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A drawing by Donna Drew depicting the Mason Library in Great Barrington with a proposed statue of W.E.B. Du Bois on its lawn.

Veterans protest statue to memorialize ‘communist’ W.E.B. Du Bois

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By Friday, Jun 15, 2018 News 39

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.

Great Barrington Libraries trustees Hilda Banks Shapiro, Patrick Hollenbeck and Kathleen Plungis listen to those opposed to the proposed statue of W.E.B. Du Bois on the grounds of the Mason Library. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.'”

Egremont resident Charles Fynn, right, who grew up in Housatonic, served 20 years as a naval commander. To his right is Great Barrington Libraries trustee Kathleen Plungis. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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 Plungis, right, gave a impassioned plea to the trustees of the Great Barrington libraries not to go through with the idea of a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois on the front lawn of the Mason Library. To his right is Great Barrington Libraries trustee Kathleen Plungis. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.”

Justin Jackson, a assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, provided historical context about W.E.B. Du Bois. To his right are Great Barrington Libraries trustees Patrick Hollenbeck and Kathleen Plungis. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who have proposed a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois be placed prominently in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Du Bois was born. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.”


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39 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Mark Silver says:

    1. Veterans, although many, even most, may be patriotic, don’t own patriotism. Loving one’s country can just as honorably be expressed by urging (challenging) it NOT to build up nuclear arsenals, as Du Bois did.

    2. Being a member of the Communist Party USA isn’t, and never was, illegal. Ideology isn’t illegal in this country, no matter how repugnant. Its members were persecuted by powerful, unpatriotic Americans like Joseph McCarthy who didn’t respect the constitution. That was illegal.

    3. Calling veterans or Republicans who don’t want this statue racist is very unfair, when they are being very specific that it is Du Bois party affiliation they object to. To that end:

    Mr. Moro, all veterans who were at the library meeting, and all Republicans for whom Mr. Moro speaks as chair of their committee, here is your chance to go on record calling out President Trump, a white man, for praising a communist, totalitarian, mass murdering war criminal as he did last week. Here is your chance to say that that one act by a white man, repeated many times and to many audiences, means there should NEVER be a statue of Mr. Trump in this country, and that you are embarrrassed that he speaks for our country.

    Waiting.

    1. David says:

      Absolutely spot-on, sir!

    2. Sharon K says:

      Hear! Hear! Truth!

    3. Lois Reynolds says:

      thankyou for speaking up so eloquently and completely………I wish I could as well……wonderful and true…

    4. Carl Stewart says:

      Mark—

      Several good…and important points. In addition, most of the currently living vets were not fighting Communists. If they fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, they were fighting the oil wars of the neocons.

      1. Charles Flynn says:

        Carl, Your ignorance of reality and how you dishonor these young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan never ceases to amaze me.

  2. Leonard Quart says:

    A complex issue, but whatever late in life wrongheaded political commitments Du Bois made, they don’t erase his contributions as an intellectual and activist. And, of course the point about Trump’s unnecessary rhetorical obeisance to a dictator and murderer is on target.

  3. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    WEB duBois was a strong and intelligent man. His writings are noteworthy and should be encouraged in all our schools. He failed at the end of his life. He thought the US had failed him. It isn’t that he became a communist, anyone can do that in a democracy – that is another discussion. The point often pushed aside, swept under the rug or fudged in the telling is that WEB duBois renounced his US citizenship. 90 years old, of adled mind, whatever you want to call it, he gave up on this country. I think his work was important. Many great men start complex things that can take centuries to come to fruition, but his last action, if I might say, was giving this country the bird. So if you are putting up statues, let’s contextualize it with a plaque saying, “WEB DUBOIS, a child of Great Barrington, spoke of great dreams, but renounced his citizenship at the end of his life because he no longer believed in the promise and challenge of our democracy.”

    1. Mark Silver says:

      “Renounced his citizenship” sounds very different if you know:
      1 he suffered discrimination his whole life in America (to this present day)
      2 he was blacklisted and unable to work in America
      3 while working in Ghana, where he could find work, America refused to renew his passport.

  4. John says:

    Here is a guy that did some very good things for America, and also did some very bad things for America.
    A statue would be a nice addition, on the Du Bois property.

