Structural racism occurs when the institutions of a society – schools, courts, the private sector, etc. – reinforce racial hierarchies and, historically speaking, the values of white supremacy. Interpersonal racism is when an individual says or does something racist.
These two forms of racism, although distinct, merge when a racist person occupies a position of power, which has often been the norm throughout the history of the United States. Former US Senator Jesse Helms embodied this sinister union – the avowed segregationist has spent his career fighting for racist policies.
Helms is one of Thomas Healy’s main antagonists Soul City: race, equality and the lost dream of an American utopia, a book that explores, in illuminating detail, a neglected chapter of the civil rights movement of the early 1970s.
One incident in particular casts a frightening shadow over the book, acting as a sort of curse.
Floyd McKissick, the charming and indomitable objective of the book, spent several months wooing Helms with flattering letters to gain support for the ambitious ongoing town, dubbed Soul City, which he had tried to build in a rural part. North Carolina. Soul City was meant to be a place where black people could thrive and live the “American Dream” without prejudice.
But Senator Helms never responded to the letters and, at this point, had spent months trying to fund and undermine the project, which had received government-backed loans. When McKissick visits the Capitol as part of a tour aimed at generating political support for Soul City, he has an invigorating encounter with Helms, a moment which is relayed by Healy in the middle of the book.
“McKissick and Clayton were feeling supported … when they saw Helms walking towards them. Before they could say a word, the young senator cut them off. Know I’m going to kill Soul City. ‘”
It is not a plot spoil to reveal that Soul City was never made; McKissick, through his own fault, did not achieve his grand vision. In the prologue, Healy describes how the Soul City site is now overrun with weeds and potholes. Formerly virgin houses are abandoned. More worryingly, the old manufacturing plant – built to be the economic heart of Soul City – has been converted into a forced labor site for inmates at a state prison built nearby.
“The irony was not hard to grasp,” writes Healy. “A building designed to promote black economic freedom has become a prison. “
The history of Soul City is emblematic of the last century in the United States. McKissick wanted to break free from the pervasive constraints of white supremacy by giving black people a chance to wield power and shape their economic destiny. While he defied the odds and achieved remarkable things – overseeing the construction of a regional water supply system; securing funds for roads, homes and recreational facilities; galvanize a besieged people – his dream was thwarted by white guards.
In prose that turns the pages, Healy – drawing on her background as a journalist – brings together government documents, personal letters, and contemporary media coverage to show how Soul City was doomed by racism that was both overt and hidden. History resonates acutely today.
“In the half-century since McKissick launched Soul City, the financial gap between black and white households has barely moved,” Healy writes in the prologue. “Blacks are still twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, while their median net worth is one-tenth that of whites.”
But it is more than a deprivation of economic rights. This is how state houses across the country are currently adopting electoral barriers that seem directly drawn from the Jim Crow era. This is how environmental racism makes black people more likely to breathe polluted air and live near industrial plants that poison soil and drinking water. This is how school systems fail black children, housing markets exclude black families, and police harass, abuse and disproportionately kill black people.
City of the Soul is an urgent reminder of the proximity of the past; how history breathes in the neck of the present moment.
The book adds to the growing collection of literature that acts as a patch to the whitewashed history that most people in the United States receive. By detailing the obstacles that McKissick faces, the book can provide a model for people who are currently embarking on utopian community and empowerment projects.
Corn City of the Soul goes beyond historical parallels. Healy also provides us with compelling character studies, helping to elevate characters who fought for utopian values of fairness, kindness, love, and liberation.
There’s Jane Ball-Groom, who overcame crushing poverty to raise five children and become an accomplished accountant and writer. There’s Gordon Carey, Floyd McKissick’s right-hand man, who regularly puts his life on the line for racial justice. There are Theaoseus Theaboyd “TT” Clayton and Eva Clayton, pioneering civil rights organizers and advocates who have opened up spaces and opportunities for black people.
And then there’s McKissick himself. McKissick’s life almost went off the rails as a teenager. At a local rollerblading event, a police officer slapped him twice in the face, threatened to kill him and took him to the police station, Healy writes. He was almost sent to prison but his father managed to secure his release. From that day on, McKissick pledged to use the law for good; to bend a system that had almost ruined his life to obtain justice.
McKissick then organized sit-ins and bus boycotts. He joined colleges. He planned marches for the right to vote, protested against police violence and organized communities. He became a prominent civil rights advocate and was eventually elected head of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). When Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were murdered, McKissick felt compelled to take charge of the future.
The future he envisioned comes down to one question he asked throughout his life: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“Yes,” he said towards the end of his life. “I am my brother’s keeper.”
SOUL CITY: RACE, EQUALITY AND THE LOST DREAM OF AN AMERICAN UTOPIA
By Thomas Healy
448 pages; Henry Holt and Co./Metropolitan Books. $ 29.99
Soul City: race, equality and the lost dream of an American utopia by Thomas Healy was May’s pick for the Global Citizen Book Club. Somewhere in the unknown world by Kao Kalia Yang is the choice of June.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
To read: Each month we will select a new book to read together, related to one of our main problems. You can purchase each month’s selection at your local bookstore – or, if you’re feeling lucky, global citizens in the United States can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will participate in lively discussions with your fellow citizens around the world around major themes, key learnings and more in our Facebook group “Global Citizen All-Access”. Join us here!
Participate: The following month, we’ll be hosting a virtual chat with the author, where you’ll have a chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by acting with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out for Global Citizen Rewards!