Floyd McKissick’s Soul City: An Interview with Thomas Healy

Image of Floyd McKissick (Courtesy of Peter W. Silver)

In 1969, Black Power advocate Floyd McKissick announced plans to develop Soul City, a multiracial community in rural Warren County, North Carolina. With the backing of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, McKissick and his supporters built a small manufacturing plant and several dozen residential homes, attracting new residents from across the country. By 1979, however, Soul City entered into foreclosure, amid wavering governmental support and fierce attacks from local media and conservative firebrand and U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. At the time, most observers regarded the development as a sad failure, a curiosity of the civil rights era that never had a chance at survival. 

Thomas Healy’s Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, published earlier this year, challenges the judgment of Soul City as a failure. Healy, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, shared his thoughts with me on Soul City’s larger significance in the following interview. This interview was conducted by Joshua Davis, an associate professor of United States history at the University of Baltimore focusing on social movements, policing, capitalism, and African American history. 

Joshua Davis (JD): Floyd McKissick is one of the great forgotten figures of the civil rights era. Arguably only Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael were more influential in the movement while he was the head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). What do you think we gain by bringing McKissick back into the historical narrative of the Black freedom struggle?

Thomas Healy (TH): We gain a renewed focus on issues of economic inequality. King is remembered largely for his focus on integration, while Carmichael is associated primarily with Black Power. McKissick believed in both goals, but more than anything he cared about economic issues. He was one of the first Black leaders to recognize that the victories of the civil rights movement had not significantly improved the lives of poor Blacks. They still lacked well-paying jobs, decent housing, and good schools. As McKissick liked to say, what good was the right to sit at a lunch counter if you didn’t have the bread to buy a burger? McKissick wanted to help Black people acquire that bread and thought building a predominantly black city was one way to do so. Soul City didn’t achieve that goal, but McKissick was right that litigation and legislation alone weren’t enough to bring about economic equality. A half-century later, the racial wealth gap has hardly budged. Blacks are still nearly twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, while their median net worth is one-tenth that of whites. Bringing McKissick back into the historical narrative refocuses our attention on these problems.

JD: You take issue with criticisms of Soul City as a farfetched, isolated attempt at Black nationalist city building that never had a chance to succeed. Instead, you make a point of interpreting it within the larger context of the federal New Communities Act and comparing it with other attempts at building majority-white towns from scratch, some of them successful like The Woodlands, Texas, and others that failed, like Jonathan, Minnesota. Why is this larger framework so important for understanding Soul City?

TH: It’s important to understand the larger framework because doing so undermines the criticisms you mention – that Soul City was an isolated or farfetched Black nationalist project. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Soul City was part of a larger effort to build new cities across the country in response to the population boom and the urban crisis of the 1960s. Building new cities sounds strange to us, but it was a mainstream idea in planning circles at the time. That’s why Congress passed the New Communities Act of 1968, which allocated $250 million for the effort, and then doubled down on that amount two years later. Soul City was just one of thirteen new towns funded under this law, so to portray it as some crackpot idea is simply inaccurate. The other reason it’s important to understand the larger framework is because it puts the downfall of Soul City into context. Critics like to claim Soul City was poorly conceived and badly managed. But when you note that twelve of the thirteen cities funded by Congress failed, it becomes clear that larger forces were at work. And when you note that the only city that succeeded – The Woodlands, Texas – received five times the amount of federal loans as Soul City and is overwhelmingly white, it becomes clear what some of those larger forces were.

JD: As much as Soul City was an urban planning project, it was also a political and intellectual concept. Other than bringing residents and industry to Soul City, how would you describe McKissick’s larger vision?

TH: McKissick’s ultimate goal was autonomy and self-determination. He focused on the issue of economics because he viewed it as central to a larger political goal. “Unless the Black man attains economic independence, any ‘political independence’ will be an illusion,” he wrote. McKissick believed that as long as Black people were dependent on whites for jobs and credit, they would be vulnerable to retaliation for expressing their political views. He had seen how this worked during the civil rights movement. Blacks who joined protests or boycotts frequently lost their jobs and were denied loans. “The fear expressed by many poor blacks at the thought of registering to vote is fully understandable – it is the fear of not having enough to eat,” McKissick wrote. Of course, there was also the fear of violence and death at the hands of white mobs or white police. McKissick believed the only way to break this cycle was to attain political independence and the only way to achieve that goal was through economic self-sufficiency. 

JD: In your book, you dissect how the Raleigh News and Observer, and specifically Claude Sitton and Pat Stith, were unrelentingly critical in their coverage of Soul City. Sitton, regarded by many as one of the preeminent reporters of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, suggested Soul City was anti-white, even though McKissick welcomed white residents. Stith, who as a young man in the military opposed racial integration, later skewered Soul City as not much more than a massive fraud scheme that squandered federal dollars. This is a very different portrait of these prize-winning journalists than we’re accustomed to, particularly of Sitton, who was lionized in books like Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts’s The Race Beat. What larger lessons do you think we might draw from the N&O’s coverage of Soul City about how white journalists covered Black leaders in the post-civil rights ‘70s?

TH: First, these journalists were flawed. That doesn’t erase the good work they did, nor does it necessarily make them bad people. We’re all flawed in some way. But it’s important to recognize their limitations and learn from them. One of those limitations is that they had difficulty seeing beyond their own perspectives. Sitton was a stubborn thinker who, in the words of his own paper, “often saw issues in absolute, black and white terms.” He couldn’t understand how a predominantly Black city was consistent with integration. So he concluded that Soul City was a separatist venture, ignoring the fact that one-quarter of the staff was white. Stith had an equally narrow perspective. In an interview, he acknowledged that he was offended by McKissick’s alliance with Nixon. This led him to focus only on the problems Soul City experienced, not the benefits it was bringing to a desperately poor region. What might have helped both men see beyond their own perspectives? Diversity in the newsroom. Think about how different the paper’s coverage might have been if there was a critical mass of Black reporters and editors who could have offered a different take on McKissick’s goals.

JD: What do you think might have enabled Soul City to ultimately succeed?

TH: A greater degree of commitment from the federal government. It took three years from the time McKissick applied for a loan guarantee until the government approved his request and another two years before the money was released.  Even then, he received only two-thirds of the amount he was promised, and the money could only be spent on infrastructure, not on houses, stores, or factories. This made it difficult to show progress on the ground, which led to claims by The News & Observer that he was mismanaging the project and to a call from Senator Jesse Helms for a federal audit. The government defended McKissick from those attacks, but it became tentative in its support of Soul City and began pulling out of the new town businesses. That sent a message to the industry that the government was not fully committed to Soul City, and without that commitment industry simply wasn’t willing to build the factories that were needed to make the project a success. This is not to minimize the role of racism or the economic recessions of the 1970s in Soul City’s downfall. But Soul City might have been able to overcome those challenges if the federal government had been more committed to McKissick’s vision and less cowed by those who attacked it.  

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Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.