To renew democracy, we need big dreams: Why utopian visions are necessary

How does the historically impossible become reality? It’s a timely question in the days after the U.S. Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. A crucial part of the answer can be found in “Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement” by Victoria Wolcott, to be published later this month. It’s not about the famous period of civil rights activism starting with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, but rather about the under-appreciated decades of activism that built the foundation for that period of rapid, epochal change. 

One thing that sustained that struggle throughout labor education organizations, cooperatives, churches and pacifist groups was a utopian belief that another world was possible, if not inevitable, and that it could be brought into being by dedicated believers who were willing to act as if that future already existed. That kind of utopianism had significant resonance in 19th-century America, but one singular expression of it, Christian socialist William Bellamy’s 1888 novel, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887,” played a particularly significant role. In a vignette that opens Wolcott’s book, a young woman named Coretta Scott gives a copy of that book to her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr.

“I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas,” King responded, “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic…. Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.” 

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Bellamy influenced others to go beyond preaching. As Wolcott notes, some in the civil rights movement “lived their utopian dreams, creating small communities that modeled Bellamy’s vision.” This included noted figures like Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, whose shared utopian orientation tells a deeper story than individual biographies can capture. Bellamy wasn’t the only influence, of course. Gandhi’s example played a similarly powerful role, spreading through the same network of activists whose visionary activism Wolcott traces from the late 1910s to the Freedom Rides of 1961, when a young John Lewis spent three days engaged in nonviolence training and preparation at the Washington Fellowship House, a utopian outpost that caused him to marvel, “I’d never been in a building like this. I’d never been among people like this.”

Those influences persist to the present day, Wolcott notes in her afterword, which culminates in a reflection on the resurgence of utopianism in activist movements like Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the proliferation of local and specific organizations and struggles who have much in common with the subjects of her book. 

Utopianism was not the only driving force behind the civil rights movement, of course. “Without mass marches, Black Nationalist strategies, and political mobilization, among other elements, the major successes of the movement would not have been achieved,” Wolcott writes. “But it is striking how little known utopian practices and ideas are in the civil rights movement’s public image and in many scholarly works.” Recovering that missing history provides an invaluable resource for similarly situated activists today and tomorrow, whatever struggles they may face. That was why Salon was eager to speak with Wolcott about her book and the history behind it.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is called “Living in the Future.” Why that name? 

Because that reflects the fairly capacious definition of utopianism that I use. Another way to think of it that political scientists use is the word “prefigurative,” where the idea is that you’re creating the world that you’re imagining for the future. So if utopia is a form of social dreaming, what these folks do by “living in the future” is trying to create the future in the here and now. That’s really key to the idea of prefigurative politics, the idea of balancing means and ends. Rather than sacrificing the means to get to the desired ends, these folks very much want to have the means — the practice and the politics — match what they want to see at the end point. 

You open with an anecdote about Coretta Scott giving a copy of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” to her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr. You go on to say that the book “helped shape the twentieth century’s most powerful social movement,” not just through its influence on King, but also through “contemporaries [who] went even further and lived their utopian dreams, creating small communities that modeled Bellamy’s vision.” What was distinctive about Bellamy’s vision and the impact that it had?

It had a really enormous impact. I think we’ve forgotten how important that novel was, how much it reverberated. He was as part of this group that’s often referred to as the utopian socialists in the late 19th century, in contrast to the scientific socialists, like Marx and Engels. In fact, Marx and Engels are very critical of the utopian socialists. Bellamy and other utopian socialists wanted essentially a nonviolent revolution. Bellamy envisions this transition to a socialist future for the United States without the violence of revolution and class conflict. So that’s going to be very appealing to pacifists and other intellectuals and political activists who were put off by some of the violence and conflict of the late 19th century. 

We’ve forgotten how important the novel “Looking Backward” was. The followers of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author who ran for governor of California, were enamored with it — that’s probably why Coretta Scott knew about it.

After the publication of the novel, there are these Bellamy clubs that form by the hundreds — many are in the Northeast, but they’re elsewhere in the United States and in Europe as well — where you have folks sitting around talking about the book and talking about ways to usher this socialist future in more quickly. It had a revival in the 1930s: The followers of Upton Sinclair, the socialist who ran for governor in California were very enamored with Bellamy’s ideas. I think that’s why Coretta Scott was familiar with it. It had a sort of second life during the Great Depression, when people are really struggling.

In your first chapter, you discuss a trio of workers’ education institutions. The earliest was the Women’s Trade Union League’s Training School for Women Organizers, which opened in Chicago in 1914, followed by Brookwood Labor College and Highlander Folk School. How did their concept of workers’ education build on that definition of “living in the future” and did it set them apart from other things in the labor movement at that time?

