were devoted to fund raising to pay for legal fees before, during, and after the trial of Du Bois and his associates. 1951 Apr. 18-Nov. 28 digital object
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Du Bois and his new wife Shirley Graham traveled extensively to raise funds and rally support for Du Bois' case. These reports from July and September suggest their reception across the country was mixed. 1951 July 5-Sept. digital object
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In contrast to Du Bois' narrative report, minutes from a May 1951 Committee meeting are strikingly upbeat. 1951 May digital object
The Committee reproduced and distributed an August 1951 article from The Louisville Defender. The article outlined the charges against Du Bois and his standing as a prominent black intellectual. 1951 Aug. digital object
An advertisement soliciting funds and support appeared in The Pittsburgh Courier in August 1951. The ad suggests the government will convict Du Bois so that he will die in jail. 1951 Aug. digital object
Another ad draws together the case against the Peace Information Center with fears about the war in Korea. digital object

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The University of Massachusetts Amherst requested Du Bois' FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act.

This eye-witness account provides a detailed summary of a luncheon in Los Angles in 1951. Du Bois and Graham both spoke at the gathering. 1951 July 23 digital object
This October 1950 letter is addressed to J. Edgar Hoover. It suggests the degree to which everyday people were committed to routing out “subversive” elements in American society at the height of the McCarthy Era. 1950 Oct. digital object
This December 1950 report detailed an investigation of Du Bois, as well as a long list of newspaper citations that refer to Du Bois. Note particularly page 7, which details the “Communist front organizations” to which Du Bois belonged. 1950 Dec. digital object
This November 1942 report is based largely on interviews with FBI informants and passages from Du Bois' book From Dusk to Dawn. 1942 Nov. digital object