  5. Claudia d'Alessandro says:

    History, history, history. Most who criticize understand neither the historical significance of DuBois’ timeline, nor the events that shaped his life. Many confuse communism and socialism. And the subtle (or not so subtle) bigotry that is running rampant in our culture finds voice here, as well. That our sitting Republican president has openly praised a communist dictator (Kim Jong Un) wishing that Americans would ‘sit up and pay attention’ when he spoke as they do for Kim (who can put up to three generations of a family in jail or to death for criticizing his regime) is ample evidence that we live in strange times, indeed. Honoring a native son, however, whose lifetime of struggle involved the search for peace and justice seems not such a difficult reach. Kudos to Mark Silver, also, for hitting a nail squarely!

  6. Sandra Rickards says:

    The “Backers” of this project…To place such a statue on public property, are in my opinion like to many individuals bent on Tearing Away at The Bed-Rock of what represents “The Home Town” Pride, Patriotism, Love for Our Country ” Despite the disagreements of certain issues.. Home Town, Home Grown People….People of Moral Stands, Our Veterans…Active or Not, who would lay their lives down for Their Beloved Country to this Day. It is These People that are being Under-Minded by a select few ;…Over Educated, Self Serving Individuals who think “Their Word is LAW” ; and the Thought that, They can Thumb Their Noses to the Actual Truth of Who, and What Du Bois stood for, makes me So Ill. People from all walks of ” All Walks of Life” go through terrible strife & shame. However, it is few that turn their backs on their country, only to covet & praise The Horrible Tactics of Known Killers & And Haters of Our Country. Our Veterans & Their Families, Active or Not…..and Citizens who do not want That Statue on Public Property should be honored. Put The Du Bois Statue on Du Bois Property….And be Done with The Dang Thing. Let the people that hold him in High Esteem make the trek to view him. Problem Solved

    1. Helen says:

      Is there such a thing as over educated? I’ve never heard anyone make that claim before. That’s an interesting ad hominem attack, to call someone better educated than you.

      If you disagree with something someone here said, say why. Don’t attack the “backers of this project” as if they are one group, all the same, or as if who they are has anything to do with the argument you want to make about why there shouldn’t be this statue on public land.

      And if you do want to attack the people rather than the position, which isn’t nice or productive, for goodness sake, don’t accuse them of being better educated than you.

      1. Sandra Rickards says:

        Hello Mr. Shawn & Ms. Helen….I figured I would be evaluated for something. That’s fine with me. I watched the video of the meeting. I heard what the Veterans had to say. I saw envelopes being handed to the panel containing literature backing their claims. I did my own research. I may not be the “Sharpest Knife in the Drawer”….But I do know those Veterans are upset for a Very Good Reason. So critique my sentence structure & call me uneducated…In so many words…I don’t care.

      2. Helen says:

        I didn’t call you uneducated. You called people you disagreed with “over educated.” I took issue with the fact that you are name calling and not making points. Still.

        You have now made the point that the men who spoke at the meeting were upset about the statue. The fact that they are veterans makes them honorable for their willingness to serve, it does not make them right about Du Bois. They may be right, but the fact that they are veterans doesn’t prove that. They are certainly entitled to respect, which they received at the meeting.

        I am not attacking you. I am asking that if you have an argument to make, that you make it. So far you have insulted the people you disagree with and praised the people you agree with, without making any argument as to why there should or should not be a statue on public land.

    2. Shawn says:

      grammar/punctuation: F

  7. bob gray says:

    i know some veterans who support donald trump who has lionized kim jong un, not stalin yet, but a murderous dictator in his own right. how do you reconcile this?

    1. Charles Flynn says:

      Bob, your should know better. Donald Trump is using good negotiation tactics to negotiate with Kim Jong Un. Appeal to his ego and cause him to remain at the table until he has given to us what we want. Let’s get away from this liberal hatred of our own President and let him do his job. After all, you did that with Obama and he made a major mess of things. Consider reading Sun Tzu, you may find him enlightening.

