Published February 15, 2022
Episode 25 features Victoria Wolcott, a professor in the UB Department of History at the University at Buffalo, speaks about her upcoming book, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement. Wolcott discusses activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Father Divine, and Howard Thurman, and how their shared belief in radical pacifism holds utopian yearnings.
Keywords: Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, Black activism, BLM activism, utopia, Marxism, socialism.
The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the University at Buffalo
Podcast Season 4, Episode 25
Podcast recording date: January 10, 2022
Host-producer: Edgar Girtain
Speaker: Victoria Wolcott
Contact information: email@example.com
Podcast transcript begins.
Edgar: Hello, and welcome to the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast. My name is Edgar Girtain, and today it is a pleasure to bring you a conversation I've recently had with Dr. Victoria Wolcott, who is a professor here in the history department at the University at Buffalo. Victoria is a scholar whose research examines the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-20th century America.
And although we spoke about a fair number of things, uh, her principal aim in coming on the show today was to speak about her forthcoming book, which is titled Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, and it will be available through the University of Chicago Press and Amazon on April 5th. Although you can certainly pre-order it now. In addition, you should know that Professor Wolcott will be doing an online talk about her book on March 8th, and that event will be hosted by the UB Gender Studies Institute, um, and it will be online, so, um, anyone who's listening can attend. More information about how to attend that event and how to get a copy of her book will be found in the written description for this episode on our website. Okay. Enough of me for now. Here we go.
Dr. Wolcott. Victoria.
Edgar: Welcome. And thank you very much for coming and speaking with me today. your book is titled Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement. What inspired you to write this book, and who would benefit most from reading it?
Victoria: First of all, the thank you very much for inviting me. I came upon this topic, partly because I've always been interested in utopian communities and the sort of ideas of utopian thinkers throughout American history, you know, from the 19th century on. And in my last book project, which is about the desegregation of recreational facilities, I came upon a, kind of, small groups of radical pacifists in the 1930s and 40s who were doing these desegregation campaigns, um, that really have not been focused on very much. And so, that took me down the sort of route of looking at utopian thought and also utopian practices in the Civil Rights Movement.
In terms of who the book is for, or who would get the most out of it, I do think there's multiple audiences for this book. So, certainly, historians who are interested in African American history, Civil Rights Movement history, but also I think there's a potentially an audience among activists as well, who are trying to think about ways of thought and also strategies and a more pragmatic way to address the multiple kinds of crises that we're facing today. So, you know, I don't have a, kind of, lessons necessarily laid out in the book, but there's certainly discussions about how this history can help us thinking about the future.
Edgar: I'm really interested to know a little bit more about the connections between, specifically, Marxism and the social rights movement and how these things kind of became intertwined, and we'll come back to that in just a minute here. But my next question is, the frame of civil rights in your book seems to be squarely centered on issues surrounding integration between Black and white Americans. And as a layman, when I was reading it, I was kind of surprised that there wasn't much mention for example of, uh, parallel or similar movements, you know, like feminism or gay rights. And is that because these things didn't overlap with the Long Civil Rights Movement? Or is it, were they just out of the frame of the book?
Victoria: I think it's, it's more about them being out of the frame of the book. I would say, however, in terms of feminism, you do see significant amounts of, sort of, attention to gender equality in some of these movements. So, in the Father Divine movement, for example, that's a good example of that. So yeah, I do talk a little bit about some of the Black nationalist utopia, particularly in the end of the book, but one of the, sort of, central framing definitions that I went to when identifying these communities and individuals is the idea of interracialism. So, cooperatives is one kind of thing they have in common in terms of economic alternatives. Radical nonviolence is another thing they have in common, but they were all engaged in forms of interracialism. So that's a little bit different than integration in the sense of, they were trying to create a society in which you would have full racial equality and interracialism part of that. So there's three different aspects of that. There's something, you know, labor interracialism, which you see in union movements, for example, liberal interracialism, which is more, the kind of, YWCA kinds of movements, more, sort of, elite and educated interracial contact. And then what I call utopian interracialism, which you see in places like a Congress of Racial Equality, for example, and the Father Divine movement, which is a religious movement, which was calling really for full equality between African Americans and whites.
Edgar: And so how did Marxism become, kind of, mixed up in these things?
Victoria: If you go back to the 19th century, Marx and Engels actually differentiated their forms of, kind of, utopian thinking, or socialism, from the utopianists. So, they talked about scientific socialism, right, versus utopian socialism.
Edgar: What's the difference between those two things?
Victoria: Yeah, so, one of the things that makes them distinct is that Marx and Engels, you know, with scientific socialism, had these various stages of history. They also talked about the necessity for class conflict and revolution. The utopian socialist, like Edward Bellamy, who I mentioned before, believed that you could achieve full socialist future without class conflict and without violence. And so, this is the connection to nonviolence and passivism. It was not always clear how that would happen, but some of the utopian socialists, for example, did not approve of labor strikes because they involve too much conflict. So that's a kind of distinction that's very important in the kind of foundation of utopian socialism.
