Saving Souls

Soul City, North Carolina, is the mostly forgotten dream of American civil rights leader Floyd McKissick (1922-1991). McKissick dared to create something big—an American city from scratch in Warren County’s rural Piedmont region of the state. Hinted at by its very name, Soul City was supposed to be an oasis of freedom for Black Americans—solving the problems of racism, poverty, and urban decay.

Thomas Healy, a law professor at Seton Hall, tells the story of what eventually happened to the dream in Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.

Few North Carolinians and fewer Americans know anything about this land once christened as a new beginning for Black America. McKissick’s grand vision, which garnered attention from major media outlets and a Republican president, now seems like a footnote from the 1970s. Yet Soul City’s legacy offers essential lessons. Political debates over central planning, urban decay, victim culture, resegregation, and conservative outreach to black Americans, to name a few, are more relevant than ever.

Floyd McKissick

Asheville-born and one-time president of the notable Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), McKissick was a central figure in desegregation movements. He used his law degree to help break down the Jim Crow system in the South. His involvement in the early Freedom Rides and assistance in the James Meredith march from Memphis to Jackson testify to his raw courage and dogged determination. Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, survived being gunned down during a solitary quest to raise awareness over racism and poverty. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and McKissick continued the march to Mississippi’s capital city in Meredith’s place.

McKissick gained prominence as an attorney during the Greensboro and Durham sit-in movements. Healy notes he showed up to bail out a student in jail “waving a pocket copy of the Constitution.”  

Still, McKissick became disillusioned with many of the tenets of the American civil rights movement. He even broke from Martin Luther King Jr., embracing the language and aims of Black Power ideology. “I got a letter from a professor at Harvard saying, ‘Explain black power,’” McKissick said on Meet the Press. “That means putting power in black people’s hands. We don’t have any, and we want some. That simply is what that means.”

At the same time, like some civil rights leaders, his disillusionment with the movement’s ultimate progress on race pushed him in a direction towards conservative pragmatism, looking instead to entrepreneurship and capitalism for answers to racial equality and black empowerment.

Readers might notice more parallels to Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington than many modern black activists tied to Democratic Party politics. Some black leaders and a bevy of socialists panned his wealth creation ideals and separatist rhetoric.

“If Black Americans were to achieve economic parity, McKissick believed, they would have to do so through the established mechanisms for accruing wealth,” writes Healy.

A World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, McKissick’s initial vision for a new city developed out of his post-war experience during the Marshall Plan. He surmised that towns or communities in the U.S. could be constructed from near scratch to usher in self-reliance and black liberation.

McKissick’s gut instinct was that relying on federal government financing for Soul City could prove disastrous. It did, but McKissick defied the odds repeatedly to launch his city through hard work and sweat equity. Ultimately, he had no choice but to accept federal support. While he had the advantage of early private financing, no bank or lender was willing to back an entire city that he estimated at around $30 million. Healy offers up an ominous line: “If he wanted to build Soul City, he would have to depend on the very thing he was trying to get away from: the beneficence of the federal government.”

Political pragmatism proved to be a guiding light. McKissick spurned the Democrat Party and endorsed Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1972 to secure money for Soul City. Nixon’s “Bridges to Human Dignity” campaign speech in 1968 was written specifically to appeal to black leaders like McKissick.

Nixon and McKissick used each other to get what they wanted out of their newfound relationship. Still, McKissick didn’t see much promise in tying himself to the Democratic Party. He shrugged off the sellout label, seeing no future in handouts or the kind of dependency so prevalent in urban slums that stripped black Americans of human dignity and a better future.

“If you were a Southerner, and you knew what a sugar tit really is, it ain’t milk,” McKissick said in a campaign fundraising speech for Nixon. “It’s a substitute for milk, and it’s a pacifier, and it’s something that makes you think you’ve got something when you ain’t got it.”

Money and a growing staff soon emerged in hopes of transforming the dream into reality.

The Federal Money Trap

The funding for the new city, initially $14 million, was doled out by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under a program to create 14 new cities across the country in 1972. Soul City was a lightning rod for additional controversy, not necessarily because it was the only one with a black developer, but the marketing language and city’s name frequently reinforced the notion that the planned community was solely for black Americans.

“Black people will own, control, and develop the city,” McKissick declared at a press conference. He ventured further towards honesty by admitting, “If you are asking me, do I want to live side by side with white people all my life, I don’t. I want to live with my people.”

Nevertheless, McKissick often pivoted towards expediency to keep the federal funds flowing. “We’re doing something here for the whole country,” he told reporters.

Soul City was nothing if not ambitious. There would be schools, housing complexes, shopping centers, and plenty of greenery and parks. The main challenge would be to attract businesses and industry to make good on the promise of high-paying jobs and the liberated life.

Creating a new city from virtually nothing in one of the poorest, most rural regions in the state highlights the arrogance of the Great Society ideal.

