Learning from our past

David Levering Lewis (PhD 1962) is an American historian and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

There are striking similarities between the US now and Germany in the early 30s, we’ve been here before and there are lessons to be learned from the past.
david lewis
David Levering Lewis

David Levering Lewis (PhD 1962) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas to an African American family. He is an American historian, The Julius Silver University Professor and a professor of history, emeritus, New York University. He is the first author to win Pulitzer Prizes for biography for two successive volumes on the same subject – the life of W.E.B Du Bois.

“My parents were academics and I grew up with a book-lined library, so I think history was in the family genes. I initially thought about becoming a lawyer but after one semester I realised that it wasn’t for me so went to Columbia University to study history.  

I took an accelerated course and, after graduating with a master’s degree, I decided to do a PhD. I was interested in European history and LSE stood out for its reputation. I was drawn to LSE’s excellent faculty, particularly Karl Popper and RH Tawney – although he had already retired by that time. Another good reason that led me to LSE was the cost of postgraduate courses in those days. I thought it would be a really high-quality and affordable experience, and it was.”

Writing about African American history

“In London, I became friends with a member of the Penguin Publishing house. He later came to visit the US and proposed that I write a small profile of Martin Luther King Jr. I thought it quite an ambitious proposition because my background was in French history and because I had been out of the country for a while. I also thought that Dr King would be around for many years, so whatever I would have to say about him would be superannuated shortly by everything he set out to do. I was thinking about declining the offer when he was assassinated. 

The profile I wrote of Dr King gave me some notoriety and motivated me to pursue a career in African American history.  I became interested in W.E.B Du Bois, an African American civil rights activist from the early 20th century, but his voluminous papers were embargoed at the time.

du bois
Civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (circa 1907)

I wrote several books in the following years, but the figure of W.E.B Du Bois stayed in the back of my mind. Finally, I wrote a petition to access his splendid archives, housed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and was lucky enough to be granted permission. It was a long and arduous research process – it took me 15 years to complete both books – and I also had to seek financial support and a publishing house interested in the project.

It was initially meant to be only one volume, but I felt that his long, illustrious life could not be contained in one book, so I persuaded the editor to publish it in two parts. I was honoured to win a Pulitzer Prize for volume one of my W.E.B Du Bois biography and when I finished the second volume, I could not imagine that it would be eligible for a second Pulitzer Prize.”

Forging a path for racial justice

“Historical narratives are becoming more inclusive and representative of our diversity, and there are many powerful voices that must be heard. Women's studies are now one of the more fertile fields of inspiration and African American history has a new zest for life because of what is happening in the streets. 

My own country is rather amnestic, it doesn’t think that history is important. But it is particularly pertinent and urgent at this point in time. We’ve seen some positive cosmetic gestures that are encouraging in terms of inclusion and openness. The removal of confederate statues and flags for example, or the renaming of university colleges named after secessionists. The problem lies in the difficulty of institutionalising the great energies emanating from the protests.

Our police forces are deeply embedded in slavery experiences and traditions, yet there is great resistance to reform them. The mantra “defund the police” is problematic for the middle American, it just makes no sense to them. It needs to be articulated differently, filled with meaning, so people can understand what it really stands for. Then, institutional reform would become much more credible as a possibility.

There are striking similarities between the US now and Germany in the early 30s, we’ve been here before and there are lessons to be learned from the past.  We’re at an inflexion point in the US – what happens very shortly will determine the history of our country and have a ripple effect across the world. With only a few days remaining until election day, we can imagine better and brighter days to come."

My LSE memories

LSE 1960
LSE in 1960

“There are many memories that are precious to me. I took a French history degree at LSE and had the wonderful advantage of doing legitimate research in Paris. It was a very enriching opportunity, which allowed me to write in a more biographical way from lived experiences.

I made very dear friends during my student days, including lecturer and writer Maurice Keens-Soper, who was my flatmate and sadly passed away last year, and the African American civil rights activist and academic Preston King, who preceded me at the School.

I also have very fond memories of Anne Bohm, the person who really ran LSE at the time – she was the engine of the School as far as we were concerned. If you had any problem, whether personal or academic, you would go to her and she would always find a solution for you.”

October 2020

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