C. Wright Mills

On this date in 1916, C. Wright Mills (Charles Wright Mills) was born in Waco, Texas. Mills grew up without friends, books or music, and, at the behest of his insurance broker father, initially planned for a career in engineering. Enrolled at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College in the mid-1930s, Mills frequently wrote for the student newspaper, often about his anger at upperclassmen taunting freshman. When students criticized his writing for lacking "guts," he wrote in response: "Just who are the men with guts? They are the men who have the ability and the brains to see this institution's faults . . . the men who have the imagination and the intelligence to formulate their own codes; the men who have the courage and the stamina to live their own lives in spite of social pressure and isolation." These were less the words of an engineer and more the early musings of one of the 20th century's great sociologists. After one year at Texas A & M, Mills transferred to the University of Texas Austin, where he excelled in philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, economics and social psychology. At UT Austin, Mills received a bachelor's in sociology and a master's in philosophy, while developing interest in the theories and writings of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. In 1939, he entered the doctoral program in sociology with a research fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. After completing his coursework in 1941, Mills joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, avoiding military service due to high blood pressure. Mills involved himself in public affairs in Washington, D.C., and began writing for progressive magazines like the New Republic. In 1945, he joined Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, where he attempted to combine his progressive political passions with empirical research.

Mills authored some of the most radical books of the 20th century, including New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), all published when the FBI and Attorney General were compiling lists of "subversives," which put Mills in great personal and professional danger. Interested in the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro, Mills visited Cuba in 1960, interviewing Che Guevara and Castro. Mills, who refused to identify with any political party, movement or religion, adamantly criticized what he called "cheerful robots," or those who happily follow without questioning authority. He said, "If there is one safe prediction about religion in this society, it would seem to be that if tomorrow official spokesmen were to proclaim XYZism, next week 90 percent of religious declaration would be XYZist" ("A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy," 1958). The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills' most lasting legacy, which also helped found the subfields of public and critical sociology, calls on sociologists to communicate with publics, instead of just one another, and make relevant peoples' personal troubles by connecting them to public issues. At the age of 45, Mills suffered a massive heart attack. D. 1962.

“ . . . [A]re not all the television Christians in reality armchair atheists? In value and in reality they live without the God they profess; despite ten million Bibles sold each year, they are religiously illiterate.”

“According to your belief [Christian clergy], my kind of man — secular, prideful, agnostic and all the rest of it — is among the damned. I'm on my own. You've got your God.”

—-C. Wright Mills, "A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy," an address before the annual meeting of the Board of Evangelical and Social Service, United Church of Canada, Feb. 27, 1958

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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