I think the workers’ education movement, while it sounds very dry, was really powerful and is a possible model for contemporary labor politics. It was explicitly developed by feminist labor activists in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and they often talked about the concept of bread and roses, which might be a phrase that people are familiar with. They were emphasizing the roses alongside the bread. What’s distinctive was that they weren’t only asking for higher wages or seeking safer working conditions — although those things were significant, obviously — but also saying that working-class people had a right to leisure, had a right to intellectual life, had a right to artistic endeavors. They had a right to live a full life. The ILGWU set up these wonderful things called Unity Houses, often on the outskirts of cities in rural, natural areas, where workers could go for a long weekend, could go swimming, eat good food and have some exposure to a broader vision of life. 

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That gets reflected in the Brookwood Labor College and the Highlander Folk School, which brought workers to communities, again in bucolic, rural areas, giving them access to a fuller education and also access to leisure, access to companionship, access to music and theater. That was and this is in distinction to the pure and simple trade unionism that the AFL practiced — the American Federation of Labor, which was about working conditions and higher wages, and was very much limited to skilled workers, the vast majority of whom were white. The workers’ education movement, “social unionism” as it’s sometimes termed, was explicitly was trying to bring in women and African-Americans in the 1930s and trying to democratize the labor movement. 

One method that comes across as really important in your book was the use of theater, particularly at Brookwood. You write, “Workers’ theater had a direct application to the civil rights movement. Nonviolent direct action was inherently performative.” Could you elaborate on that? 

It’s one of the things that surprised me when I was doing the research. I wasn’t thinking I’d be writing much about theater, but it was really central to workers education, and it becomes clear that once you get into the 1930s and early 1940s, when you start having the application of nonviolent direct action, that people need to know what to expect when they engage in a sit-in, whether as a labor activist in the factory floor or at a segregated park or other public accommodation. 

Theater was really central to workers’ education: Training programs in nonviolent direct action used theatrical skills, so people would have a narrative, a script, that was refined over time.

The nonviolent activists actually set up training programs where they’re using theatrical skills to train people to respond appropriately when they’re being attacked, to know what to expect, to have a kind of narrative, a kind of script, which is refined over time. In terms of the nature of the nonviolent direct action, that was absolutely key. That’s something that Martin Luther King talks about later in the movement. But again, you see it in the late 30s and early 1940s, where the very act of confronting segregation and white supremacy in public spaces, with this script in mind can really effectively engender change.

There was actually a direct connection to the famous sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1936. 

The major organizers of the UAW and the CIO in the 1930s were all graduates of the Brookwood Labor College. So the sit-in as a tactic was something that was basically developed in many ways though conversations at workers’ education institutions. And then the Brookwood Players actually go out with their bus, during the strike itself in Flint, and they are performing plays outside the factory floor, they’re singing songs so that the workers who are sitting down can hear them, they hand out lyrics to sing along, so it literally becomes a theatrical moment, the performative nature of the sit-down itself. 

The other major institution you talk about is the Highlander Folk School, which is better known and associated with the civil rights movement. But it started as a labor institution.

Its founder was Myles Horton, a white Southerner who had gone to Europe and gotten some training there, particularly in the Dutch folk schools. He had that background and he knew about Brookwood Labor College and wanted to do something similar in the South. But it was in some ways even more democratic than Brookwood. Horton felt very strongly that the folks who were going to come to Highlander — initially mostly labor activists and workers, and then later more civil rights — should develop the curriculum themselves. So it was very much a grassroots form of education. A big part of the Highlander mission was living in community, cooking and cleaning and singing together as you’re developing these kind of skills. 

Horton and other Highlander teachers — very much like you would see with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later in the larger civil rights movement — were intent on trying to understand what people actually needed on the ground. That might be child care, that might be food aid, along with organizing CIO unions throughout the South, which was really their goal. They shifted to civil rights, in part, because the labor movement, by the time you get to the mid-1940s, begins to fall apart in the South because of the rise of conservatism, Cold War politics and also white supremacy, because these were interracial unions in many cases. 

So Highlander shifts its focus away from labor and more toward civil rights and interracial organizing around issues of mass segregation and the vote. Rosa Parks goes to Highlander just a few months before the Montgomery bus boycott starts. Martin Luther King Jr. goes there as well. All the major civil rights activists of that period spent time at Highlander, engaged in that training and trained other people as well.

You write about notable people who came through these institutions, such as Ella Baker and Rosa Parks, who became known for their roles in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Can you give an example of someone who engaged with them and what that journey looked like? 

