Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
As national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from 1966 to 1968, Floyd McKissick’s tenure with the organization was dominated by controversy over Black Power. Although the media was quick to focus on areas of disagreement between McKissick and Martin Luther King, the two leaders sought to downplay their differences, stressing their “brotherhood” and areas of mutual respect and agreement (Wehrwein, “Dr. King and CORE Chief”).
Born 9 March 1922 in Asheville, North Carolina, McKissick attended Morehouse College in Atlanta for a year before leaving to serve in World War II. After the war, McKissick joined CORE and served as the youth chairman for the North Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He studied at Morehouse again for the 1947–1948 school year, King’s last at the college. When he was denied admission to the all-white University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, Law School, he enrolled at the law school of North Carolina Central College (NCCC). McKissick brought suit, and with the support of NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, a judge ruled in favor of McKissick in 1951 and granted him admission to UNC. Although he had already earned his degree from NCCC, McKissick and three other black students enrolled in UNC law courses that summer.
As an attorney, McKissick defended civil rights activists who were arrested for participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and represented his own children in a public school desegregation lawsuit. In another well-publicized legal challenge against the Tobacco Workers International Union (AFL-CIO), he successfully won the right of black workers admitted to the skilled scale to maintain their seniority. McKissick, who also handled cases for CORE, was elected chairman of CORE’s national board in 1963 and became national director three years later.
When James Meredith was shot in 1966 while marching from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, McKissick and King decided to resume his march. Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), soon joined them, and the three organizations co-led the Meredith March Against Fear. Carmichael’s proclamation of “Black Power” quickly exposed growing differences among CORE, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and within the civil rights movement. McKissick embraced Black Power, but defined the term to mean building political and economic power in African American communities.
In the late 1960s, King’s and McKissick’s philosophies also diverged with respect to nonviolence. After the Meredith March, McKissick continued to advocate nonviolence as a tactic in demonstrations, but maintained that black activists had a right to strike back when hit, arguing that “self-defense and nonviolence are not incompatible” (Meet the Press, 21 August 1966). King consistently condemned strategies of reprisal and refused to take “programmatic action around defensive violence” (Meet the Press, 21 August 1966).
Despite these areas of difference, King and McKissick agreed when opposing the Vietnam War, and appeared together in support of black athletes boycotting the 1968 Olympics. When King was assassinated in 1968, McKissick called it “a horror for us, for all Americans that the apostle of nonviolence should be gunned down on an American street” and advocated a national holiday in King’s honor (“McKissick Says Nonviolence”; Millones, “Thousands Take Time to Express Grief”). McKissick resigned from CORE later that year.
In July 1972, McKissick received federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create Soul City, an integrated community under black and white leadership in North Carolina. A few months later, McKissick caused a stir in the African American community when he switched to the Republican Party and later became a minority campaign chairman for President Richard Nixon’s reelection. In 1975 McKissick admitted that the development of Soul City had political implications, but denied any impropriety in government funding for the project. Soul City was declared economically unviable in 1979, and the land was later taken over by the federal government. After returning to the law, McKissick was appointed to a judgeship in the Ninth Judicial District in 1990. He died of lung cancer in 1991, and is buried in Soul City.
Introduction, in Papers 1:45n.
King, Interview on “Meet the Press,” 21 August 1966, CCCSU.
Wayne King, “McKissick Is Succeeding Although Not ‘Supposed To,’” New York Times, 22 December 1974.
“McKissick Says Nonviolence Has Become Dead Philosophy,” New York Times, 5 April 1968.
Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 1973.
Peter Millones, “Thousands Take Time to Express Grief and Respect for Dr. King at 2 Rallies Here,” New York Times, 9 April 1968.
Austin C. Wehrwein, “Dr. King and CORE Chief Act to Heal Rights Breach,” New York Times, 11 July 1966.