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The Time is Right for a New Emancipation Proclamation

W. E. B. Du Bois—civil rights activist, scholar, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—drafted a letter in February of 1961 petitioning the newly appointed President John F. Kennedy to change the policies of state and federal governments in order to end the barriers to equality for black citizens.

Du Bois wrote: “Mr. President, the time is right for a new Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln showed the way. But the task was left unfinished. Our democracy must embrace all or it will embrace none.”

The petition is among the massive scholarly works of Du Bois at University of Massachusetts Amherst and is also available to read online. Earlier this year it was on display at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, only a few miles away from the homestead where Du Bois spent the first several years of his life.

Today, Du Bois’ words ring as true as when he first penned them. Leah Penniman and Ed Whitfield are doing work that builds on the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois—his commitment to black economic development, cooperative structures, and fair access to land.

“Our food system needs a redesign if it’s to feed us without perpetuating racism and oppression,” says Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, in her 2017 YES! Magazine article. “After decades of discrimination by the federal government, Black farmers have lost almost all of our land. Reparations for past harm are the first step to justice.” She states, “Ultimately, we are working toward food sovereignty, where all people exercise the right to control our own food systems—including in cities.”

Penniman closes her e-mails with the Malcolm X quote, “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

“Once, the earth belonged to us all, but it is now ‘owned’ by a few who exploit its resources and determine the conditions for its use,” says Ed Whitfield, co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC), in a 2015 article. “They own the community’s wealth that was generated by the labor of us all. That is the system that we live under.”

Whitfield states, “As long as oppressive systems and concentrated power exist, we will always have to do some Resistance and Advocacy work, but we need to remember that the goal is for us to organize ourselves to be the power within our own lives and communities. We must create the world we want to live in by doing for ourselves.”

On Saturday, October 27th, Leah Penniman and Ed Whitfield will deliver the 38th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois. The event is hosted by the Schumacher Center in partnership with Multicultural BRIDGE and will take place at Saint James Place at 352 Main Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.

We hope to see you there. Tickets are available for purchase here.