I’ll say something about Pauli Murray. Some people might be familiar with her, there’s a new documentary about her. An absolutely fascinating, important figure in the 20th-century civil rights and feminist movements. She goes to Brookwood Labor College in the 1930s and spends time there, with workers education, and then she goes to Harlem and does some work alongside Ella Baker on developing cooperatives as part of the New Deal program. She goes to Howard University, where she works with theologian Howard Thurman, who I write about in the book. Thurman goes on to form this interracial church in San Francisco, the Fellowship Church of All Peoples. And Thurman also becomes the African-American to meet with Gandhi in India, and was instrumental in bringing down his teaching about nonviolence to the United States. 

So Pauli Murray is involved with that, and also involved in the Fellowship House movement. The Fellowship House in Philadelphia is where Martin Luther King Jr. hears about Gandhi and nonviolent direct action, so there’s a direct connection there as well. She spends time in the Harlem Ashram, which is one of these “peace cells” or utopian communities that I talk about, in the 1940s. So she has interactions in all sorts of ways with these groups who are talking about cooperation, who are talking about nonviolence and applying those things to the civil rights struggle. 

In Chapter 2, you tell the story of the Delta Cooperative and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. What led to the creation of these organizations? 

The Delta and later Providence Cooperative farms were developed by a group of international Christian socialists, and the most important figure here was a white man named Sherwood Eddy. He ran these amazing things called the Americans Seminar, where he would take radical activists across the country to Europe, including into the Soviet Union. They’d go to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union and elsewhere to learn about different kinds of models of labor organizing and cooperation. 

Eddy was very interested in the Southern Tenant Farmers Workers Union, a very interesting socialist-leaning union trying to organize sharecroppers in the South during the Great Depression. Lots of violence and oppression is associated with their organizing. So he goes down and experiences some of this violence first hand, and has the idea to raise money to develop a cooperative in Mississippi where black and white sharecroppers could live together, which of course was quite radical for this period. And also try to develop an economic cooperative. It’s largely funded through other like-minded individuals sending money. People like Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, supported the Delta Cooperative. Pauli Murray and other activists often we travel down there and spend time there.

It was a grand experiment in interracial living and using cooperation to eventually become self-sufficient. There was a lot of interest in this, for instance in developing health care because sharecroppers were often malnourished. Eventually, by the 1950s when you get to the white supremacist massive resistance to both the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the growing civil rights struggle, white terror becomes so extreme that they have to disband. But there was a period through the ’30s and ’40s where they were quite successful. 

Chapter 3 is all about Father Divine’s Peace Mission, which to be honest I knew almost nothing about. It was really astonishing to find a major part of American history that I was truly ignorant about. Who was Father Divine, and what did his organization accomplish? 

Father Divine, for the most part, has been misremembered or forgotten, but his Peace Mission movement was the most successful utopian community of the 20th century. It was the largest and it achieved the most.

I think you are certainly not alone. For the most part, except maybe in some pockets, he’s been misremembered or forgotten. But his movement, the Peace Mission movement, is really the most successful utopian community of the 20th century. It is the largest, it achieves the most and it made a huge impact. It was very much known in everyday households during the late 1930s. There was a lot of media coverage of the Father Divine movement, but it was part of a a broader charismatic religious movement, mostly among African-American migrants. 

The other one that people might be familiar with is the Nation of Islam, which emerges around the same time, in Detroit in 1933. Father Divine is a little bit earlier. Father Divine, however, has the idea of an interracial utopia. He believes that race is purely a construct and does not exist in any other level except as a kind of human construct. So it is an interracial movement, which is really interesting. It has all sorts of religious teachings which he takes from various strands of African-American religious traditions, as well as things like New Thought, which is a 19th-century Protestant idea, very American, faith healing. 

He also combines this with civil rights activism. So the Divinities actually use nonviolent direct action to carry out desegregation campaigns, they deliberately buy properties in segregated communities and desegregate them by having his followers go there. Economically, he’s very successful. He uses the model of cooperatives to great effect. He ends up having a lot of his cooperative businesses — apartment buildings, gas stations, all sorts of properties — both in Harlem and upstate New York, in an area he calls “the Promised Land,” and also in Philadelphia. This was a utopian community experiment that’s quite successful, and was really important at the time. 

The next chapter deals with a broad movement in the Christian left, and the key figure there is Howard Thurman. As you’ve already mentioned, he was the first to African-American to meet with Gandhi, and he went on to lead a major interracial church in San Francisco. So what was distinctive about Thurman and about that church? 

