Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healey

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.

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America – Hooks Blog Post From Author

By Keisha N. Blain

This blog post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists. For more visit

Fannie Lou Hamer’s story captures the contributions of a Black woman sharecropper with limited formal education and limited material resources—but an all-consuming passion for social justice. Born in Mississippi on October 6, 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children. The granddaughter of enslaved people, Hamer worked as a sharecropper for much of her life. At the age of twelve, she concluded her studies at a local schoolhouse so she could help her family meet their growing financial pressures. Still, they remained trapped in poverty—the result of the exploitative nature of the sharecropping system and the violence used to maintain it. The difficulties of Hamer’s childhood extended well into adulthood. Despite her limited material resources and the various challenges she endured as a Black woman living in poverty in Mississippi, Hamer committed herself to make a difference in the lives of others.

Her life changed dramatically in 1962. On August 27, 1962, Hamer attended a local church service in Ruleville, Mississippi. At this meeting organized by activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hamer learned of her constitutional right to vote as a citizen of the United States. She recognized that access to the ballot would help overturn unjust laws, replace corrupt elected officials, and shape local, state, and national politics. That night she began her political journey—relying on her radical honesty, boundless compassion, and unwavering resistance to racism and white supremacy.

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America centers on Hamer’s ideas and political philosophies to demonstrate how they speak to our current moment. It posits that Hamer’s insights and political strategies during the 1960s and ’70s provide a blueprint for tackling a range of contemporary social issues. I had begun to write a book on Hamer in 2019 and thought I would finish it much later. However, the uprisings of 2020 as well as the global pandemic brought on a new sense of urgency for me to finish the book. During those difficult days, I found inspiration in Hamer’s words. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I wanted to share that gift with others—and I firmly believe this is the opportune moment to share her story in a new way.

Until I Am Free is organized into six thematic chapters that explore Hamer’s perspective on faith, state-sanctioned violence, leadership, women’s rights, Black internationalism, poverty, and more. Together, these chapters grapple with one significant question: What might we learn, and how might our society change if we simply listened to Fannie Lou Hamer? One of her core messages—and the inspiration for the book’s title—that she delivered to audiences was, “Until I am free, you are not either.” Hamer recognized that no one could truly experience freedom if others were constrained. I use this framework as a starting point to remind readers that while the work of democracy is incomplete, the fight is certainly not over. As Hamer reiterated time and time again, we still have the power to make this inclusive vision a reality.

Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer – Hooks Book Award Finalist

By Kat Robinson, Hooks Institute Graduate Assistant

This post is part four of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalists.

A cradle-to-grave biography, Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer explores the transformative life of Fannie Lou Hamer, from her early life picking cotton alongside her parents in Montgomery County, Mississippi through her later years as a voting rights activist until her death in 1977. Hamer used her experiences from sharecropping at 12 years old to revolutionize voting rights across the South; witnessing first-hand the discrimination and racism that Black people faced in the South, Hamer sought out like-minded individuals interested in justice and equity. With only a 6th-grade education, Hamer was a unique figure among her contemporaries like Dr. Martin L. King or Russell B. Sugarmon — and used her uniqueness to lead the voting rights movement into a direction it needed to go, against tremendous odds.

Historical and previously unavailable archives about Hamer were finally released, which Larson took advantage of when writing her biography. Hamer was the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers, born in 1917. She grew up in extreme poverty, experiencing malnutrition and limited access to healthcare and housing, and most horrendously she dealt with the impacts of white supremacy. These accumulated hardships led to 7 of her siblings dying before she was born. Out of this great loss was born a tight-knit family that Hamer would work to support throughout her youth.

Frustrated by lifelong crises, Hamer sought out a movement called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – an organization centered around nonviolent protests for civil rights. In 1961, the SNCC traveled to Mississippi to ask Black Mississippians what rights they felt they were missing as Americans – that answer was the right to vote. In the 1960s, only 5% of the Black Mississippian population was registered to vote because the violence faced when attempting to register was brutal. Hamer’s own experience of being fired for registering to vote further pursued her toward her mission. That mission was to travel throughout the South; illuminating the adversities and violence Blacks faced when attempting to register and leading voter registration initiatives. Not only in Mississippi but all over the United States.

