Under the direction of Floyd B. McKissick (1922-1991), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) moved more firmly into the Black Power movement, refusing to support Martin Luther King's call for massive nonviolent civil disobedience in northern cities, concentrating instead on programs aimed at increasing the political power and improving the economic position of African Americans. In 1967 the organization moved to eliminate the word "multiracial" from its constitution.
As head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Floyd B. McKissick helped to determine the direction of the Black Power movement during the turbulent 1960s. McKissick, who was national chairman of CORE from 1963 to 1966, and national director from 1966 to 1968, incited members of his organization into spear-heading a nonviolent "revolution" that would widen civic, political, and economic opportunities for blacks; he also helped to popularize the "Black Power" slogan.
McKissick was the first black student admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law School. Having earned the right to practice law in his home state of North Carolina, he dedicated his legal talents and expertise to the cause of integrating the South. Ironically, later in his life he was accused of harboring separatist sentiments when he used federal aid to fund Soul City, a North Carolina community dedicated to black business opportunity. That very vision drew praise from the Reverend Ben Chavis, who proclaimed in the Atlanta Journal:" The [civil rights] struggle was never about individuals, but about lifting up a race of people. We need to exemplify what Floyd was about."
No More Uncle Toms
Floyd Bixler McKissick was born in the affluent community of Asheville, North Carolina, in 1922. A summer vacation spot for the wealthy near the Smokey Mountains, Asheville boasted several large hotels and estates. McKissick's father worked at the Vanderbilt Hotel as head bellhop, a position that provided the family financial comfort at the cost of individual dignity. According to the New York Post, McKissick's father told him: "There isn't going to be but one [Uncle] Tom in this family, and that's going to be me. So you go out and get yourself an education, so you don't have to be an Uncle Tom." The same message was repeated to McKissick's three sisters, who also attended college and took white collar jobs.
McKissick's later talents as a speaker and a leader may have been honed by watching his grandfathers, both of whom were ministers—his paternal grandfather in the Baptist faith and his maternal grandfather in the Methodist faith. Up until his death in 1991, McKissick was an active member of the Baptist denomination, serving as a deacon and a youth leader.
Even though he was an excellent student and a model citizen, McKissick had his share of unfair experiences as a black youngster in the South. One pivotal incident occurred when he was 12 years old. A member of the Boy Scouts of America, he was assigned by his scoutmaster to direct traffic during an all-black, street roller skating tournament. A policeman who spotted him performing the task knocked him down and then arrested him. "I knew then that God's word wasn't reaching folks the way it ought to," McKissick disclosed in the New York Post years later.
McKissick worked his way through high school by delivering groceries and newspapers and by shining shoes. He graduated from high school at the outset of World War II and was drafted into the Army, where he climbed the ranks to sergeant. Seeing action in Europe, he was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury sustained during battle. After the war, McKissick used funds from the GI bill to help him attend college. He entered the all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta, but returned to North Carolina College in Durham to complete his degree.
An Activist and Groundbreaker
Aware of the odds against his career development in the segregated South, McKissick became a member and firm supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); while still in college he was named youth chairman of the North Carolina NAACP. McKissick was also an early member of the Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial organization that sought to publicize the plight of blacks through nonviolent demonstrations. In 1947 McKissick joined CORE founder James Farmer on the Journey of Reconciliation—an integrated bus ride through parts of the South. All along the way, the CORE bus riders—black and white—were subjected to hostility and even physical violence by some Southern whites. The members of CORE eventually triumphed, however. The Freedom Rides resulted in the desegregation of 120 interstate bus terminals in the South.
Having determined that he wanted to become a lawyer, McKissick applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law School in the early the 1950s. The school was not integrated, hence McKissick was denied admission. With the help of NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall—who would one day distinguish himself as a Supreme Court justice—McKissick sued the college and won. He became the first black law student at the university, and the first to earn an LL.B. degree there.
That experience, and his work with CORE, filled McKissick with a sense of righteous indignation over the lack of opportunities for blacks. He saw injustice everywhere, not just in the South, and—like Marshall before him—was determined to use his legal talents to change the prevailing norms. McKissick informed the New York Post that he realized education was not the sole solution for oppressed American blacks. "I was as educated as any white lawyer in my area," he commented. "Do you think I had the opportunity to be a judge…. You can educate the black man [but] you've got to overcome the racism to get him the job. There's got to be some counterpart in education of that portion of the white community that is bigoted."