When you get into the 20th century and the American context, almost all of the individuals who I write about in the book would define themselves as socialist, but they would not define themselves as communist. So post the Russian Revolution, these are socialists who mostly followed Norman Thomas, who led the socialist party in the United States in the interwar period, and they believed that you could create a new society, a social society without, again, violent revolution. So, somebody like A.J. Muste, who was a leading intellectual and pacifist this during this period, very important, you know, A. Philip Randolph and others as well, kind of fall into that category. I should say, they also have some anarchist tendencies. That's a whole ‘nother kind of strain of thinking there as well.
Edgar: Okay. Yeah. That's really interesting. And thank you for context, because I was curious reading this, if social reform is something that is historically exclusive to the political left. You know, socialism, Marxism, and a lot of these ideas, you know, in today's thinking, align kind of with the left. Has it always been that way? Were these utopist communities mostly towards the political left?
Victoria: The basic answer to that is yes. And that dates back to, you know, the late 18th and early 19th century, but this is also all related to religion, because much of the utopian strain in the American contexts - well, brought more broadly as well - is related to Christian ideas of millennialism, for example. So again, many of the folks I've wrote about in the book are part of what we would call the Christian left. So, going back to the earlier period, thinking about groups like the Shakers, which most people are familiar with, or Oneida, which here in Western New York, people might be familiar with, right? These are religious groups that, partly because they believe that in the millennium and they believe that everybody's filled with the light of God, therefore racial distinctions, and gender distinctions, and all other power inequalities are disputed within these groups. So that's part of why it's a Christian left.
Edgar: What is millennialism?
Victoria: So, this is the biblical belief that, well there's different forms of millennialism, but that we're going towards the end times in which there's the moment of salvation. If you want to kind of usher in that moment of salvation, you might try to live a perfect life in the here and now to, sort of, what's going to come in the future. So, living a life of purity, if you're a Shaker, living a life of celibacy, which was actually echoed in the Father Divine movement, maybe being a vegetarian, right? You know, other forms of kind of thinking about a kind of perfectionism is another way to think about it.
Edgar: Now I have a strange, and this is a little bit of a naive question, and it's really semantic. Obviously, given the subject matter of your book, you use the words white and black a lot, and I noticed that you often employ the words in ways that are distinct from one another. For example, the word black is always written with a capital B and you often use it in like a, kind of a plural sense to refer to groups of people or communities like Black workers, Black sharecroppers, Black, et cetera, but the word white on the other hand, doesn't get capitalized. And in addition, you often use it as kind of a contextual kind of qualifier in a way that you don't with the word Black. So, for example, you say advocates like Cohen, the white passivist, or white reformer Myles Horton. And I know this is intentional because the usage is really consistent. So, I have a question, like I said, these are more naive than anything else. First, why is Black capitalized and white not? And second, why is it necessary to clarify if one of the historical figures you mentioned is Black or white?
Victoria: Yeah. Great questions. And you know, there's complicated answers to that and this is always evolving, right? So, when I wrote my last book, I believe I did not capitalize Black. That has increasingly been the convention, however, to do so. There are some publications that now are also capitalizing white, but the general convention in terms of academic publishers, major newspapers like the New York Times, is to capitalize Black and not capitalize white. So, that's part of the, sort of, emerging convention. The, the thing about talking about or describing somebody's race, that's important ideologically in many ways, because if you read a lot of work, what you'll see is that white people's race is not identified because they're the standard, right? So white people are at the center, they are the standard. And so, the only folks who are racially identified tend to be people of color, people who are not white. So, by identifying A.J. Muste or somebody like that, or Myles Horton as white, I'm partly pushing back against that. Because it's important to know, especially for the kind of work I'm doing, what the racial identification of every individual is rather than, sort of, reinforcing the normative idea that, you know, folks are white, that's the assumption. And if they're not, then you identify them as not.
Edgar: Great. Was Dr. Martin Luther King a utopianist?
Victoria: He would not have defined himself that way, I don't think. Partly because utopian ideas got a very bad rap in the immediately postwar period. By postwar I mean post World War II, because they became affiliated with the ideas of fascism and communism, the excesses of those totalitarian states. So, there was a decline in the respectability, in a sense, of utopian and thinking. So I think partially for that reason, he might not have defined himself as a utopianist. But I opened my book with a utopian novel by Edward Bellamy called Looking Backward, which Coretta Scott, before she was married to Martin Luther King Jr., gave him as a gift. And he responded very powerfully to that utopian novel. And many of the folks that he was reading, like the theologian Howard Thurman, for example, who also was a friend of King, also kind of thought about the sort of ideas about utopian socialism and how to create a perfect society.
Edgar: Oh wow, that's fascinating. So, do you think, is the Long Civil Rights Movement still going on today?
