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‘Soul City’ and the Southern Utopia that Never Was

Thomas Healy’s ‘Soul City’ shines a light on the obstacles Black activist Floyd McKissick faced to create an inclusive community in America.

Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia
Thomas Healy
Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Co.
February 2021

If a Black man has no bread in his pocket, the solution to his problem is not integration. It’s to go get some bread.

– Floyd McKissick

What happens to crusaders once the fight is over (or at least when they can no longer rally the troops)? This is a question that history tends to overlook.

Once historical figures fall out of alignment with the zeitgeist, history moves on to the next groundswell, the next charismatic leader, the next tragic denouement. That is why most casual students of American history have never heard of Floyd McKissick, even though he was at one time among the country’s highest-profile civil rights leaders. Because after all the organizing, and all the marches, and all the lawsuits, McKissick pointed his life in a direction that some observers probably thought foolhardy at best and dangerously flawed at worst: Racially integrated real estate.

Thomas Healy’s Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia tells how McKissick came to think that building an entirely new city was a possible solution for the problems of Black America in the 1970s, and how it all came to nothing. Unlike some of the wild-eyed dreamers who have tried to fix what they saw as wrong in America by magicking up perfect metropolises—Athelstan Spilhaus’ Minnesota-based Experimental City comes to mind—McKissick was not looking to reinvent America on a blank slate. He wanted to build a planned community with pretty little neighborhoods of snug suburban homes in various tones of Brady Bunch brown with factories, office buildings, parks, and stores conveniently located nearby for employment and enjoyment. He wanted it to be racially integrated and free from discrimination. He called the development Soul City to signal to Black people they were welcome there. But so was anybody else.

Though he worked closely with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., McKissick was neither pure firebrand nor pure visionary. He embodied aspects of both. 

A World War II veteran with a staunch sense of right and wrong, he took a no-nonsense approach to civil rights. When studying to get his law degree at the University of North Carolina, McKissick managed the problem of a segregated campus swimming pool by jumping into it with his clothes on and announcing, “It’s integrated now.” 

He moved quickly from practicing civil rights law to taking a top leadership role at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1963 just as the anti-Jim Crow campaign was starting to hit its stride. While a pragmatist, McKissick also grew frustrated as the battles of the 1960s did not produce enough victories. During the 1966 March Against Fear, McKissick tried to lead marchers in nonviolent protest as they were being assaulted by riot police. A tear gas canister slammed him to the ground. In agonizing pain and out of patience, McKissick erupted to a reporter:

I’m tired of having to negotiate for our constitutional rights … They don’t call it white power. They just call it power. I’m committed to nonviolence, but I say what we need is to get us some black power.

After leaving CORE in 1968, McKissick funneled his activist energies into a campaign for Black economic equality. Believing that the White establishment would never work to close racial wealth disparities and that welfare was a poor substitute, he started McKissick Enterprises as “a national clearinghouse for Black capitalism.” 

Although his company launched a series of ventures, only after McKissick was made aware—through a friend who had become the assistant secretary at the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—of something called the New Communities Act that his dream began to take shape. That just-passed law was part of a government drive to improve living conditions, in part through $500 million allocated to help build brand-new towns across the country. McKissick saw his chance to create a solution to the country’s “urban crisis”.

The proposal for Soul City called for a “black-oriented” community that would “provide an opportunity for the establishment of Black economic and political power.” An advertising flyer asked people to imagine: “A city without prejudice. A city without poverty. A city without slums. A city tailor-made for industry.” 

McKissick’s struggle to turn that utopian progressive capitalist statement of intent into reality is what takes up the bulk of Healy’s lively narrative. Part of what makes the book successful is that Healy threads the needle between presenting a realistic take on a highly quixotic endeavor without making his protagonist out to be some kind of wooly idealist whose dream foundered on the rocky shoals of reality.

Soul City makes clear that the odds were stacked against McKissick from the start. Part of this was the location he chose: a swath of unimproved land in a remote corner of North Carolina without much in the way of industry, education, or infrastructure. He struggled to convince backers that despite its evocative name (which excited many Southern-born Blacks eager to move back home), Soul City was not a Blacks-only community. 

There was also the chicken-or-egg loop the project was stuck in where it could not secure funding without some promise that companies would open facilities there to provide employment but could not entice those companies to sign agreements without a guarantee of funding for the actual town. Layered on top of that was a Gordian knot of bureaucratic obfuscation and delay, which even McKissick’s determined political lobbying could not slice through. 

Among the more fascinating offshoots of Healy’s main narrative describes how a veteran civil rights organizer like McKissick was drawn out of desperation to become not just a Republican but a Richard Nixon surrogate in the 1972 election. Ironically, the deeply prejudiced Nixon who spearheaded the racial divide-and-conquer “Southern strategy” had built a good enough reputation in the ’50s and ’60s as a racially progressive Republican to be called the party’s “civil rights workhorse” by no less than Jet magazine. But by 1972, there were implications of a quid pro quo once McKissick began acting as an enthusiastic surrogate for Nixon, though Healy calls the evidence “inconclusive”.

Whether or not McKissick’s government lobbying had any positive impact, Soul City never quite got off the ground. Delays dragged on. A series of newspaper articles portrayed McKissick and his fellow developers (mostly living roughly in trailers on the planned site) as Black Power separatists, reckless profiteers, or both. One nail in the coffin was the election from North Carolina of the vehemently small government and race-baiting Senator Jesse Helms, who told McKissick to his face in 1974, “I want you to know I’m going to kill Soul City.”

McKissick’s project was not alone in its failure. OVERALL, the HUD program had turned into a graveyard of good ideas, with 12 of the proposed 13 towns going bankrupt or being foreclosed. The one successful project was The Woodlands, which today is a bustling community outside Houston. Healy points out that even though 88 percent of The Woodlands’ 120,000 residents are White, “No one thinks of it as separatist.”

Also, if there was in fact a Black senator who announced his intention to “kill” The Woodlands, Healy does not mention it.

RATING 7 / 10