"Making Equality A Reality"

 

 

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The History of CORE

 

The Congress of Racial Equality

 

 

"Making Equality a Reality for All"

 


 

Author's Note: The History of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is essentially part of the history of the civil rights movement in America. CORE played such an important role in so many critical milestones in the civil rights movement that to tell the history of CORE without referencing those milestones would be out of context and incomplete. For that reason we have included links within this text to descriptions of some of the major civil rights events that CORE either led or participated in.  We have also included links to short biographies of some of the key individuals who had significant influence on the focus and direction of CORE as the organization evolved over the years. 

 

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The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 as the Committee of Racial Equality by an interracial group of students in Chicago-Bernice Fisher, James R. Robinson, James L. Farmer, Jr., Joe Guinn, George Houser, and Homer Jack.. Many of these students were members of the Chicago branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization seeking to change racist attitudes. The founders of CORE were deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's teachings of nonviolent resistance.

 

CORE started as a nonhierarchical, decentralized organization funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of its members. The organization was initially co-led by white University of Chicago student George Houser and black student James Farmer. In 1942, CORE began protests against segregation in public accommodations by organizing sit-ins. It was also in 1942 that CORE expanded nationally. James Farmer traveled the country with Bayard Rustin, a field secretary with FOR, and recruited activists at FOR meetings. CORE's early growth consisted almost entirely of white middle-class college students from the Midwest. CORE pioneered the strategy of nonviolent direct action, especially the tactics of sit-ins, jail-ins, and freedom rides.

 

From the beginning of its expansion, CORE experienced tension between local control and national leadership. The earliest affiliated chapters retained control of their own activities and funds. With a nonhierarchical system as the model of leadership, a national leadership over local chapters seemed contradictory to CORE's principles. Some early chapters were dominated by pacifists and focused on educational activities. Other chapters emphasized direct action protests, such as sit-ins. This tension persisted throughout CORE's early existence.

 

Through sit-ins and picket lines, CORE had success in integrating northern public facilities in the 1940s. With these successes it was decided that, to have a national impact, it was necessary to strengthen the national organization. James Farmer became the first National Director of CORE in 1953.

 

In April of 1947 CORE sent eight white and eight black men into the upper South to test a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. CORE gained national attention for this Journey of Reconciliation when four of the riders were arrested in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and three, including Bayard Rustin, were forced to work on a chain gang.

 

In the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, CORE was revived from several years of stagnation and decline. CORE provided the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott with its philosophical commitment to nonviolent direct action. As the Civil Rights Movement took hold, CORE focused its energy in the South.

 

CORE's move into the South forced the leadership to address the question of the organization's place within the black community. Though whites still remained prominent, black leaders were sought out for high profile positions. CORE remained committed to interracialism but no longer required that new chapters have an interracial membership, largely expecting little white support in the South. While middle-class college students predominated in the early years of the organization, increasingly the membership was made up of poorer and less educated African Americans.

 

CORE provided guidance for action in the aftermath of the 1960 sit-in of four college students at a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter, and subsequently became a nationally recognized civil rights organization. As pioneers of the sit-in tactic the organization offered support in Greensboro and organized sit-ins throughout the South. CORE members then developed the strategy of the jail-in, serving out their sentences for sit-ins rather than paying bail.

 

In May of 1961 CORE organized the Freedom Rides, modeled after their earlier Journey of Reconciliation. Near Birmingham, Alabama a bus was firebombed and riders were beaten by a white mob. Despite this violent event, CORE continued to locate field secretaries in key areas of the South to provide support for the riders.

 

By the end of 1961, CORE had 53 affiliated chapters, and they remained active in southern civil rights activities for the next several years. CORE participated heavily in President Kennedy's Voter Education Project (VEP) and also co-sponsored the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964 CORE participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project; three activists killed that summer in an infamous case, James ChaneyAndrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were members of CORE.

 

By 1963 CORE had already shifted attention to segregation in the North and West where two thirds of the organization's chapters were located. In an effort to build CORE's credibility as a black-protest organization, leadership in these northern chapters had become almost entirely black. CORE's ideology and strategies increasingly were challenged by its changing membership. Many new members advocated militancy and believed nonviolent methods of protest were to be used only if they proved successful.

 

As the tactics were being questioned so was the leadership. In 1966, under mounting pressure and with the organization losing members influence and financial support, James Farmer stepped down as National Director and was replaced by the more militant Floyd McKissick. McKissick endorsed the term Black Power and was a much more acceptable leader to the Black community than Farmer was.

 

When McKissick took over, the organization was badly dis-organized and deep in debt. Although McKissick was a charismatic and respected leader, he was unable to turn the organization's finances around. In 1968 he announced his retirement to pursue his dream of building a "Soul City" in North Carolina and Roy Innis, who was Chairman of the Harlem Chapter of CORE, replaced him as the National Director.

 

Innis inherited the organization with a completely de-centralized structure, with more than a million dollars in debt and no fundraising mechanism. The organization's fundraising arm--CORE Health, Education & Welfare Fund--had deserted the organization when Farmer left. Innis quickly declared the first order of business was restructuring so that Chapters and field operatives were responsible back to the National Headquarters. Innis also developed a new fundraising arm--CORE Special Purpose Fund--and began to chip away at the organization's debt.

 

Under Innis's leadership, CORE embraced an ideology of pragmatic nationalism and lent its support to black economic development and community self-determination.

 

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CORE -- Congress of Racial Equality  *  P.O. Box 264  *  New York, N.Y.  *  10276  *  Tel: (212) 598-4000  *  Fax: (212) 982-0184

 

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