McKissick, Floyd B.
McKissick, Floyd B.
(b. 9 March 1922 in Asheville, North Carolina; d. 28 April 1991 in Durham, North Carolina), civil rights leader who served as national director of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) during the 1960s.
McKissick was the son of Magnolia Thompson and Ernest Boyce McKissick, both employed by the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, but worked in Asheville. Ernest McKissick later worked at a hotel in Asheville. After graduating from high school in Asheville in 1939, McKissick attended Morehouse College, an all-black, all-male school in Atlanta. At Morehouse, McKissick was active in civil rights issues and joined both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and CORE. During this period he married Evelyn Williams, with whom he had four children.
After McKissick graduated from Morehouse, he fought in World War II, serving as an army sergeant in the European theater. He returned to North Carolina after the war and participated in CORE’s first Freedom Ride in 1947. The Freedom Rides sent an interracial group of men to the Upper South, where they attempted to ride buses to compel enforcement of a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. Following violence and arrests, the event brought CORE national attention.
In 1951 McKissick entered law school at North Carolina College (later North Carolina Central University), a segregated state institution in Durham. During this period McKissick and a small group of fellow students brought a successful lawsuit against the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) that resulted in the institution’s integration, though McKissick never attended UNC. After graduating from North Carolina College, McKissick established a legal practice in Durham, where his work included efforts to integrate public facilities, including labor unions and schools. In addition McKissick successfully represented his daughter in her attempt to gain admission to an all-white public school and he successfully defended students who participated in North Carolina’s sit-in movement during the early 1960s.
Despite these legal victories, McKissick noted that desegregation often only contributed to the increased harassment of blacks. Later he recalled that his own children, like other blacks, had “patches cut out of their hair, pages torn out of books, water thrown on them in the dead of winter, ink down the front of their dresses” when they entered recently integrated schools.
McKissick was not alone in his frustration with the pace of integration. By the mid-1960s tensions between older and younger members of the civil rights movement reached a boiling point. While older members contended that the movement should be an integrated coalition of blacks and whites, younger people questioned the inclusion of whites, maintaining that they did not understand the problems that affected blacks in the United States, particularly poor urban blacks who occupied the lowest rung on the nation’s economic ladder.
By 1965 McKissick and his counterpart on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, were striving to convert their respective organizations to strategies of separatism and, if necessary, violent confrontation. In January 1966 McKissick replaced James Farmer as the national director of CORE. In June 1966 McKissick became a significant figure in a key debate on the future of the civil rights movement when he joined forces with Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize a civil rights march through Mississippi, called the Meredith March, with the goal of enrolling unregistered blacks to vote. During a planning meeting McKissick and Carmichael suggested that marchers should meet any resistance with civil disobedience. King and the NAACP leader Roy Wilkins staunchly refused to support the march if it advocated civil disobedience. Aware that King’s support of the march was essential to its success, McKissick and Carmichael backed down, but the three men did agree that white participation would be deemphasized at the march.
Despite this compromise, the march became a staging ground for the wider debate within the civil rights movement. Was the movement to be interracial, nonviolent, and dedicated to integration, or would it embrace civil disobedience, separatism, and black nationalism? The answer was voiced by Carmichael and applauded by McKissick on 16 June, when Carmichael, speaking at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, shouted “Black Power!” to the assembled crowd, which responded loudly and positively. Shortly thereafter King called a meeting to discuss the slogan, which he opposed, fearing it would confuse white allies, isolate the black community, and further prejudice racist whites against blacks. McKissick and Carmichael argued that the civil rights movement needed a rallying call that would mobilize the black community. King triumphed when, to ensure his continued participation in the march, McKissick and Carmichael agreed to refrain from using the slogan for the remainder of the march.
Although muted temporarily, the Black Power slogan was far from dead. CORE, under McKissick’s leadership, formally endorsed the slogan at its annual convention in July. McKissick proclaimed: “1966 shall be remembered as the year we left our imposed status as Negroes and became Black Men. 1966 is the year of the concept of Black Power.” For McKissick, Black Power meant racial pride, solidarity, and black leadership of institutions—all contributing to tangible progress for African Americans.
McKissick attempted to make this vision a reality in his native North Carolina after he retired from CORE in 1968 to pursue his next project. Drawing on his legal, business, and political experience, McKissick approached the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with a plan to build a new community called Soul City in rural Warren County. His goal was to bring opportunities to people residing in a rural, economically depressed area to prevent them from fleeing to urban ghettos in search of employment. McKissick obtained approximately $19 million in a bond issue guarantee from HUD and a loan of $500,000 from the First Pennsylvania Bank.
With these resources, in 1969 McKissick created a community with an infrastructure capable of sustaining a population of about 700 people. Soul City was one of fourteen new communities created under the Urban Growth and Development Act and was notable for building the largest regional water system in the nation during the 1970s. By the early twenty-first century Soul City’s population reached about 1,400 people, and its industries included a Purdue chicken hatchery, the only recreational facility in Warren County, and a medical center. In 1980 McKissick returned to practicing law, and he was appointed a district court judge in 1990. He died of lung cancer one year later in Durham.
Speaking about Soul City in a 1973 interview, McKissick commented, “I’m doing what I advocated, I’m doing right now the same thing I was doing since I’ve been twelve years old and since I’ve been talking about it, even though I’ve gone through a civil rights movement.” From his activities at Morehouse to his integration of the University of North Carolina Law School, his leadership of CORE, and the establishment of Soul City, McKissick strove to bring legal, political, and economic autonomy to black people accompanied by a sense of self-determination and pride.
Material on McKissick and CORE is in Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Blacky Awakening of the 1960s (1981) ; Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (1984); August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1986 (1973); Robert Weisbrot, Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement (1990); and Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee (1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Apr. 1991). The author gratefully acknowledges Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., who offered time, patience, and good-humor during a valuable telephone interview.