Larson’s biography differs from others because it includes those recently released documents that have only resurfaced in the last 20 years, since the last biography about Hamer was released. Larson employs a feminist lens that places Hamer at the center of her life’s story: Hamer’s story not only differs from others due to being a woman in leadership within the civil rights movement but as a woman who had significantly less education than her male counterparts. Although Hamer was prevented from continuing her formal education, she possessed literacies and languages that her male counterparts did not. As a sharecropper and Black woman living in the South, Hamer experienced various gendered and racial harassment that informed her stance on equality and human rights. Unlike other activists and leaders, Hamer used her upbringing to inform her work.

Larson believes today’s reemerging threats on voting rights would deeply affect Hamer. Larson remarks on the current issues facing voting rights: “Today, her [Hamer] legacy stands strong. There are many lessons in her life that we can look to… to continue the fight for equality and justice here.”

This biography showcases the power behind “every day, ordinary people” who impact our nation’s society in positive ways. Hamer is a role model to show that the ‘average’ person can create great change. Larson says, “Across our country there are emerging leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer… They need support. That’s why her story is so important, because we need to be reminded that it happened before and we can do it again, and we can do better this time.”

Locking Up Our Own: A Word From the Hooks National Book Award Committee Chair

For the past three January’s, I have found myself confronted by an intimidating, but exciting sight.  As chair of the Hooks Institute’s National Book Award committee, I have the task of selecting five finalists from a pool of two to three dozen books focused on the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy.  The nominees are diverse in subject matter and style, from biographies to critical studies of art, literature, or music, from studies rooted in history to works connecting history to the unfolding movements of our own time.  My task is to whittle the nominees down for the other members of the committee – this year, those colleagues were Beverly Cross (College of Education), Ernest Gibson (Rhodes College), Aram Goudsouzian (Dept.of History), and Terrence Tucker (Dept. of English).

And then the hard work begins.  Every year, the quality of the finalists makes the committee’s decision very difficult.  This year’s group of finalists really stretched us because these five books spanned the civil rights struggle from its early period to its contemporary legacies.  Plus, they were each excellent.  This year’s finalists were:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nahesi Coates
  • Locking Up Our Own, by James Forman, Jr.
  • Harambee City, by Nishani Frazier
  • My Life, My Love, My Legacy, by Coretta Scott King and Barbara Ann Reynolds
  • The Making of Black Lives Matter, by Christopher Lebron

This year’s winner stood out among this outstanding group.  The winner of the 2017 Hooks Institute National Book Award, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr.’s, is a tremendous contribution to today’s vibrant discussions about mass incarceration and the criminal justice systems that continue to devastate black communities.  It provides a layer of complexity to those discussions by investigating local decisions that gave rise to mass incarceration, decisions that were often endorsed by black leaders.  With a compelling personal touch, Forman frames the problem as a series of smaller decisions rather than as a massive conspiracy, providing a sense of hope that there is an opportunity to incrementally confront an incrementally-constructed system.  This book is a worthy winner of the Hooks Institute’s National Book Award as it illuminates readers on a central civil rights struggle of our time.

It has been a privilege to serve on and chair the book award committee.  Not only do I get to see a vast array of work being done by brilliant writers from a variety of fields, but I also get to serve with colleagues who share the Hooks Institute’s vision to apply the lessons of the past to impact the present.  As I pass the task of chairing the committee on for next year’s award, a part of me will miss that giant stack of books staring at me next January.

By Daniel Kiel, Professor of Law, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Chair, Hooks National Book Award Committee.

Hooks National Book Award Presentation and Lecture Featuring James Forman, Jr.

Thursday, January 31, 2019 | Reception 5:30 p.m. | Lecture 6 p.m.
University Center Theatre University of Memphis

Presenting Sponsor: Just City

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. was selected as the winner for the 2017 National Book Award. In his book, Forman argues that America’s draconian sentences for drug crimes were created not only by whites but also inadvertently by exasperated African American leaders whose communities were facing an unprecedented drug epidemic starting in the late 1960s. Forman encourages a candid examination of this history to tackle criminal justice reform.

Sponsored by these University of Memphis entities: African and African American Studies, Black Law Students Association, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Department of Anthropology, Department of History, Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities and Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice; and by Burke’s Book Store and The Wharton Law Firm.

All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

The University of Memphis, 499 University St., Memphis, TN 38152. Convenient parking is located at the public parking garage on Zach Curlin.