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William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois wrote "Litany of Atlanta" in response to the 1906 race riots that swept through Atlanta and represents one of the most heart-felt manifestations of his transition from social scientist to social activist. An educated historian and sociologist, Du Bois was growing exhausted from the evident lack of social progress being made across the American South in the wake of Reconstruction. The cumulative effect of continued lynchings and forced, institutionalized segregation with all the inherent indignities that involved motivated his transformation. As he would later write in "Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept":
"Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort I was doing."
Litany of Atlanta is, consequently, not a scientific exploration of racism; it is an impassioned plea for a “Silent God” to hear the prayers of black people:
“Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are
Made a mockery in Thy sanctuary. With uplifted hands we
Front Thy heaven, O God, crying:
We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!
. . .
Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and
dumb to our dumb suffering. Surely Thou art not
white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing?
Ah! Christ of all the Pitties!
The theme of Du Bois’ poem is the hopelessness blacks felt regarding white racism and white repression and a system of justice that ignored their plight, and the anguish this deeply religious community felt over their suffering at the hands of others. The tone is, understandably, angry and bitter. The decades after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – and Du Bois was born only three years after the war’s end – had witnessed continued oppression, enforced by white governments across the South, including the State of Georgia, where he was now based. He saw for himself the indignities and the brutality to which blacks were routinely subjected, and he’d had enough.
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