Victoria: So, there are some problems with the Long Civil Rights Movement paradigm in some ways, because if you define it very loosely, you would say it started with, you know, enslaved people engaging in rebellion and revolt, you know, as early as the 18th to early 19th century, continuing until today. I actually don't agree with that. So, I would say we are in a new phase and, or maybe not an entirely new movement, but a new phase of the movement. So, in terms of the parameters of the Long Civil Rights Movement, I would argue that it starts in the 1930s, partly related to the labor movement that's happening there and increased radicalism in the thirties, and it continues into the mid to late 1970s where you have a very, very important Black Nationalist and Black Power movement that continues. But that what we see, certainly in today or into the 21st century, there's a shift both in the goals of the movement today, much more about mass incarceration and police brutality, which were very important for the Black power movement, but this is really much more center stage and the movement itself looks very different. So, I do think there's something distinctive about the thirties to the seventies, right? And that we need to kind of, or at least I feel for my own intellectual work, put barricades, essentially, around that chronological period.
Edgar: So, do you think that there is any ideological thread connecting, for example, Black Lives Matter to the utopianist ideology?
Victoria: I do, absolutely. And I think you can think about it as some of the other movements as well in the last 20 years. First of all, there is a consistency in terms of nonviolent direct action as being a, not the only tactic, but a very, very important tactic. And anybody who's in a BLM group has training in nonviolent direct action. That training goes back to the thirties and forties, right. It's been refined and changed over time, but that's absolutely central. I also think that, and this kind of goes back to the Occupy movement as well-
Edgar: Back in the day.
Victoria: Back in the olden days. Like, that had a very sort of utopian and sort of anarch elements to it, but certainly much more attention to questions of gender equality. Also, you know, other kinds of issues around sexuality, trans rights, et cetera, and then a kind of more, you know, large scale ideas about everything that impacts inequality, right? So that many of these activists in the Black Lives Matter movement are also engaged in, in other aspects of the movement and including things like climate change, and are very attentive to having a non-hierarchical kind of communal and consensus form of organization. Which that actually goes back largely to student non-violent coordinating committee or SNCC, right, founded in 1960, which also bar from these ideas. So, it's very nonhierarchical, again, kind of coming to decisions through consensus. You saw that in Occupy as well. So that's another kind of strain that goes all the way through.
Edgar: Wonderful. Um, and now I have a personal question. Have you ever participated in a utopian community?
Victoria: I have not. I've always been interested in it intellectually, but you know, I think most people, if you think about the broader category of kind of living in community, if you think about like a group house that you might have been in, in college, you know, there's often situations that people have throughout their lives, where they get a little taste of what this might look like. But I do think that there is a lot more interest in living in community these days. Partly for reasons like the housing crisis, the high cost of housing, for example, the care crisis, right? If you think about elderly people, the fact that it actually can work much better if you're living communally and you're sharing resources and you're sharing care, labor, et cetera. So, I think that this is something that we will see more of through the future, but I myself have not really engaged in that.
Edgar: Well, are you interested in-?
Victoria: I mean, I'm intrigued by the notion, um, say after retirement, right? The idea of communities, of people who can look after each other and can live communally, which is actually economically much better as well. So yeah, that type of living situation definitely is something that I find engaging. I mean, you can go, I think it's called the Society for Intentional Communities, um, their website and you can like find an intentional community to live in. But obviously there's also a range of how this is engaged with politics and social movement. So many of these are just, you know, again kind of communal living situations and not necessarily engaged with a political or social movement. So that's a little bit different.
Edgar: There's a lot of things that I want to ask you about, but we're pressed for time here. So where can listeners get a copy of your book?
Victoria: Listeners can pre-order the book on Amazon or on the University of Chicago Press website. I have a site there as well where they can pre-order the book. It will be released on March 8th, which is actually International Women's Day, I just realized recently. And I actually will be doing a book talk on that day at the Gender Institute at UB that will be online so that anybody, wherever you are, wherever you are, can join in on that book talk as well.
Edgar: Dr. Wolcott, Victoria, again, thank you very much for coming in and speaking with me today and congratulations on the new book.
Victoria: Thank you so much again for inviting me. I really enjoyed it.
Edgar: Very good. I'm Edgar Girtain, and that was Dr. Victoria Wolcott, professor in history here at the University at Buffalo. The theme music for the season was composed by University at Buffalo Department of Music PhD student Matias Homar, and you can learn more about the Center, the Baldy Center, on our website, buffalo.edu/BaldyCenter. This has been the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast produced by the University at Buffalo. As always, thank you for listening and take care.
In terms of the parameters of the Long Civil Rights Movement, I would argue that it starts in the 1930s, partly related to the labor movement that's happening, and increased radicalism in the thirties. It continues into the mid to late 1970s where you have a very, very important Black Nationalist and Black Power movement that continues... There's something distinctive about the thirties to the seventies."
– Victoria Wolcott (2022 Baldy Center Podcast)
My current research examines the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-twentieth century America. These “interracial utopias” ranged from transient radical pacifist communities in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., to rural communes that combined Christian pacifism with a commitment to racial equality. I am also researching the life of an African American pacifist and civil rights activist, Eroseanna Robinson.
Edgar Girtain is host/producer of the 2021-22 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. He is a PhD student in the music department at SUNY Buffalo, where he studies with David Felder. Girtain is a director of the Casa de Las Artes at the University of Southern Chile (UACh), and president of the Southern Chilean Composers Forum (FoCo Sur).He is an eminent composer, pianist, and writer of his own biographies. Girtain's diverse areas of work are often collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and international in ambition if not in practice.