By Kat Robinson
Graduate Student, School of Public Health and Department of Anthropology, University of Memphis
Graduate Assistant, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis
This post is part of a series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists.
Thomas Healey, Professor at Seton Hall Law School, brings us Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, a 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalist.
Soul City chronicles the leaders of a local civil rights organization looking to establish a predominantly Black city in rural North Carolina during the 1970s. The goal was to move poor Blacks out of the South, in the hopes of fleeing poverty in search of prosperity in the North.
The core of Healey’s book demonstrates the “aspirations for self-determination, and economic autonomy, and equality among Civil Rights activists and leaders” from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Healey shows us how, after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, activists continued to strive towards justice and civil rights into the 1970s, fighting to ameliorate economic inequality, although, ultimately, their plan failed. In 1969, an emerging Soul City received financial support from the Nixon administration and North Carolina’s state government. Alas, even with the financial backing of both governing bodies, the project would prove unsuccessful some ten years into its existence. Healey delves into the various political and social obstacles that Soul City faced throughout its ten-year span and how these same obstacles exist today, impeding the Black population’s capacity for true economic autonomy and equality.
Healey remarks “[W]e’re still dealing with the issues of inequality today that we were in 1969…” He notes that unemployment rates are double the percentage of Blacks than Whites, similar to the 1960s. While the median wealth of Black families amounts to less than 15% of median white families (Bhutta, 2020); a stark reminder that the problems of the past are still apparent today.
Soul City revives a lesser-known story of the Civil Rights Movement; the journey towards economic autonomy and equality was not an uncommon goal, but Floyd McKissick strove for something more remarkable than imaginable. Healey details how a group of activists, led by McKissick, strove to end economic inequality and what obstacles they faced in their pursuits, and why they didn’t succeed, with the hope to develop a better understanding of the forces today standing in our way of economic equality.
Healey refers to Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here?, King’s last book before his assassination in 1968. In it, King asks readers where the Civil Rights Movement is to go next, hoping for economic prosperity and rights in education and housing. Floyd McKissick also believed the next step was full economic equality, and that Soul City was the solution to the inequities Black Americans faced. While many histories of the Civil Rights Movement end at King’s death, Healey argues that the end had yet come – King’s dream had yet to be realized. Although many recount King’s period as the golden years of the movement, Healey posits that McKissick’s plans cemented the call for economic equality.
Floyd McKissick was a famed Civil Rights leader and lawyer in the 1960s who headed the Congress of Racial Equality. He was born in Asheville, NC, and was the first Black student to attend the North Carolina Law School via a lawsuit brought by Thurgood Marshall. He participated in the first Freedom Rides of the 1950s in connection with the Journey for Reconciliation. After King’s assassination, he left his position as the leader of the Congress for Racial Equality to move home to NC to build Soul City, where he remained until his death in 1991.
About the Author
Kat Robinson began as a Hooks Institute Graduate Assistant in September 2022. Robinson is completing a dual-degree program in the School of Public Health and the Department of Anthropology. As a student at the University of Memphis, Robinson has participated in various student-led organizations, most notably Safety Net and the Diversity and Inclusion committee in the Anthropology Department. As a member of these organizations, Robinson learned the importance of organizing and working with community members to strive for equity and safety for students and Memphians.
Bhutta, N. A. (2020). Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.