Using his own children as test cases, McKissick successfully challenged several all-white schools in Durham, North Carolina. He also quickly became an ad hoclawyer for CORE, defending demonstrators who were brought to trial on charges of sitting at lunch counters and in theaters marked "for whites only." At one point in the early 1960s, McKissick's law firm was handling 5,600 cases simultaneously, and the zealous lawyer was traveling throughout the United States.
Work With CORE
Founded in 1942, CORE was an integrated group, well attended by liberal whites. The group became famous for sit-ins and demonstrations, lawsuits against segregated public accommodations, and active support for black economic advancement and opportunity. As a high-ranking official in CORE, McKissick was concerned with the segment of the black population that suffered under, but could not change, the status quo. While others pointed to the progress the civil rights movement was making in the areas of school and public facility integration, McKissick complained that those changes were cosmetic and that the economic gulf was only widening for blacks in the South and for those in northern cities.
McKissick was not alone in this assessment. As the 1960s progressed, more and more blacks became impatient with the rate of social change. The words revolution and power began to surface as rallying cries. CORE responded by replacing national chairman Charles R. Oldham, a white man, with McKissick in 1963. In his acceptance speech for the unpaid position, McKissick suggested that if blacks could not obtain their rights through the courts, they must resort to direct action. He warned that if the white majority ignored nonviolent black protests, a violence born of intense frustration would follow. His dire predictions would came true in 1965 and the summers following, when race riots broke out in a number of U.S. cities.
In January 1966, McKissick succeeded James Farmer as national director of CORE. He took over the office in March and quickly made a name for himself as an impassioned advocate of federal aid to inner cities and as an avid protester of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Echoing Muhammad Ali's famous refusal to fight because no North Vietnamese person had ever called him "nigger," McKissick asserted in the Washington Post that black men were "going over to Vietnam and dying for something that they don't have a right for here."
Under McKissick's direction, CORE moved more firmly into the Black Power movement. "Black power is no mere slogan," McKissick iterated in the New York Times in 1966. "It is a movement dedicated to the exercise of American democracy in its highest tradition; it is a drive to mobilize the black communities of this country in a monumental effort to remove the basic causes of alienation, frustration, despair, low self-esteem, and hopelessness." McKissick added that under his supervision, CORE would seek to bring political economic power to blacks, especially those in the ghetto.
Founded Soul City
McKissick resigned from his position with CORE in 1968. He was criticized in some quarters for becoming a Republican and supporting Richard Nixon's candidacy for president. That support yielded monetary rewards, however. In 1970 McKissick won federal funds from the New Communities Act to build a whole new town, Soul City, in rural North Carolina. Fired by visions of a black-run metropolis with business and industrial opportunities for minority enterprises, McKissick and his family became pioneer residents of Soul City. McKissick predicted that the community would have more than 40,000 residents by the turn of the century.
His plans never materialized; additional government grants did not arrive, and by the end of the 1970s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed on its multimillion dollar loan to the city. In 1991 it was estimated that Soul City had a population of about 200, all living in homes built by the federal government. Although the community has a health clinic and several small industries, retail shopping facilities are lacking. The nearest grocery store is 15 miles away, and the children must travel long distances to school by bus.
Atlanta Constitution correspondent Pete Scott suggested in 1991, though, that the Soul City experiment was far from a total failure. "Soul City…is a curious mix of the planned and unimagined," he noted. "It has never come close to the size or self-sufficiency tha…. McKissick had hoped for. But for the people who live there, it has become a closely knit community."
One year prior to his death, McKissick finally received a judicial appointment in North Carolina. The governor named him to the state's ninth district court in the autumn of 1990. By then McKissick was already suffering from lung cancer, which would claim his life in the spring of 1991. Up until his death he and his wife lived in Soul City at 2 Liberation Road. McKissick is buried in Soul City, several blocks from the house he shared with his family.
More than 700 mourners attended McKissick's funeral at the Union Baptist Church in Durham. One of the speakers at the service, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, recalled working with CORE as a young student and admiring the outspoken, idealistic McKissick. In his eulogy, quoted in the Atlanta Journal, Jackson concluded that Judge McKissick "had a big streak of crazy in him. He was permanently maladjusted. He would not adjust to segregation. He would not adjust to little ways of thinking."
Further Reading on Floyd B. McKissick
Atlanta Constitution, May 5, 1991.
Atlanta Journal, May 3, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1991.
New York Post, April 25, 1966; June 20, 1967.
New York Times, June 30, 1963; July 8, 1966.
Washington Post, April 30, 1991.