There’s a neologism that I’d propose for the often-radical international activism that comes from non-coastal college towns that are too often easily ignored – midwestern cosmopolitanism.

By Zeb Larson 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the American branch of the struggle to endapartheid in South Africa, as well as support for anti-colonial movements in Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Guinea-Bissau, all found their most fervent support in the Rust Belt.  The coasts were of course vibrant centers of activism in the way that you might expect them to be – but divestment’s earliest notable victories all happened in the university towns of Wisconsin and Michigan. Capitol Hill and Cambridge, Massachusetts may have been important, but dreams of African freedom found their first American supporters in Madison and Ann Arbor.

There’s a neologism that I’d propose for the often-radical international activism that comes from non-coastal college towns that are too often easily ignored – midwestern cosmopolitanism. This phenomenon has the outward effect of making certain hubs like Madison or Ann Arbor, Columbus and South Bend, seemingly much more urbane than other parts of their states (and politically far more liberal), but cosmopolitanism belies a powerful social force and dynamic that extends beyond voting dynamics.

Kristin Hoganson, a historian of American foreign relations and imperialism at University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana, published Heartland, a history of the American Midwest in 2020. Hoganson brilliantly draws out the ways that the American Midwest, despite often being portrayed as provincial or cut off from life on the coasts, actually plays a vital role in American empire and Manifest Destiny, but also how that role encouraged a potent critique and activist response in that very same region. The Midwest was the first frontier, the original Northwest, and the violent annexation of this region into the United States during the nineteenth-century involved both the expulsion of indigenous peoples as well as the development of American empire’s most powerful economic arsenal. Cities like Chicago drove the settlement of more rural areas, acting as an engine for U.S. settler-capitalism and a site of extraction for the rest of the world  all at once. Even its universities were designed to drive technical and scientific progress. As such, Hoganson’s book is meant to demolish the idea of a “provincial” heartland cut off from globalization and show that the Midwest, for good and bad, was continually thrust onto the global center stage.

However, Hoganson’s book is not just a history of the heartland’s imperial critics, for the same the same imperial process she describes in the Midwest was exactly what made possible this process of critique. The Midwest generated their own critics and countercultures, ones that explicitly repudiated the idea of the Midwest as an intrinsically local place, and with it, the rapacious capitalism and empire-building that helped to build the Midwest. This wasn’t just a local phenomenon, but one with global importance.

In the case of African liberation, university towns were the main early drivers of activism. Agricultural schools like Michigan State whose function was in part to disseminate American agricultural science to the rest of the world sent Americans abroad to work on development projects in newly independent countries. Language departments found increased demand for scholarship around African languages like UW Madison’s Department of African Languages and Literature. African studies grew as a field in the Midwest – it was Northwestern University in 1947 that saw the first African Studies department in the United States. The South African poet and Xhosa language scholar A.C. Jordan came to Madison in 1963, followed a few years later by Daniel Kunene.

Universities drew students to them as well, both from at home and abroad. The American educational system was magnetic, and it drew in students from Africa, often with direct financial support from the U.S. government. The irony, of course, was that many of these students became vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of what the State Department’s intent may have been. Likewise, the growth of African Studies departments happened with support from the Ford Foundation and the federal government, but had far more radical implications.

This is how Madison, Wisconsin became a hub of the anti-apartheid movement (and for African liberation more generally) in the United States. The University of Wisconsin became an early place to study African languages, literature, and history. South African refugees and exiles like A.C. Jordan and his family made the city their home, and they networked with students whose academic pursuits exposed them to southern Africa, as well as scholars who worked on the region, and people who sympathized with the cause of the African National Congress after learning enough about apartheid. In 1968, this group formed the Madison Area Committee on Southern Africa; eight years later, the city of Madison became the first in the United States to vote to divest from companies who did business with South Africa, followed by further laws to refuse to sign contracts with companies working in South Africa. They emphasized the role of Wisconsin corporations in exploiting South Africans and argued that they had a collective responsibility to help end apartheid.

Madison was exceptional in that some of the earliest victories for activists happened there, but it was hardly unique. Michigan State and the University of Michigan both had vibrant movements that were born out of a push-pull between international students arriving to study and domestic students travelling abroad to work. This happened in religious education, too. Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa ordained ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and it attracted a community of Namibian Lutherans. The seminary consequently became home to National Namibia Concern, an organization which raised awareness about South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. In all cases, they focused on the role of the United States and their locality in indirectly sustaining apartheid through investment and commerce.

But these same dynamics existed in other cities as well. Apart from the fact that major cities like Chicago had their own universities, industry and labor had similar effects on people. Labor unions like the United Auto Workers or the United Steelworkers became involved in the anti-apartheid movement because of deindustrialization. In Chicago, steelworkers protested the importation of South Africa steel for building projects, especially public works: they argued that it was part of the same economic forces harming the U.S. steel industry. Union members became mobilized against apartheid out of an awareness that the same economic forces oppressing them were the ones that sustained apartheid in South Africa.

This midwestern cosmopolitanism arises from the same political and economic forces that push the Midwest into the rest of the world. Industry and education draw people in as part of their core missions, or send them outward. But we shouldn’t imagine that the process doesn’t affect those who come or go. It frequently leads to a greater awareness of the injustices that undergird such a system. The Midwest today is embroiled in a host of issues, not least of them being climate change. The anti-apartheid movement in the Midwest flourished because activists could connect the region to a global issue; today, they must do the same.

Zeb Larson is a writer and historian based in Columbus, Ohio.