Book Reviews

City Building and Black Power

That time a civil rights activist teamed up with Richard Nixon to build a black-run town in rural North Carolina


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 consistently maintained that the community was open to people of all colors; a quarter of its employees were white.)

But Soul City never would have broken ground if not for substantial support from a variety of federal and state agencies. Both government funding and corporate and media interest in the project stemmed not from its economic viability but from political and social considerations.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Soul City story was McKissick's alliance with President Richard Nixon. Healy calls it "a bizarre political union" between a militant black leader and "the 'law and order' president whose 'southern strategy' had exploited white racism to win white votes." Healy presents this union largely as one of political expediency: McKissick changed his registration from Democratic to Republican in 1972 to ensure that the administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development would make good on its guarantee of a $14 million loan for Soul City, while Nixon was so afraid of losing reelection that he threw money at nearly any African American willing to put in a good word for him.

Even after he became Nixon's "chief Black spokesman," McKissick conceded that the Democrats spoke more directly to the problems of minorities. At the same time, they had failed to use their power to cure the ills of poverty, joblessness, crime, and lack of affordable housing. The Democratic Party, in McKissick's analysis, believed that it had met minorities' needs with its empty rhetoric and thus took them for granted, while black voters had become so accustomed to that rhetoric that they ceased to demand substantive action. McKissick told black audiences that the only way to break out of this dynamic "was to use their political leverage to demand results" from both parties.

Nixon, for his part, had been praised by Jet as the GOP's "civil rights workhorse" during his vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower and had received 32 percent of the black vote in 1960, a figure unmatched by any Republican presidential candidate since. And Nixon was more interested in the potential appeal of Republican ideas to black voters, and the compatibility of Black Power with Republicanism, than Healy's account suggests.

John McClaughry (a Reason contributing editor) served as Nixon's special assistant for community affairs during the 1968 campaign. He was also an ally of Nathan Wright Jr., one of the main exponents of a moderate form of Black Power, which McClaughry found to be consistent with Republican ideals of economic and political self-sufficiency. He defined his understanding of Black Power, in a letter to an African-American associate, as "the power and the means to build the kind of community your people want and deserve to have, and the sole right to benefit from the profits that result." This would translate into a desire for not only better housing but homeownership; not only decent food in supermarkets but ownership of those supermarkets; not only a respectful hearing from Congress but the clout to achieve results.

McKissick echoed such rhetoric, as when he told a group of Standard Oil executives that free enterprise was the best hope for solving racial minorities' problems. He assured them that black people were not seeking to destroy the system but "to become a part of it, and once we become a part of it, to fight to make the system include all people." McKissick's ideas of black self-reliance fit with Republican opposition to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society welfarism but also with proposals to break up bigness and bureaucracy and to devolve power as close to the people as practically possible. And McKissick always maintained that Soul City, despite its government subsidies, was a free market project—a black counterpart to private "new towns" like Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.

McClaughry introduced Nixon to McKissick in the spring of 1968, a meeting full of awkwardness and mutual misunderstandings. Nixon tried to bond with McKissick over their shared education as law students in North Carolina in the late 1940s, ignoring the considerable gap between his experiences at segregated Duke University and McKissick's as the first black student at the University of North Carolina Law School, where his classmates had poured water on his clothes and hid snakes in his bed.

Nonetheless, as president Nixon did take some actions meant to advance black interests, including the desegregation of Southern schools, the creation of the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, and the Philadelphia Plan mandating affirmative action in government contracts. These actions, and the electoral efforts of McKissick and other black leaders, didn't raise Nixon's support from black voters very much—he went from 12 percent in 1968 to 13 percent in 1972. Still, Nixon was grateful for McKissick's efforts and offered him a position in the new administration, which McKissick declined in order to concentrate on city building.

Healy notes that Nixon's resignation in 1974 was "devastating" for Soul City: "Not only had McKissick grown fond of Nixon personally, but his influence in Washington depended heavily on the president's support." Nixon's presidency also marked the last time that the Republican Party thought in depth about how to win over African-American voters, aside from Jack Kemp's idiosyncratic efforts.

Healy concludes with the wistful speculations of some of Soul City's most famous alumni, including Charlotte mayor and two-time senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt, that if it had flourished it might have changed the history of American race relations. Healy doesn't directly endorse that view, but he does feel that the Soul City story offers significant lessons for a society where "the financial gap between Black and white householders has hardly budged" and African Americans are still demanding "the same thing McKissick was seeking five decades earlier: respect, dignity, and control over their own destiny."

But better lessons might be drawn from Prince George's County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., which succeeded in all the ways that Soul City failed. Developed in recent decades largely by African-American entrepreneurs, with the government's assistance but not its exclusive support, it is now one of the most affluent majority-minority counties and home to five of the 10 richest black communities in the country. If the Republican Party ever again decides to engage seriously with black America—and vice versa—it's more likely to learn from the lessons of those plush enclaves than from the sad history of Soul City.