Structural racism is when a society’s institutions — schools, courts, the private sector, and so on — reinforce racial hierarchies and, historically speaking, white supremacist values. Interpersonal racism is when an individual says or does something racist.
These two forms of racism, while distinct, merge when a racist person holds a position of power, which has often been the norm throughout the history of the United States. Former US Sen. Jesse Helms embodied this sinister union — the avowed segregationist spent his career fighting for racist policies.
Helms is one of the chief antagonists in Thomas Healy’s Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, a book that explores, in illuminating detail, an overlooked chapter of the civil rights movement in the early 1970s.
One incident in particular casts a chilling shadow over the book, acting as a sort of curse.
Floyd McKissick, the charming and indomitable focus of the book, spent several months courting Helms with flattering letters to earn support for the ambitious city-in-progress, dubbed Soul City, that he’d been trying to build in a rural part of North Carolina. Soul City was meant to be a place where Black people could thrive and experience the “American Dream,” free from prejudice.
But Sen. Helms never responded to the letters and, at that point, had spent months trying to defund and undermine the project, which had been receiving government-backed loans. When McKissick visits the Capitol as part of a tour to generate political support for Soul City, he has a bracing encounter with Helms, a moment that’s relayed by Healy in the middle of the book.
"McKissick and Clayton were feeling buoyed ... when they saw Helms walking toward them. Before they could utter a word, the junior senator cut them off. 'Floyd,' he said in his tight-lipped drawl, 'I want you to know I’m going to kill Soul City.'"
It isn't a plot spoiler to reveal that Soul City was never realized; McKissick, through little fault of his own, fell short of his grand vision. In the prologue, Healy describes how the site of Soul City is nowadays overrun with weeds and potholes. Once-pristine houses stand abandoned. Most disturbingly, the former manufacturing facility — built to be the economic heart of Soul City — has been repurposed as a forced work site for inmates in a state prison that was built nearby
“The irony was not hard to grasp,” Healy writes. “A building designed to promote Black economic freedom has become a prison.”
The story of Soul City is emblematic of the past century in the US. McKissick wanted to break free of the pervasive constraints of white supremacy by giving Black people a chance to hold power and shape their economic destiny. While he defied odds and achieved remarkable things — overseeing the construction of a regional water system; securing funds for roads, homes, and recreational facilities; galvanizing a beleaguered people — his dream was thwarted by white gatekeepers.
In page-turning prose, Healy — drawing on his background as a reporter — stitches together government documents, personal letters, and contemporary media coverage to show how Soul City was doomed by both overt and covert racism. The story acutely resonates today.
“In the half century since McKissick launched Soul City, the financial gap between Black and white households has hardly budged,” Healy writes in the prologue. “Black people are still twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, while their median net worth is one-tenth that of whites.”
But it’s more than economic disenfranchisement. It’s the way state houses across the country are right now enacting voting barriers that seem pulled directly from the Jim Crow era. It’s the way environmental racism makes Black people more likely to breathe polluted air and live near industrial facilities that poison soil and drinking water. It’s the way school systems fail Black children, housing markets exclude Black families, and police officers disproportionately harass, abuse, and kill Black people.
Soul City is an urgent reminder of how close the past is; how history breathes down the neck of the present moment.
The book adds to the growing collection of literature that acts as a corrective to the whitewashed history most people in the US receive. By detailing the obstacles McKissick faces, the book may provide a blueprint for people currently embarking on utopian projects of community and empowerment.
But Soul City goes beyond historical parallels. Healy also provides us with compelling character studies, helping to elevate figures who fought for utopian values of fairness, kindness, love, and liberation.
There’s Jane Ball-Groom, who overcame flattening poverty to raise five children and become an accomplished bookkeeper and writer. There’s Gordon Carey, Floyd McKissick’s right-hand man, who regularly put his life on the line for racial justice. There’s Theaoseus Theaboyd “T.T” Clayton and Eva Clayton, pioneering civil rights organizers and lawyers, who opened up spaces and opportunities for Black people.
And then there’s McKissick himself. McKissick’s life was almost derailed when he was a teenager. During a local rollerblading event, a police officer slapped him twice across the face, threatened to kill him, and took him to the police station, Healy writes. He was almost sent to jail but his father managed to secure his release. From that day forward, McKissick vowed to use the law for good; to bend a system that had almost ruined his life to achieve justice.
McKissick went on to organize sit-ins and bus boycotts. He integrated colleges. He planned voting rights marches, protested police violence, and organized communities. He became a prominent civil rights lawyer and was eventually elected to lead the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). When Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, McKissick felt compelled to take the future into his own hands.
The future that he envisioned boils down to a single question he asked throughout his life: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“Yes,” he said toward 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 the May pick for the Global Citizen Book Club. Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang is the June pick.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
Read: Each month, we will handpick a new book to read together, relating to one of our core issues. You can purchase each month's selection at your local bookstore — or, if you're feeling lucky, Global Citizens in the US can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will engage in facilitated discussions with your fellow Global Citizens around major themes, key learnings, and more in our “Global Citizen All-Access” Facebook Group. Join here!
Participate: The following month, we will host a virtual discussion with the author, where you will get the chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by taking action with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out on Global Citizen Rewards!