Published May 3, 2022
A new book by a UB historian examines the largely unexplored ways in which utopian thinking became a model for civil rights activists and provided the foundation for a worldview that informed the work of people who would later emerge as 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, frames what is an otherwise incomplete picture of civil rights by investigating how the utopian activists, groups and institutions of the 1930s and 1940s created change in the social, economic and political fortunes of African Americans.
“There is a refreshing optimism to the American utopian tradition, which is particularly appealing in our current historical moment of pessimism,” says Wolcott, an expert in 20th-century and African American history. “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 into English as “no place.” Utopia manifests itself through the practice of social dreaming. Utopianism is a constructive, progressive mindset that encourages a social imagination committed to seeing and creating a more perfect society.
The groups in Wolcott’s book each had a nuanced view and their own history of utopianism, yet they all shared three central tenets in their united call for immediate social change: building cooperatives, interracialism and radical nonviolence.
“This book is the result of questions raised while researching my previous book on recreation and segregation. I kept encountering these radical pacifists living in ashrams and other types of intentional communities. I wanted to learn more,” says Wolcott. “These cooperatives challenged competitive capitalism and were as equally focused on the means as the ends. They demanded revolutionary change in society and they lived in ways that reflected their goals.”
These groups also practiced a form of Gandhian nonviolent direct action that was much different from the passive resistance promoted by traditional peace churches like the Quakers and Mennonites, according to Wolcott.
“They are developing the kinds of tactics that will be central to the long civil rights movement,” she says. “These are radical pacifists involved in direct action, but just as importantly, they trained others in radical nonviolence.”
And thirdly, Wolcott says, there was a sweeping interracialism to their activism.
“They worked to desegregate American society, which is the process of challenging and dismantling Jim Crow, but by interracialism we’re talking about an established policy of equality that includes interracialism in organized labor through the Congress of Industrial Organizations; liberal interracialism, like the YMCA movement; and utopian interracialism, or the belief of race as a social construct.”
It’s these utopian ideas and practices, which are central to understanding the civil rights movements, that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Utopian ideas fell out of fashion after World War II because they were associated with totalitarianism, the Cold War, and enforcing the will of the state,” says Wolcott. “The American utopian tradition is a way of thinking about community, cooperation and equality — and there is a lot of attention today being given to utopian ideas.
“I’m glad this book arrives at a moment when there’s interest in a broader discussion on the role of utopian societies.”