Floyd McKissick’s Soul City, Black Capitalism and Black Liberation
Review of Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy.
NY, Metropolitan Books, 2021.
By Tom Angotti
Throughout the history of this nation built on slavery and four hundred years of white rule, the struggles for racial justice gave rise to many dreams as well as concrete efforts to build communities based on racial justice, planned and developed by African Americans. They included cooperative farms and enterprises, land trusts, and local associations that sought to build social and economic cohesion in Black-run communities. However, at every stage these enterprises faced resistance from the powerful forces of white supremacy and were excluded from equal access to land and capital.
The Back-to-Africa movement in the early twentieth century envisioned liberation from racial oppression coming only when people of African descent removed themselves from societies run by and for whites. The civil rights movement of the 1960s saw the rise of Black Capitalism, a philosophy that assumed that the only way to achieve equality in an economy thoroughly dominated by whites was through ownership and control by and for Blacks. Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and many others were critical of the more mainstream Civil Rights leaders for downplaying the exclusion of Blacks from access to white-dominated capital. The notorious practices of redlining and predatory lending prevented Blacks from building household wealth and “the American Dream.” This was part of the centuries-long legacy of slavery, when Blacks themselves were not only prevented from owning property, but were in fact treated as private property.
The Black Power movement was also inspired by the rising revolutions against colonial rule in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the early twentieth century, the movement sought the creation of a Republic of New Africa in the US South.
After World War Two, a resurgent civil rights movement refocused organizing against the displacement of Black communities by “urban renewal” in central cities and the exclusion of Blacks from white suburbs. Black rebellions across the nation highlighted urban inequalities and suburban exclusion, triggering reforms that sought to integrate urban schools and suburban housing, but the racist backlash against attempts at racial integration led some activists to the conclusion that the road to racial justice in cities and suburbs was too indebted to whites and instead required Black-led urban development.
This was the setting that produced a bold effort to create a new town built on the foundations of racial justice. Floyd McKissick, a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and advocate of Black capitalism, was its founder and leader. CORE was a partner and sometimes more militant alternative to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). McKissick allied himself at times with Malcolm X and the Black Power movement. However, after the assassination of MLK, enactment of a host of national civil rights laws, and then the powerful white backlash that led to racist attacks on school busing and the “war on crime” (the chief instrument of the New Jim Crow), many of the more radical advocates in the movement shifted to building self-reliance and Black institutions.
McKissick’s Planned New Town
This book is about Floyd McKissick’s long struggle to establish Soul City, a planned new town welcoming Blacks while not excluding others. It was located in North Carolina and supported by the national New Town program that had started under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, then continued under Richard Nixon and finally ended with its elimination during the administration of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. McKissick’s move to become a Republican and support Nixon’s candidacy in 1968 kept the funding stream open, even as other New Town projects faced significant challenges.
McKissick identified land in a rural part of North Carolina, northeast of Durham on the border with the state of Virginia. Though it had been Klan territory, it also was close to some of the state’s liberal centers. McKissick worked intensely to raise development funds, secure HUD grants, attract industries, garner support from local governments, and bring in professional expertise, including urban planning faculty from the University of North Carolina. He moved there with his family and attracted others with the idea of building a city from the ground up that would not be bridled by North American racism.
McKissick fought against both conservative and liberal arguments that the name, Soul City, was exclusionary and even racist. Facing these criticisms, he insisted the new town would welcome Blacks while keeping the door open to whites. This did not allay the opposition he faced in Congress from Jesse Helms, the notorious racist Senator from North Carolina, who blasted McKissick and resisted all attempts to reconcile their differences.
Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974 set the project back significantly. In addition to the political whiplash he faced from local and national critics, some of McKissick’s development deals were tied up by the red tape and bungling in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Following the rising neoliberal trend at the time, HUD was backing away from its New Town program and ceding the limelight to private initiatives like Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland.
For urbanists who care about racial justice, Thomas Healy’s story of McKissick and Soul City is a powerful one. It highlights one of the rare moments in US history during which the federal government directly subsidized planned urban development instead of ceding all powers to landowners, industry, banks, and homebuilders. It is also a stark reminder of the durability of structural racism within and beyond the arena of urban development.
In his narrative, Thomas Healey tells an engaging story built around the complex politics and persona of Floyd McKissick. He highlights McKissick’s drive to prove that a Black-led city-building enterprise can work while also sustaining social and political objectives consistent with the radical movement that he grew up with. However, McKissick’s long struggle to build a new community in a semi-rural area by attracting industry, new home construction, and building the physical and social infrastructure is revealed as deeply compromised by structural economic and political inequalities.
From the beginning many white critics, fixating on the name, attacked the idea of Soul City as inherently racist even as McKissick clearly opened the door to whites as both collaborators and residents while never conceding that Soul City was anything but a Black-led project. One of his more powerful and outspoken opponents was the notorious Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a senator who defended Jim Crow and opposed civil rights legislation. Healey also describes, however, the damage done by some liberals in the press and local government as they pandered to parochial fears of change and racist anxieties.
Healy is an accomplished author and scholar and tells an engaging story. Our urban experts too often diminish the human dimension by focusing on the physical city without delving into the deep, contradictory social relations that are the foundation of its creation and sustainability. More importantly, he brings a lens that clearly shows the pervasiveness of political and ideological obstacles to racial equality in the establishment and viability of urban environments.
While Healy tells a good story in an engaging narrative style, he might well have accomplished the same with something less than a 344-page text. There are too many minor details which, though interesting, could be set aside without compromising the rich narrative.
Tom Angotti is an editor of Progressive City and Professor Emeritus, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. firstname.lastname@example.org.