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  • Black Power, Soft Power:Floyd McKissick, Soul City, and the Death of Moderate Black Republicanism
  • Devin Fergus (bio)

For a long time, we too have been talking about … enlisting private enterprise in the solution of our great social problems, about profits as the great motive power of our fantastically productive economy. What many of the black militants now are saying, in effect, is this: We believe you, and now we want a chance to apply those same principles in our

own communities.

Our reply should not be to reject this request, but to seize upon it—and

to respond to it.

—Richard Nixon on Black Enterprise, "Bridges to Human Dignity: A Nationwide Radio Address," April 25, 1968

While in 2008 Democrats made history by selecting Barack Obama as the first African American presidential nominee of any major party, the Republican Party began the year questioning why it "has little or no relationship at all" with African Americans.1 A trend that was decades in the making, political experts and historians typically locate the end of GOP courtship of black America between 1964 and 1980. However, the dawn of the 1970s seemed to portend the most promising moment for black-GOP relations. At the beginning of its first term, the Nixon administration decided to back the new town of Soul City, North Carolina, the largest publicly financed project ever underwritten for an African American developer, according to press releases.2 The White House's "soft power" rapprochement toward black power militant and town founding father Floyd McKissick caught even Nixon's most ubiquitous civil rights critics off guard. "I can't imagine this administration doing anything as positive as Soul City," NAACP's stunned executive director Roy Wilkins wrote to McKissick.3 Ironically, as events unfolded, the very project dedicated to returning blacks not simply to the South but also to the party of Lincoln would ultimately help trigger black America's ongoing estrangement from today's GOP.4 [End Page 148]

First announced in 1969 by Floyd B. McKissick, former national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Soul City was designed to be a new, black-owned and -operated town in North Carolina.5 Soul City stood out among the thirteen model cities programs funded through the Urban Growth and New Community Development Act of 1970 and a policy executed under the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD regarded Soul City as unique because as the only model city project not within commuting distance of a sizable city, it would be a self-sustaining and self-contained community in which residents would work, play, shop, worship, and receive health care all within the town's borders. As a freestanding town located in an eastern piedmont county bordering Virginia, Soul City's future would rest on its ability to bring in private industry, which would provide the town's tax base. Town founders believed that, in the long run, industrial investors would flock to Soul City because of the area's reservoir of low-wage labor—labor that was predominantly black, and whose wages had been depressed by the collapse of the region's agricultural economy. The steady four-decade decline of the South's rural economy, and North Carolina's in particular—caused largely by the mechanization of agriculture, decline of farm wages, and the concomitant outmigration of black and white rural populations—meant that both land and labor came at a relatively cheap cost.

No segment of postwar society experienced quite the drain in human capital as that felt in the rural South, where, from 1940 to 1980, 14 million people left southern farms for the urban and suburban pockets of the North and New South. North Carolinians contributed their own fair share to this southern story of rural outmigration. Like much of the region, the dwindling population of rural North Carolina was a consequence of the decline of farming, the mechanization of agriculture, and the greater availability of better-paying jobs in southern and northern cities. Rural migrants who remained in the South often relocated to cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, where such service industries as banking and government employed more than 50 percent of...


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