By Eula Shaw and Sarah Williams –
Local panel discusses and reviews legendary Civil Rights leader Floyd McKissick’s visionary dream as captured in Thomas Healy’s 2021 book.
The stimulating book, Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, brings to life the lost story of the brilliant, imaginative mind of Floyd McKissick and the racial regime that killed the spark of a dream unrealized during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
McKissick’s plan was to open a new town, Soul City, in rural North Carolina, on the site of a former plantation in Warren County. In his view, McKissick said, “Economic power is the first prerequisite for political power.” His idea was to create racial justice, generate financial equity, and encourage self-empowerment, for Black residents first and foremost—though Soul City would be open to all.
Initially, McKissick, already known as a Civil Rights leader, did not have a detailed plan, and he would not budge on changing the name. But, despite funding from the Nixon Administration, planning support from Harvard University and UNC, and public endorsements from influential media, there were also strong political forces against the project. Newly elected NC Senator Jesse Helms vowed to work against it, and the Raleigh News and Observer incorrectly accused the project of being ridden with fraud and corruption.
As a result, Soul City was not a successful venture. Financing was always a problem. Overt and covert racism stood in the way of success throughout the effort to build the city. Unkept promises and conservative politicians proved to be just as detrimental to success as financing.
Mr. Healy’s book is one of the five featured by the North Carolina Humanities’ 2022 statewide book club, North Carolina Reads. This year’s books explore issues of racial, social, gender equality, and the history and culture of North Carolina.
Soul City was discussed on May 1, 2022 by a panel meeting at Hopkins Chapel A. M. E. Zion Church, which itself played a role in McKissick’s life. His parents, Ernest and Magnolia McKissick, were members of Hopkins Chapel, and Floyd McKissick, born on Ridge Street in Asheville on March 9, 1922, grew up in the church before leaving for Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1939. His mother Magnolia was the daughter of Rev. David Elijah Thompson, who pastored Hopkins Chapel from 1917 to 1921.
Panelists included Asheville natives Richard Bowman, Sarah Williams, and Leonard Jones; Charlotte natives Patsy Keever, a former Buncombe County Commissioner, and Dr. Dee James, retired UNC Asheville English professor who facilitated the discussion organized by Mrs. Eula Shaw of Asheville. One participant, Tina Joyner, knew the McKissicks because they lived on Madison Avenue when she was a child, and several others—Ms. Jennifer Cady, Ms. Kimberly Wilson, and Mr. Richard Shaw—knew the family through the church.
Childhood Experiences Lead to Activism
McKissick’s autobiography, Three-Fifths of a Man, describes an incident early in his life in Asheville that led to his view of justice, and undoubtedly to his Civil Rights activism. As a child he rode with his aunt on the trolley one day. She placed her coins into the trolley’s slot and walked to the back of the car, not noticing that her nephew was not behind her. Floyd had stayed in the front to listen as the conductor was showing two white boys how he operated the trolley. When the conductor realized Floyd was listening (and learning), too, he erupted in rage and ordered him to move to the back.
McKissick wrote, “It was the day I learned that I wasn’t just a boy, I was a black boy in a white land. And just by being alive, by getting born, I had inherited a world that hated me—a whole bunch of mean people I never saw, but who were waiting there to tell me, ‘Get your black ass to the back.’”
“As a native of Asheville, I never heard of this story, and as a UNC grad, I never heard of Mr. McKissick. It is very eye opening,” stated Jones, one of the panelists.
Honored at Last
McKissick would have been 100 years old on March 9, 2022, and this spring Asheville issued a proclamation, signed by Mayor Esther E. Manheimer, naming that day “Floyd McKissick Sr. Day in Asheville City.”
History is all around us. We don’t have to go far; just read. One of the salient points of the book and the panel’s analysis was how our political system can be used against its own citizens for political purposes. Sometimes it works against people, not because they do not have good ideas, but because ideas are not theirs. Floyd McKissick propagated visionary, wonderful ideas—but even today the backlash against positive ideas for growth, better opportunities, reparations for past wrongs, even equal justice, are met by fierce political opposition.