      1. bob gray says:

        charlie…i don’t hate anyone…ego? kim has no monopoly in that regard…tired of lies…check the tapes…why screw around with kim at all…do you really think he’s a threat? he’s a madman but not crazy enough to attack us…let’s deal with the real threat to our way of life…putin, russia, and the unchallenged efforts to destabilize and delegitimize our democracy…let’s stop pandering to our enemies and alienating our allies…i know sun tzu…how many people in the current administration do?

  8. Gene says:

    Could we please leave Trump out of this discussion? Thank you.

    1. bob gray says:

      you’re right…i wish i could wipe my slate here clean…do you know how i can do that?

  9. Jerry says:

    The simple solution here is to only allow statues of notable historical figures born in the area who never had a thought or took an action that a single person in the area could possibly disagree with.

    And of all places, the library lawn. An institution that freely shares knowledge equally among all citizens is no place to honor a man who didn’t wholeheartedly and unconditiany reject the concept of communism in support of a political and economic system that he considered responsible for the oppression of black people. Where would he ever get an idea like that?

    Also, as far as I am aware he never thanked Joseph McCarthy and the FBI for doing everything in their power to obstruct his misguided efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Imagine if he had succeeded in that anti-American mission. And was he grateful? No! Like a big baby he had to protest and join the communists and crank out absolutely obnoxious quotes like this one, which no one should ever relate to if they love America:

    “I believe in communism. I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.”

    Surely there’s a white person who never ruffled any feathers we could put on the lawn there. Come on!

  10. Ken Werner says:

    I respectfully request that anyone in favor of the statue of Mr. Du Bois read the following: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/biographies/1953/03/16.htm
    If after reading it, you still think the writer should be honored, at least you may see why some would oppose it. To be clear, I understand that Mr. Du Bois did many great things, and that he suffered much persecution. I don’t think the fact that he became a communist or renounced his citizenship towards the end of his life are enough to outweigh that. However, I don’t think that anyone that could heap such praise on one of the greatest mass murderers in history should be honored as proposed. This was not written in the 1930’s, “when Stalin’s crimes were not so well known.” This was written in 1953. There is no excuse. For the record, I also don’t think there’s any excuse for President Trump or his supporters (although he has a long way to go to equal the crimes of Stalin).

  11. Charles Flynn says:

    If you really want to place a statue on the front lawn of the library consider a mother and father reading to their child. Apolitical and quite moving.

    1. Jerry says:

      Couldn’t disagree more. Absolutely political. Why not 2 fathers?

    2. Lois Reynolds says:

      I do like that idea……might just be a peacemaker for all……who could object to that idea? I love it…..alot!!!

  12. Lois Reynolds says:

    omg….well, lets just have a CHILD reading a book on the bench……I can’t think of anyone who would object to that…..I hope…..

    1. Jerry says:

      Couldn’t disagree more. A child reading alone on a bench communicates lonliness and neglect. NOT qualities that represent the great parents of Great Barrington.

    2. DB says:

      Ok. How about Mr and Mrs Du Bois reading to their child? Would that be ok? Or does it have to be white folk to be ok?

      1. Jerry says:

        Well, which wife? Also, what are they reading? Hopefully not the Communist Manifesto.

  13. QR says:

    All people of ideas were right about some things and wrong about others. We judge them on the balance of their vision, not its exceptions, unless they rise to the level of something like committed Nazism. Speaking of which, you may recall that Gandhi believed so powerfully in non-violence that he made it known the Jews could have escaped persecution in Nazi German if only they had loved the Nazis more deeply. Many statues of him already exist for people who want to be extremely puritan about their history to find and protest.

    Stalin is not Hitler. One brief periodical piece in his defense, if you’re a thinker of Dubois’ stature, doesn’t alter your legacy or exclude you from being well-remembered.

    It does, however, make you the potential subject of controversy-seeking behavior by individuals who feel simultaneously threatened by the shifting notion of racism in contemporary culture, and empowered by the political response they perceive in the most recent presidential election.

    There’s really nothing to see here, and too much attention has already been paid to this ‘exchange of ideas’. While I’m sure there are plenty of veterans deserving of markers, DuBois’ accomplishments are rarer than most, regardless of whether you think they are more worthy, and the library is an appropriate place to erect a statue in memory of one of the handful of Great Barrington’s greatest native thinkers, a group to which DuBois unquestionably belongs.