McKissick, warned about the pitfalls of entangling his grand ambition with all the bureaucracy and strings attached to federal money, immediately found himself in a protracted fight for Soul City’s survival. McKissick needed more infrastructure, but while there was interest from big names like General Motors, Miller Brewing, and others, they wouldn’t come without proper roads, sewage, and an ample supply of water.

Some businesses balked at the very name Soul City. Whether that was a convenient excuse to back out of an unpredictable venture or a legitimate grievance about its racial separatism tag wasn’t always clear. McKissick bristled at compromising on the name. He believed the name was integral to conveying what he was attempting to accomplish.  

At any rate, the federal government was slow to release funds or approve new projects, and businesses felt they couldn’t invest in an environment and community that wasn’t a sure success. McKissick pressed on. Housing units sprung up, residents arrived, the federal government funded a health clinic, and jobs were created with an industrial park named Soultech 1. But a determined opposition also arose.

U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and the Raleigh News & Observer (N&O) were two of the biggest detractors of the Soul City vision. “Floyd, I want you to know I’m going to kill Soul City,” declared North Carolina’s newly elected Republican senator. Helms, who relished his nickname, “Senator No,” saw the entire project as a waste of taxpayer money. While some lawmakers eventually relented or let up in their attacks, Helms never did.

Some Republican moderates loyal to Nixon, like former North Carolina Gov. Jim Holshouser, were staunch allies of the initiative, but Helms was far from the only detractor in Washington. Even some HUD officials brooded over the ambitious project. “One HUD administrator described it as a ‘poverty case’ that was ‘marginal at best,’ an assessment seconded by the Office of Management and Budget,” wrote Healy. A corporate turnaround specialist in the Jimmy Carter administration likened federal support for Soul City to a quagmire. “This is Vietnam. It really is. It’s harder each day to get out.”

The N&O skewered Soul City under the work of Pat Stith, who had a strong reputation for rooting out government corruption in his reporting. Stith was relentless in attacking the entire project for fund mismanagement and nepotism.

In his account of Soul City, Healy shines in highlighting the racist history of the N&O and points out that the Government Accountability Office later cleared the project of its most serious charges. Still, the damage was done, and Soul City was forced into bankruptcy in 1979.

Legacy and Lessons

McKissick took tremendous pride in trying to take land that was once a plantation where slaves toiled, and attempting to turn it into a Mecca for black hope and opportunity. Harvey Gantt, the former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Senate candidate worked for Soul City and looks back on it, saying, “How audacious was that? There are a lot of days I’ve sat and wondered, why did I think that was going to succeed?”

The obvious lessons of Soul City are that it’s a symbolic and physically visible graveyard to the pitfalls of federal poverty spending. One can admire McKissick’s determination and grand intentions and, and at the same time, see absurdity in the entire endeavor. If there is an overarching fault in Healy’s book it is that he continually makes excuses for Soul City’s failures, without sufficiently highlighting the failures of government intervention in the market.

A few of the planned cities marked under the HUD program survived, such as the now prosperous Woodlands, an affluent, mostly white suburb of Houston. They didn’t start from scratch, with an already built-in infrastructure in place. Most of the cities dreamed up under the program failed. Even projects that were better funded and in much more favorable locations failed.

Creating a new city from virtually nothing in one of the poorest, most rural regions in the state highlights the arrogance of the Great Society ideal, at the very time HUD emerged as a federal agency. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design,” warned Friedrich von Hayek on the folly of central planning.

Some of McKissick’s instincts proved to be correct. Many Southerners, not just blacks, left their home region for the promise of greater opportunities in the North, only to become disillusioned with their new life. Starting with the Sun Belt migration, many black Americans did return to more prosperous regions in the Southeast, often heralded for decades as the “The New South.”

McKissick, who brooded over the fate of those in Northern slums, would undoubtedly appreciate many black Americans returning to the South because of a greater quality of life, better economic opportunities, and a more affordable living. Of course, this all occurred under conditions more akin to spontaneous order than central planning.

Signs and buildings of McKissick’s utopian-minded endeavor still stand today. McKissick is buried in Soul City, which is still on some North Carolina maps. One of the sad ironies to McKissick’s ambitious dream is that a prison now sits on the land where inmates work within the industrial park for a few dollars a day.

Yet, there is another more nuanced lesson Soul City offers from McKissick’s grand dream. The self-help and self-responsibility tenets he preached are still valid, but unfortunately, are increasingly rare in American society. McKissick’s audacity and grit clash with the victim mentality that drives so much of culture, particularly the professionally politically aggrieved. Even after Helms played the pivotal role in sinking the project, McKissick didn’t fall into the victim mentality.

“No one can afford the luxury of hating any man,” declared McKissick. “I never did hate Senator Helms, who was made in the image of God. He makes me look around and think: study the devious devices of people. So thank God for Senator Helms.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate that after Soul City and a near-fatal auto accident that McKissick became a minister of the Gospel, trading in his Soul City duties and dreams for deeper truths about human nature and looking up to another City of Souls.