Oliver Cromwell Cox was arguably one of the most controversial mid-twentieth-century social scientists. Born on August 24, 1901, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in the West Indies, Cox was one of six children born to William and Mary Blake Cox. He came to the United States in his late teens, hoping for a career in medicine. He completed his secondary education at the Central YMCA High School in Chicago, then earned a Bachelor of Science degree in law in 1928 from Northwestern University. Cox was stricken with polio in 1929, and he walked with great difficulty for the remainder of his life. The illness seems to have caused him to abandon his hope for a career in law; he thought that his disability would impede his career as a lawyer. Switching instead to the social sciences, he earned a Master of Arts degree in economics in 1932 and a PhD in sociology in 1938 from the University of Chicago. His dissertation was titled “Factors Affecting Marital Status among Negroes.” In a letter to a former student written in 1971, Cox explained that “[t]he depression caused me to change to sociology.”
Upon completion of his PhD, Cox embarked on an academic career, teaching first at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and later at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. At Wiley College, Cox developed a lifelong friendship with the distinguished African American poet Melvin B. Tolson. In 1949 Cox moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, and took a job teaching sociology at the state’s all-Black public institution of higher education, Lincoln University.
Cox was an original thinker and a prolific scholar. During the early 1940s he began exploring and writing about race and class in a series of articles in the Journal of Negro Education. His work culminated in the publication of Caste, Class and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, the book for which he is best known. In his book Cox traced the rise of racial prejudice to the emergence of capitalism and the effort of capitalists to exercise control over the workers they exploited.
Such ideas resulted in Cox being labeled a Marxist, a designation he denied. Cox’s criticism of capitalism and of institutional racism resulted in attacks on his work from a variety of sources. As early as 1944, while Cox was teaching at Wiley College, an FBI informant reported that he had “questionable tendencies.” Although the FBI alleged that it never considered Cox a serious threat to national security, it continued to gather information on him into the 1960s.
Cox retired from Lincoln University in 1970. Subsequently, he moved to Detroit, where he taught for a few more years at Wayne State University. Always a loner, Cox never married and spent his more than twenty-year tenure at Lincoln University living in a dormitory room. He died on September 4, 1974. Among the awards he received was the W. E. B. DuBois Award (1968), given by the Association of Social and Behavioral Scientists, and the DuBoisJohnson-Frazier Award (1971), sponsored by the Caucus of Black Sociologists.
Cox, Oliver Cromwell. File, Lincoln Collection. Inman E. Page Library, Lincoln University, Jefferson City.
Hunter, Herbert M. “The Life and Work of Oliver C. Cox.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1981.
Hunter, Herbert M., and Sameer Y. Abraham. Caste, Class, and the World System: The Sociology of Oliver C. Cox. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988.
Morgan, Gordon D. “In Memoriam: Oliver C. Cox, 1901–1974.” Monthly Review 28 (May 1976): 34–40.
Parks, Arnold G. Lincoln University, 1920–1970. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007.
Published June 30, 2023
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