Thurman was a hugely influential theologian. His most famous book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” sold huge numbers of copies and Martin Luther King Jr. had a copy in his pocket as he carried out his various civil rights campaigns. In fact, Thurman and King had a close relationship. Thurman was influenced broadly, for example, by some of the mysticism of the Quaker church. He spent time in Kendall Hill, which is a Quaker retreat. He also comes out of more traditional Black Protestant traditions, similar in some ways to Father Divine, although in a more “respectable” way. He believed in trying to basically eliminate any kind of racial barriers. He wanted to create an interracial, intercultural church, where people of all races, ethnicities and even faiths could come together and engage in a variety of practices, including meditation. He was interested in Eastern religion, so he brought some Eastern practices into his church, in his liturgy. There is often dance and theater involved in his liturgy at the Fellowship Church, and of course at a certain level political activism. 

They were interested in what was happening with the early civil rights movement, with labor organizing. They were in touch with some of the major people like A.J. Muste, who was probably the most prominent pacifist of this time, who headed up the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I already mentioned his relationship with Martin Luther King. He was really a mentor for Pauli Murray, as well as people like James Farmer and other early Black activists. He was very much part of the network that was developing nonviolent direct action, tactics that would prove to be so central and powerful for the movement.

It’s striking that the Fellowship Church in San Francisco wasn’t just biracial. It was actually in a building that had been a Japanese church and been dispossessed. A group of women who were crucial in its founding lived in a house called … 

The Sakai House. They took possession of a house that was dispossessed when Japanese-Americans were interned during the war. That was true of the first church, which had been Japanese as well. And they were advocating against Japanese-American internment and were also safeguarding property so they could return it to the rightful owners when they were released from internment. There was a lot of concern about the plight of the Japanese-Americans on the part of this pacifist community, and they became very much part of that interracial intercultural community, those who actually returned to San Francisco. So that was definitely part of the movement as well: It has a global human rights aspect. There was a famous pacifist from England, Muriel Lester, who spent time there in San Francisco. This was a global movement in the 1940s for intercultural, interracial understanding, essentially to fight against fascism and militarism.

Your next chapter deals with the broad movement associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). What struck me most was the scope of success they had in desegregating the North in battles that are largely forgotten but were clearly foundational for the later mass movement in the South. Could you give some examples of what they were able to accomplish?

This relates to my last book — this is how I got into this project. I wrote this book called “Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters,” about the struggle against segregated recreation. That’s when I realized how extensive these desegregation campaigns in the North and Midwest were, much earlier than anybody really talks about — as early as the late ’30s but really in the ’40s and early ’50s. In much of the history that’s been written, the importance of these radical pacifists in this earlier period has been very much downplayed.

The assumption was that CORE wasn’t really doing very much in this period, and that’s just not the case. When you delve into the records, you find that there’s chapters either of CORE or affiliated groups, often radical pacifists living in peace cells or ashrams, and they’re using this playbook that CORE has developed to go into local restaurants and swimming pools, places like that — which should have been protected by civil rights laws, but were routinely segregated throughout the North — and using nonviolent direct action tactics to challenge that. This often turned into lawsuits and court cases, so sometimes the NAACP or the ACLU would take up these cases and get them through the courts. But CORE was actually quite effective throughout this period: You see a lifting of some of the segregated accommodations by the time we get to the second half of the 1950s. 

But they didn’t completely ignore the South.

They only did one major campaign in the South, which was called the Journey of Reconciliation, in 1947. There was a Supreme Court ruling that transportation between states had to be desegregated — within a state it was still considered legal. So they were trying to demonstrate that and publicize it. It was somewhat successful, although they ended up in jail, unsurprisingly, once they got to the South. The Journey of Reconciliation was the first Freedom Ride. When you get to the Freedom Rides that we’re more familiar with in 1961, one things I thought was interesting is that the training for that ride was done at the Fellowship House in Washington. So this physical space, a house where John Lewis and other activists could go and live in an interracial community and be trained in what to expect during the Freedom Ride, would do meditation and read these important works, translating Gandhi for American audiences and so forth.

The folks who were training those Freedom Riders in the early ’60s were these radical pacifists, now a little bit older, including Bayard Rustin, who was involved in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, who had come of age in the 1940s in this Christian left pacifist culture. At this point they had 20 years of experience on how to do this work, and they went on to train the students and younger activists who carried out the mass civil rights movement of the early 60s. 

You have a quote from John Lewis about how he’d never seen a place like that before or experienced people like that before.

Yeah, people talk about that with Highlander as well, particularly African-Americans when they go there and they’re being served food by white people. Rosa Parks talks about that, it was a powerful experience to live in that situation. 

