An obscure name to those under 60 years of age and who live outside of the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area, is the subject of this week’s installment of “Making history, not just celebrating it.”
A man of vision, strength and determination, who practiced what he preached, Floyd McKissick succeeded James Farmer as National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1966, and under McKissick’s leadership, CORE was transformed from an interracial, non-violent, civil rights organization into a group that promoted Black Power.
In this contemporary era of black folks complaining about gentrification, my memory of McKissick and how he would respond to this issue stands out. He graphically illustrated the sacrifice, the will and the “can-do” attitude we must have in order to stop the economic and political assaults against us. I attended North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University in Durham, in the mid-1960s. McKissick’s name and his legal services were never far from the mouths of students who marched downtown to participate in the restaurant sit-ins.
With what were then called “National Defense Highways” coming through Durham’s Hayti District and other black enclaves, under the guise of “Urban Renewal,” McKissick’s answer to gentrification was Soul City, North Carolina, developed by black folks, where blacks could feel the pride of ownership and control of their community.
According to blackpast.org:
“In 1968 McKissick set out on a journey to bring his Soul City vision to fruition. McKissick argued that Black Power as an organizing principle could enrich and revolutionize African-American communities. To this end, he pushed for increased African-American control over communities, governments, economics, and schools and used CORE to assist local community leaders in these efforts. … Soul City is located in the predominately black area of eastern North Carolina, and was a planned community with an infrastructure capacity sufficient to support an eventual population of 55,000. In July 1972, McKissick received $19 million in federal aid in order to achieve this goal. Within months he became the minority campaign chairman for President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. Although Soul City was declared economically unviable in 1979, McKissick and a few other people continued to live there.”
I remember driving to Soul City just to take a look, and when I got there, I even thought about living there. Homes were still being built and businesses had not moved in yet, but I really liked what I saw. It was proof that, despite resistance, even from black folks, McKissick persisted not only with an economic strategy but also with a political strategy.
In April 1991, New York Times writer Glenn Fowler wrote an article titled, “Floyd McKissick, Civil Rights Maverick, Dies at 69,” in which he stated, “Before the 1972 Presidential election, Mr. McKissick angered many blacks by switching from the Democratic Party to the Republicans and supporting Mr. Nixon’s re-election campaign. He argued that blacks were ill-advised to put all their hopes in the Democratic Party.”
McKissick’s political admonition and his economic plan still ring true today.
What’s the application for us? How can we use Brother McKissick’s work to make black history today? I’m glad you asked. First we must understand that, politically, we have no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. Then, we must pool and leverage our dollars to gain a significant piece of this rock called the United States, starting with the neighborhoods in which we live. Buy the property, the vacant lots, and the abandoned storefronts, rather than complain about them. Open and support neighborhood black-owned businesses, and grow those businesses to the point of being able to hire black youth.
Real estate development is essential for the economic empowerment of black people, and we have many architects, CPA’s, construction management professionals, and construction firms who could form strategic alliances to develop large tracts of land. They could transform our neighborhoods into viable communities in a couple of decades; they could get the tax credits and abatements, and take advantage of “Tax Increment Financing” (TIF) that other developers use to gain ownership and control of various sections of cities.
To make black history we must use the patterns left by Floyd McKissick, Phillip Payton of Harlem, Herman Perry in Atlanta, Annie Minerva Turnbo-Malone in Chicago, George Tyson in Atlantic Beach, South Carolina, and Joe Dudley of Dudley Products in Kernersville, North Carolina. Own the real estate, control it, and develop it.
If we develop land, we are being true to what Dr. Amos Wilson suggested. We will be building and celebrating our own “pyramids” in addition to annually celebrating the “pyramids” built by our ancestors. While we remember Soul City, Greenwood, Hayti, Black Bottom, Sag Harbor, Bronzeville, Five Points, “The Harlem of the West” in Denver, Sweet Auburn, Mound Bayou and so many other black enclaves, we must reactivate our resources and rebuild more pyramids.