C. Wright Mills

On this date in 1916, 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 wrote 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 the attorney general were compiling lists of “subversives,” which put Mills in great personal and professional danger. Interested in the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro, he visited Cuba in 1960.

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, helped found the subfields of public and critical sociology. It called on sociologists to communicate with the general public instead of just one another and to connect people to public issues. At age 45 he suffered a fatal heart attack. D. 1962.

Freedom From Religion Foundation