  14. QR says:

    All people of ideas were right about some things and wrong about others. We judge them on the balance of their vision, not its exceptions, unless they rise to the level of something like committed Nazism. Speaking of which, you may recall that Gandhi believed so powerfully in non-violence that he made it known the Jews could have escaped persecution in Nazi German if only they had loved the Nazis more deeply. Many statues of him already exist for people who want to be extremely puritan about their history to find and protest.

    Stalin is not Hitler. One brief periodical piece in his defense, if you’re a thinker of Dubois’ stature, doesn’t alter your legacy or exclude you from being well-remembered.

    It does, however, make you the potential subject of controversy-seeking behavior by individuals who feel simultaneously threatened by the shifting notion of racism in contemporary culture, and empowered by the political response they perceive in the most recent presidential election.

    There’s nothing to see here, and too much attention has already been paid to this ‘exchange of ideas’. While I’m sure there are plenty of veterans deserving of markers, DuBois’ accomplishments are rarer than most, regardless of whether you think they are more worthy, and the library is an appropriate place to erect a statue in memory of one of the handful of Great Barrington’s greatest native thinkers, a group to which DuBois unquestionably belongs.

    1. Jerry says:

      As much as I usually disagree with Quentin Richardson, this time I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully this outstanding comment will generate agreement and put an end to this discussion.

  15. Tom Norton says:

    Two thoughts coming out of all this angst by veterans. Would any one of you trade places with a black person being brought up in America, who I’m like your forefathers who immigrated here by choice. We’re dragged here in shackled? Can you not have some compassion for the oppressed? That our native son accomplished so much for human rights, that all of you veterans, served so valiantly to protect, should not that struggle be recognized , acknowledged, and respevted ad well?
    To suggest that the statue should be put off to the homrsitet on the outskirts of town is likened to keeping them on the other side of the tracks
    I suggest that your angst is rooted in denial.

    1. Tom Norton says:

      Please forgive the typo’s. Should be ,who unlike your forefathers who cam here by choice, were dragged here in shackles.

  16. Charles Flynn says:

    This entire conversation has been degraded to the point where it is no longer productive or beneficial to the community. Very sad as there were some good suggestions. Lois Reynolds, a child reading a book on a bench. This issue was never about trump, it is not about race it is about a statue in front of the Mason Library that may be paid for with taxpayer dollars. Consequently the people have a right to have a say. The original proposal was to erect a statue honoring WEB DuBois, a scholar born in Great Barrington. The request has merit. However his politics and many of his writings are cause for concern among some veterans and non veteran residents of the town and surrounding communities. I applaud the trustees of the Library for opening their meeting to this discussion. I further understand this is a process that has only started. Let’s allow this process to continue, let’s continue to discuss. However, lets be civil, respectful, and allow ideas to be exchanged. Ultimately there could be increased understanding and knowledge exchanged that benefits all and ultimately leads to a solution. Concerns have been raised, let’s address them and do so respectfully.

    1. Dana says:

      Charles, I agree with you’re sentiment. We can all learn from each other as long as the tone/intent is civil and respectful. Tax payer money would not be used to fund the statue. The proposal was to be paid for through fundraising.

      1. Dana says:

        And I meant your, not you’re. Yikes!

  17. Michelle Loubert says:

    Hello, everyone: I attended the June 14 Library Trustees’ meeting at which the Dubois statue was discussed. Prior to this meeting, I held my breath wondering what would occur at this meeting. I was pleasantly surprised. Attendees were respectful and cordial to each other. The chair, Patrick Hollenbeck, strongly encouraged public participation, allowing each speaker ample time to present his/her viewpoint. Most in the audience learned a great deal by listening to both sides–those in support of a statue on public property and those not in favor of the statue on public property. If nothing else, attendees were given enough information to formulate their own opinions of this matter.
    I’m assuming that being in a room, face to face, provided an environment for respectful dialogue. This is what I experienced at Thursday’s meeting. Maybe many who have commented here will consider attending the next public meeting (I assume there will be one) regarding the proposed Dubois statue. Thank you.

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