A new book by a UB historian examines the largely unexplored ways in which utopian thought became a model for civil rights activists and laid the foundation for a worldview that informed the work of people who would later become key figures in the long movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Pauli Murray, Father Divine and Howard Thurman.
“Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement” (University of Chicago Press) by Victoria W. Wolcott, Professor of History, College of Arts and Sciences, presents what is an otherwise incomplete picture of civil rights by studying how the utopian activists, groups, and institutions of the 1930s and 1940s created a shift in the social, economic, and political fortunes of African Americans.
“There is a refreshing optimism in the American utopian tradition, which is especially appealing in our current historical moment of pessimism,” says 20th-century and African-American history expert Wolcott. “The groups I studied for this book envisioned a future different from their present in ways that helped shape society for the better.
“That kind of thinking can be generative.”
Sir Thomas More introduced the term “utopia” in his early 16th century book of the same name. Utopia translates from Greek to English as “no place”. Utopia manifests itself through the practice of the social dream. Utopianism is a constructive and progressive mindset that encourages a social imagination engaged in seeing and creating a more perfect society.
The groups in Wolcott’s book each had a nuanced vision and their own history of utopianism, but they all shared three central tenets in their united call for immediate social change: building cooperatives, interracialism, and nonviolence. radical.
“This book is the result of questions raised while researching my previous book on leisure and segregation. I kept coming across these radical pacifists living in ashrams and other types of intentional communities. I wanted to know more,” says Wolcott. “These co-ops challenged competitive capitalism and were as much about means as ends. They demanded revolutionary change in society and they lived in a way that reflected their goals.
These groups also practiced Gandhi’s form of nonviolent direct action that was very different from the passive resistance promoted by traditional peace churches like the Quakers and Mennonites, according to Wolcott.
“They’re developing the kinds of tactics that will be central to the long civil rights movement,” she says. “They are radical pacifists involved in direct action, but equally important, they have trained others in radical nonviolence.”
And third, says Wolcott, there was a radical interracialism in their activism.
“They worked to desegregate American society, which is the process of contesting and dismantling Jim Crow, but by interracialism we are talking about an established policy of equality that includes interracialism in organized labor through the Congress of Industrial Organizations; liberal interracialism, such as the YMCA movement; and utopian interracialism, or belief in race as a social construct.
It is these utopian ideas and practices, which are central to the understanding of civil rights movements, that should not be overlooked.
“Utopian ideas fell into disuse after World War II because they were associated with totalitarianism, the Cold War and the enforcement of the will of the state,” Wolcott explains. “The American utopian tradition is a way of thinking about community, cooperation, and equality – and a lot of attention is paid today to utopian ideas.
“I am glad this book comes at a time when there is interest in a broader discussion of the role of utopian societies.”