It struck me that these were small communities, but there’s a constant flow of people, so they influence many more people than just the numbers in the communities. Can you talk about how their influence circulated?

They are small communities and I’m glad you picked up on this circulation piece, because that’s what really struck me as I started to add up how many workshops they had, how many activities they did, how many people they corresponded with. The numbers got larger and larger. But they also created publications, training manuals on how to do this kind of activism. Thousands of these were printed up and disseminated across the country, and then you have some of these pacifist groups creating basically left-wing, progressive publications with all sorts of important information about how to carry out this kind of activism and how it relates to Cold War pacifism, anti-militarism. Over time this is very important for the antiwar generation in the Vietnam era, who also are reading these publications. 

In your afterword you bring things more up to date, and talk about some of the heritage that lived on. You mention Afro-futurism in the ’70s, for example, up through the prison abolition and Black Lives Matter direct action movements. How does this connection continue through time? 

I think there’s a resurgence of interest in utopia. I just saw the other day that Margaret Atwood has created this eight-week online course where she’s having people from around the world collaborate to come up with ideas about practical utopias, how we can envision a future that combats climate change and racial injustice. What would our houses look like? What food would we eat? That’s just one example, but there is a lot of interest right now in this idea of social dreaming or, as my favorite historian, Robert Kelly, talks about, this idea of freedom dreams.

There’s a resurgence of interest in utopia: Margaret Atwood has created an online course where people around the world come up with ideas about practical utopias: What will our houses look like? What will we eat?

In the 1970s, the most important utopian thinking was being done within the Black Power movement, which I talk about in the afterword. This is different from the interracialism that I talk about throughout the book, but you do have Black Power experiments in creating communities like Soul City, or the community MOVE, which people mostly know about because of the bombing that happened there in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. But that’s a very important strand, Afro-futurism in the ’70s. 

But today, I’m in Buffalo, where on a local level you see a lot of interest in a cooperatives as a way to address issues about poverty. Living community is something that young people who are dealing with the housing crisis are doing in some ways. I think right now there’s also a recognition, because of COVID of a kind of care crisis and the ways in which creating community, creating networks of support, can fill in the gaps when the state is failing us in so many ways. 

I also saw your book as a mirror image of another impressive book, “The Long Southern Strategy,” (author interview here) which talks about how not just race but gender and religion were involved in forming identities that were inherently fragile and how reactionary politics was built around these sort of identity formations. You’re describing the polar opposite, telling the story of a shared quest to transcend our fixed identities and to imagine new, shared identities. So I wonder if you have any thoughts on what this says about the basic nature of progressive versus reactionary politics?

That’s a really interesting point about identity formation, because they are trying to create alternative identities. There is a belief among many of these folks that human nature is, if not maybe perfectible, that there’s a kind of openness, what bell hooks talks about as revolutionary love. Martin Luther King talks about the kind of concept of love, which is an optimistic idea that for some on the left can sound mushy or emotional or not pragmatic. But I think you see, in places like Highlander, this being played out in ways that were really powerful but also fragile. 

It’s not as though a place like a Brookwood Labor College, for example, did not have hierarchy. It did. A.J. Muste was very much in charge. There were definitely issues around questions of hierarchy, questions of gender tensions, within these groups. They are not perfect societies. But there is a kind of openness — again, this idea of social dreaming or freedom dreams — and openness to thinking about a world in which full equality was actually possible. That’s very regenerative, and it creates strategies for change that can be can be very powerful.

Finally, what’s the most important question I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer?

The utopian tradition in America is not totalitarian or authoritarian. It’s about small communities developing ways of life that offer alternatives to capitalism and inequality.

I get asked lot about why utopia is considered so problematic as a concept. One thing  I see often is people associating notions of utopia with totalitarianism or authoritarian states. So one reasons the whole concept of utopia loses traction during the Cold War is because it’s associated with fascism and it’s associated with Stalinism. And you might think of Cambodia later, with Pol Pot, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. These kinds of authoritarian, totalitarian states are trying to create the perfect society and it all goes terribly wrong and millions died. So therefore the concept of utopia is inherently problematic. 

But I don’t see authoritarian or totalitarian states being utopian. The utopian tradition within the United States is more based on a kind of anarchism in terms of political philosophy, that is, small communities that are relatively self-sufficient, often deliberately separate from the state and not dependent on it, who are developing this way of life that offers alternatives to things like competitive capitalism, environmental destruction and, in some cases, racial violence and inequality. That’s really the kind of utopian tradition, that American tradition, that we should be thinking about.


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