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What the story of Soul City, N.C., can teach us about fixing systemic economic racism
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Civil rights leader Floyd McKissick left the Congress of Racial Equality in 1968 to found a new city in North Carolina. McKissick, who had served in the Army during World War II, saw the success of the U.S. Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe and had the idea that government dollars could be used to fix the problems poor Black people were facing in the American South. His project, named Soul City, would be built by and for Black Americans. It was “designed to be a showcase of Black capitalism,” according to Devin Fergus, a professor of history and Black studies at the University of Missouri.
McKissick got government support from President Richard Nixon — with conditions. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal discussed the history of Soul City with Fergus. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Devin Fergus: His original imagination was this was going to possibly be an all-Black project. But then the federal government stepped in and said that this would be a violation basically of the Civil Rights Act of ’64. That if you’re going to have the federal government be involved, then you must open it up to all sorts of communities. And McKissick said fine. But it is designed to have a disparate positive impact on communities of color, particularly African Americans.
Kai Ryssdal: So this is a little sideways, but roll with me here. This is the federal government in the substance and policy arm of it, giving money to try to fix a problem that arguably, not really arguably I guess, the federal government had created, right? The systemic economic disempowerment of a huge fraction of its population. What eventually happens with Soul City?
Fergus: Sure. So what eventually happens with Soul City is that the funding is slow to come. In many ways, this is a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. So the federal government says, if you want the federal government to allocate much of the financial resources, then you must get formal written commitments from industry. So without the federal government’s initial financial commitment, industry won’t commit. And with industry not committing, a workforce won’t come into the area to relocate. So this is a long standoff.
Ryssdal: So you’re a professor of history. I don’t know how much you like to dabble in counterfactuals. But what if Soul City had worked? What would that have looked like?
Fergus: In some ways, it would have looked like additive to what we’ve seen in the past couple of decades. And that is a re-migration of the African American South. And this is in part what Soul City was designed to do. And with that, it could have brought in a more robust working- and middle-class population, African Americans but not exclusively African Americans, to the South. And in many ways, it may have created almost a synergy with a place called the RTP, Research Triangle Park, which is also located in North Carolina and is known as a sort of a major hub of investment and industry, particularly in the areas of science and technology, and so could have perhaps created this synergy with the RTP area. And again, that did not happen, really to great disappointment. Rather than perhaps Jesse Helms and others working closely with Soul City to make it a success and in bringing industry and tax revenue into that area, they worked to undermine it.
Ryssdal: What does this episode tell us about the government’s ability to fix these big, systemic problems? And does it, do you think, do more harm or more good when it tries?
Fergus: Well, it shows that government helped to create many of these problems initially, but government also has a possibility [to] attempt to ameliorate them. Even McKissick himself, greatly frustrated by the bureaucracy and red tape, by the ways in which his hands were tied and how he wanted to basically bring in industry first and but could not because government created all these other stipulations. Despite all these complaints that McKissick had, he also fully appreciated and valued that government was key and critical to really addressing problems of Black economic precarity. So, and I think he’s largely accurate there in that the problems which hamstrung McKissick, i.e., problems of access to capital, still hamstring many Black entrepreneurs and Black business communities and leaders today. It is access to capital which makes government so critical and essential.