City Building and Black Power
Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, by Thomas Healy, Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $29.99
Floyd McKissick was a high-profile activist of the 1960s civil rights movement, combating Jim Crow through rallies, sit-ins, the Freedom Rides that integrated interstate buses and stations throughout the South, and the Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. Elected national director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1966, the African-American attorney turned the organization toward Black Power, with a particular emphasis on achieving economic autonomy for his people.
He resigned his position in 1968, when the organization rejected his plan to create new cities across rural America, all of them to be built and run by black people. So McKissick devoted the next dozen years to creating one such community. Soul City took shape on 5,000 acres of the North Carolina Piedmont, the site of a former slave plantation.
Thomas Healy’s Soul City is a narrative history of the conception, development, and eventual failure of McKissick’s efforts, from his announcement of the project in 1969 until the federal government’s foreclosure sale on the property in 1981. Healy, a reporter turned professor at Seton Hall Law School, has written an engaging and sympathetic account of McKissick and his dream. But he doesn’t always draw the right lessons from this tale for the pursuit of racial equality today.
Soul City’s failure as a real estate venture was foreordained from the start. Healy concedes that “McKissick and his staff were novices, civil rights activists who had never built anything tangible in their lives”; they lacked the requisite knowledge, experience, and resources. They attempted to create a fully planned and freestanding new town in an area that had no chance of supporting such a venture. Soul City was an hour away from any major metropolitan area. It had no infrastructure: Roads, water, sewage, and electrical systems would have to be built from scratch. It was located in an impoverished rural county with substandard schools, no major industries, a largely uneducated and unskilled population, and no access to restaurants, theaters, shopping centers, parks, museums, or other urban and suburban amenities. It’s surprising the attempt persisted as long as it did.
Healy’s account dwells on the obstacles McKissick faced, including stagflation, bureaucratic red tape, and opposition from the racist Sen. Jesse Helms (R–N.C.) and a hostile Raleigh newspaper. The book also convincingly defends McKissick against contemporary charges that he misappropriated resources or that Soul City was an exercise in racial separatism. (McKissick consiste
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