How White Liberals Destroyed the 1970s’ Soul CityHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, 1970s, black power, Floyd McKissick, Soul City
Long before rapper Ice Cube met with the Trump campaign to discuss an economic empowerment plan for African Americans, there was Floyd McKissick, the Black civil rights activist who won over President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s with a similar plan for Black people. McKissick, the former executive director of the Congress for Racial Equality, wanted to build a city in rural Warren County, North Carolina, for Black people — a “spearhead for racial equality” called Soul City.
Dubbed in the press as a “Black city,” McKissick assembled a team of mostly Black urban planners, architects, engineers and designers to create a municipality where African Americans could live free of racial discrimination— sanctuary. The city was also available to any non-Black families to live in, so long as they didn’t bring racist attitudes along with them. The new book Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, by Seton Hall Law School professor Thomas Healy, explores the history of how and why McKissick’s experiment came to be, and its unceremonious end.
Healy’s book chronicles the rise and fall of Soul City while examining the theory of social change espoused by McKissick and other civil rights activists in the post-Martin Luther King milieu called “Black capitalism.” The debates of that period have parallels to today, when Black Lives Matter protests broke open national discussions about racial wealth inequality and whether capitalist tools could be used to fix problems that capitalism and racism created. McKissick threw his chips in with capital, reasoning that African Americans would never be able to manifest their destinies in the U.S. so long as they were at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“It is a story not just about white prejudice but about white power, about the control of white society over the lives of Black people,” writes Healy in the book.
McKissick broke ground on Soul City with $10 million in start-up funds from the New Communities Act of 1968, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society plan to alleviate poverty. Richard Nixon trumpeted McKissick’s plans and the “Black capitalism” motto in his appeal to African-American voters when running for president that year. However, as Healy details in the book, the Soul City experiment was ultimately failed by the federal government, which grew less committed to its new towns program over the years. A confluence of other factors also contributed: racist North Carolina lawmakers, a crumbling 1970s economy and white liberals who mistakenly believed that McKissick’s plan was steeped in Black separatism.
Bloomberg CityLab spoke with Healy about his book, how white liberals sabotaged the Black progress of Soul City, and what new citymakers could learn today from McKissick’s enterprise. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What are the lessons of the Soul City saga, in light of current debates about wealth and capitalism today?
It’d be nice to find some hopeful lessons, but I think there are a lot of dispiriting lessons. I think what McKissick hoped it would accomplish was to provide a basis for wealth accumulation. He recognized as well as anybody that the people who had wealth were the people who had capital. When he announced the plans for Soul City on Lincoln's birthday during a press conference, he said that Black people knew more about economics than anyone because their labor had not enriched them, that for hundreds of years people got wealthy off of the unpaid labor of slaves. His line was, “Abraham Lincoln didn't free the slaves, he fired the slaves.”
It’s important to accumulate wealth because only when you have wealth do you have political freedom. He had seen firsthand over two decades of fighting civil rights battles how people who were economically dependent on others were intimidated, threatened, harassed and unable to exercise their political freedoms. Anybody who joined the NAACP or protested for integration or any kind of improvement in the lives of Black Americans faced not only violence, but economic persecution. You wouldn't get that loan at the bank, you would lose your job. If you had a store white suppliers might not supply it anymore.
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