Great Barrington — In some ways, the ongoing dispute about whether to honor W.E.B. Du Bois with a statue on town property is a microcosm of another cultural struggle within the United States.
With the exception of North Korea, hardline authoritarian communism has largely disappeared from the planet but, every now and then, the subject rears its ugly head, as when President Trump met recently with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and later lavished praise upon the mass killer who heads one of the most repressive regimes in human history.
That move brought condemnation from anti-Communists across the globe, though criticism from conservatives in the U.S. was surprisingly muted. But the movement to erect a life-sized statue of Great Barrington-born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who joined the Communist Party as a 90-year-old man about to move to Africa after years of persecution as an outspoken, well-educated African-American, has sparked indignation from many in town, especially veterans who spent their careers fighting communism on the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam.
Last month, the board of trustees of the town’s libraries endorsed the idea of putting a statue of the scholar, civil rights leader and Great Barrington native in front of the Mason Library on Main Street in the center of town. The project, which would honor the town’s most famous native son, can only move forward if sufficient funds are raised and the Historic District Commission and the selectboard approve.
Marine Corps veteran Andy Moro, who also chairs the Republican Town Committee, had told The Edge the statue, as proposed on town property, was an insult to veterans and, in a letter to the editor of The Edge, complained of a lack of “outreach to veteran organizations in town.” Moro’s letter elicited sharp criticism, especially on Facebook, where some commenters accused him of racism and bigotry.
Patrick Hollenbeck, who chairs the library board of trustees, responded by inviting Moro and other veterans to attend Thursday’s meeting of the trustees to voice their concerns.
See video below of the discussion of the proposed Du Bois statue at the Mason Library:
Hollenbeck was inclusive in his tone and used a light touch, urging the 25 or so people in the library’s downstairs meeting room to be kind and respectful of each other.
“If that doesn’t work, we have the third option: Be diplomatic,” Hollenbeck said. “We’ll rely on Winston Churchill’s definition: ‘Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a manner that they ask for directions.'”
Moro reiterated several concerns that he had expressed in his letter to The Edge. He also cited research indicating that not only had Du Bois joined the American Communist Party, but that he had praised Soviet leader and mass killer Joseph Stalin as a “great man.”
Moro also suggested instead that the statue be placed at birthplace of Du Bois, known as the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, on Route 23 on the way to Egremont. Another member of the RTC, Barbara Syer, suggested siting the statue in the Du Bois River Park on the Housatonic River Walk.
Housatonic native and current Egremont resident Charlie Flynn is a retired Navy commander who spent 20 years in the military. He has two sons who served in the military and were on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flynn noted that Great Barrington has a history of patriotism and that a stone marker in front of town hall commemorates the first open resistance to British rule in 1774.
“I’m not sure Du Bois is the person we are looking for,” Flynn said.
Hollenbeck asked Flynn whom he would recommend instead. Flynn mentioned the name of Great Barrington resident Paul Kryznoweck, an Air Force pilot who flew C-130 transport planes and was killed in action in Vietnam.
Charles F. Plungis Jr. gave an impassioned speech against a Du Bois statue on town land. Plungis, who is married to library trustees secretary Kathleen Plungis, is of Lithuanian heritage. His great-grandfather came from a village in Lithuania, a nation that was invaded by Russian Communists during World War I, he said.
“[Du Bois] defended and praised him,” Plungis said, pounding his fist on the lectern and referring to Stalin. “This a man we want to put a statue of on town property in Great Barrington? That is completely wrong. Shame on you for doing that.”
Furthermore, Plungis said of Stalin, “He once said a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. He was very great at statistics.”
Randy Weinstein, who founded the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, was present but did not speak. Sitting near Weinstein was Justin Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock whose specialties include U.S. history and military history. Jackson has also lectured on Du Bois.
See video below of Justin Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, lecturing on W.E.B. Du Bois as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College lecture series and the 150th birthday celebration of Du Bois:
Jackson attempted to put Du Bois’ actions and writings into some perspective. He noted that Du Bois had a lifelong interest in socialism and, later, Marxism (he also added that socialism, Marxism and communism should not be confused).
During the 1930s when Stalin’s crimes were not so well known, Jackson observed, many people became curious about communism –especially during a period of worldwide economic distress. At that time the unemployment rate in the USSR was close to zero while the U.S., in the throes of the great depression, suffered with rates as high as 25 to 30 percent.
“It is important to note that, even though he was a socialist, he broke from it in 1912,” Jackson said. “In the 1930s he criticized the Communist Party. He had many opportunities to join the Communist Party throughout his life, even in the 1940s and 50s, and he refused to do so even when 200,000 Americans were members.”
Jackson explained that Du Bois had his passport taken from him as a result of persecution for his involvement in the “world peace movement that fought the scourge of nuclear weapons.” Du Bois finally joined the Communist Party a few days after the U.S. Supreme Court initially upheld the McCarran Act, which required Communist Party members to register with the federal government.
“So he only joined it at the precise moment when he felt like … it was necessary to take a stand on his civil liberties and then leave the country,” Jackson explained, adding that Du Bois was not a communist agent. “He didn’t stay in the U.S. He joined and then left [for Ghana].” Of course, by 1961, when Du Bois became a Communist, Nikita Khrushchev was the Soviet leader and had rejected Stalin’s crimes, Jackson said.
Jackson thanked the veterans in the room for their service and added that he himself comes from a military family, with three uncles who served in Vietnam, and a father and brother who served in the Air Force. But he said he felt compelled to share his knowledge with those in the room.
“I’m thankful for the service of the veterans and their patriotism, which I share,” Jackson said. “But I think the facts are important … John Adams said facts are stubborn things.”
Great Barrington resident Freke Vuijst, a journalist and filmmaker from the Netherlands, originally proposed the idea, along with her husband Danny Klein, of a statue honoring Du Bois. She enlisted the help of artist Donna Drew, who came up with a design.
Vuijst noted that 10 years before he joined the Communist Party, Du Bois was indicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The act has been in the news over the last several months because both former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security advisor Michael Flynn have been accused of violating FARA regulations.
“It’s been on the books since the 1930s,” Vuijst explained. “It was a way the government felt they could deal better with Nazi propaganda.”
“Du Bois and three co-workers were indicted and prosecuted under this statute,” Vuijst continued. “They were said to be agents for the Soviet Union because they ran a peace information center which was disseminating all over America a petition for world peace. About 2.5 million Americans ended up signing it. This prosecution affected Du Bois tremendously. He had to raise money for his defense. The judge threw the case out of court. It would have been a five-year prison sentence.”
Playwright Emily DeVoti, who grew up in Sheffield, had never heard of Du Bois until she arrived at Princeton University as a freshman in an American studies class and saw his name on the syllabus. She felt exhilarated.
“To me it’s a question of: Du Bois wasn’t Stalin,” said DeVoti, who lives with her family in Great Barrington. “As a resident, I was thrilled to hear there might be a statue of him on town property.”
Moro thanked Hollenbeck for allowing the veterans to have their voices heard on the subject. But Hollenbeck said this is just the beginning of the process.
“There is no money for the statue yet and there is no statue,” Hollenbeck said. “There’re other boards that have to look at things. This is the first inning and this is a great start that everybody can exchange ideas. We don’t all agree on everything but I think it’s a great start.”