“Bootstrap Black Power”: Free Enterprise, Richard Nixon, and the Transformation of the Congress of Racial Equality

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:20 AM
Columbia Hall 12 (Washington Hilton)
Joshua D. Farrington, University of Kentucky
Employing the recently opened papers of Floyd McKissick Sr., along with underutilized materials from the presidential libraries of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, this paper examines the relationship between McKissick, Roy Innis, conservative black nationalists within the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and President Richard Nixon. Although Black Power has traditionally been associated with the Left, it was a complex, sometimes contradictory, concept that spurred multiple ruptures. One such division was a conservative offshoot of black nationalism. This conservative strain of Black Power transformed CORE into a bastion of bootstrap ideology, and spurred a new generation of black Republicans drawn to the party’s ideas of self-determination and self-help. These nationalists found an ally in Richard Nixon, who co-opted the term “Black Power” in his rhetoric and offered blacks a “piece of the action” within the free enterprise system. Though their ideas were ultimately rejected by the majority of African Americans, proponents of bootstrap self-help and black capitalism were not marginal within the Black Power movement. Nathan Wright, a staunch Republican and fiscal conservative, played a major role in organizing the National Black Power Conferences of 1967 and 1968, and McKissick rivaled Stokely Carmichael as one of the early major civil rights leaders to demand Black Power. Their relationship with Nixon also secured hundreds of millions of dollars to their self-help projects—from federal support of black-owned businesses, to a steep rise in funding of black colleges, to an endorsement of McKissick’s utopian vision of Soul City, North Carolina.