In the fall of 1968, Jet, the Black weekly magazine, devoted a special issue to the upcoming election. On the cover was a cheerful headline: “how black vote can elect next president.” Inside, the editors were less upbeat, reproaching the candidates for not doing more to “woo actively” the Black vote. In an effort to do some last-minute wooing, both of the major candidates had taken out two-page advertisements in the issue. Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat, was popular with Black voters, and sought to remind readers of something he felt they should already know. “Vote for Hubert Humphrey and you’ll help elect the right man President,” his advertisement said. “Don’t vote and you’ll help elect the wrong one.” The “wrong one”—Richard Nixon, the Republican contender—had a more specific pitch. His ad showed a Black man in a letterman sweater, beneath the exhortation “This time, vote like Homer Pitts’ whole world depended on it.” Pitts, it seemed, was a fictional college student facing an uncertain future. And there was a Presidential candidate who wanted to help him:
A vote for Richard Nixon for President is a vote for a man who wants Homer to have the chance to own his own business. Richard Nixon believes strongly in black capitalism. Because black capitalism is black power in the best sense of the word. . . . It’s the key to the black man’s fight for equality—for a piece of the action.
This was the heart of Nixon’s outreach to Black voters in 1968: “Black capitalism,” an ideal of independence that promised to unite militants and moderates, Black nationalists and white centrists. This sales pitch does not seem to have been a big success. Although Nixon won, narrowly, polls and voting data suggest that Black voters went predominantly for Humphrey. And yet the notion of “Black capitalism” gained influence, prompting an ongoing debate about what it meant, and whether it represented progress. The Black Panther Party often denounced capitalism, and Bobby Seale, who helped found the group, wrote in 1970 that Black capitalism was part of the problem. “We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism,” he declared. “We fight capitalism with basic socialism.” But the next year another founding Panther, Huey P. Newton, wrote that Black capitalism could contribute to liberation, and that rejecting it was “a counterrevolutionary position.” To many Black people, “Black capitalism” had come to mean “Black control” of local neighborhoods, local industry. How could any Black Panther be opposed to that?
Arguments about Black capitalism were often rather theoretical. But there was one place in America where a group of pioneers tried to build a community devoted to it, upholding both Nixonian free enterprise and Black self-determination. The place was Soul City, a settlement in rural North Carolina, near the Virginia border, which was founded in 1969, and which is the subject of a new book by Thomas Healy, a law professor and a former journalist. In “Soul City,” he explains how this experiment in Black capitalism was tried, and also how it failed. It is no spoiler to acknowledge this failure at the outset; Healy’s subtitle refers to Soul City as “the Lost Dream of an American Utopia.” The modern story of race in America might be told quite differently if there really were, as there was once meant to be, a prosperous Black mini-metropolis of fifty-five thousand people in North Carolina, serving as a beacon for activists and entrepreneurs everywhere. If Soul City had succeeded, perhaps its founder would be enshrined alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X in the pantheon of Black uplift.
That founder was Floyd McKissick, a lawyer who had risen through the ranks to become the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, or core, which he helped transform into a militant alternative to more cautious civil-rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He left core, it seems, not so much because he wanted to make money as because he felt that the best way to help Black people in America was to help some of them make money. Healy argues that McKissick’s dream of a new Black homeland in rural North Carolina could have come true, if not for the backlash it inspired. “It was going to be a beautiful place to live,” one of the earliest residents said.