The publication date of The Souls of Black Folk is significant. First, 1903 is exactly forty years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and yet, as Du Bois puts it,
the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.
Du Bois states that for two hundred years, Black people cherished the notion of freedom from slavery. They believed that emancipation would make them fully free and equal to white people, but they experienced a "disappointment" as they realized they were not truly liberated by emancipation. Since the end of the Civil War, Black people have been terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, lynched, denied the vote legally allowed them, segregated, and treated like second-class citizens. Forty years after the end of slavery and at the dawn of new century, Du Bois believes it is time for an assessment and a reckoning of how Black people—and white people—in America are doing now.
Significantly, the book appeared only a few years after—and is a sharp rebuke to—Booker T. Washington's 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech. In this speech, Washington, the acknowledged leader of the Black community, agreed to accept second-class citizenship for Black people, such as by not pursuing voting rights, in trade for economic opportunities. Du Bois's book very forcefully pushes back against this idea, saying that internalizing inferiority will destroy the Black soul.
Du Bois seizes a moment he believes is a low point in the progress of Black freedom and equality and does his best, through his book, to turn it around.