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Radical Nonviolence, Interracial Utopias, and the Long Civil Rights Movement

Dumbarton Oaks Fellowship House
January 27, 2023
06:00 PM to 07:00 PM
Public Lecture with Victoria W. Wolcott


Historian Victoria Wolcott’s recent book, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, illuminates the importance of utopian communalism in the Black freedom struggle. Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pauli Murray, among many others, interacted with a matrix of intentional communities that provided a safe haven for activists and trained them through a radical pedagogy. Although each had its own unique history, these communities all practiced interracial living, cooperative economics, and nonviolence. They were “utopian” in their rejection of gradualism and demands for immediate change. The activists who inhabited these communities were neither racial liberals employing moral suasion, nor were they part of the communist left. Rather they were socialist in orientation and deeply influenced a generation of activists in the interconnected labor, civil rights, and peace movements. From the 1920s through the 1960s they built labor colleges, folk schools, ashrams, interracial churches, and urban and rural cooperatives. By living cooperatively and communally they created a new reality that served as a model for civil rights activists. More pragmatically, the members of these communities trained activists in radical nonviolence and created real change in the economic and political fortunes of African Americans. Civil rights historians have overlooked this utopian strain in the long civil rights movement. This absence gives us an incomplete picture of midcentury activism and fails to explain the strategic success of radical nonviolence. Bringing these educational, cooperative, religious, and political communities together in one work sheds new light on the freedom dreams of mid-century activists.

Victoria W. Wolcott is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She has published three books: Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001), Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012), and Living in the Future: The Utopian Strain in the Long Civil Rights Movement (2022). In addition, she has published articles in The Journal of American History, The Radical History Review, and the Journal of Women’s History among others. She is currently working on two book projects: an edited collection, Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present and The Embodied Resistance of Eroseanna Robinson: Athleticism and Activism in the Cold War Era.

Children at the Delta Cooperative Farm, 1936, Dorothea Lange, Photographer, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-017356-C.