Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
With a political and ideological legacy that spans the decades from interracial nonviolent direct action in the 1940s and 1950s, militant black nationalist separatism in the late 1960s, and black capitalism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is one of the most important civil rights organizations in the history of the United States. It was founded in Chicago in 1942 as the Committee of Racial Equality (the name was changed to the present one in 1943) by a group of ten white and five black student activists who were influenced by the Christian Youth Movement, rising industrial unionism, and the antiracist political activism of black and white communists in the 1930s. The founders of CORE were staunch believers in pacifism. Many of them were members of the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interracial and pacifist civil rights organization committed to social change through the transformation of racist attitudes, led by A. J. Muste (1885–1967). Deeply influenced by the strategies of social change championed by Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi as described in Krishnalal Shridharani's War Without Violence (1939), "CORE founders believed that through interracial organizing and nonviolent direct action they could attack racism at its core."
CORE was an informal, decentralized organization. Members drafted a "Statement of Purpose" and "CORE Action Discipline," both of which served as a constitution for the organization and proclaimed the members' commitment to working for social change through nonviolent direct action in a democratic, nonhierarchical organization. Guidelines for new members demanded familiarity with Gandhian ideas and active participation in the organization. Voluntary contributions from the members served as the organization's only source of funding. The leadership of CORE was shared by George Houser, a white student at the University of Chicago, and James Farmer, a black Methodist student activist. James Robinson, a white Catholic pacifist, and Bernice Fisher, a white divinity student at the University of Chicago, also provided inspirational and organizational leadership.
In their first year, CORE activists organized sit-ins and other protests against segregation in public accommodations, but white recalcitrance and a weak membership base left them with few victories. In 1942, at a planning conference to discuss organizational growth, CORE activists declared their commitment to expanding nationally by forming alliances with local interracial groups working to defeat racism through nonviolent direct action. Farmer argued that CORE would not grow as a mass-based activist organization unless it severed its ties to FOR and disassociated itself from the organization's pacifism. Under the rubric of FOR's Department of Race Relations, he and Bayard Rustin (1910–1987), a black FOR field secretary, traveled around the country and met with activists sympathetic to Gandhian ideology and fostered interest in forming CORE chapters among those present at FOR events.
As a result of their efforts, CORE had seven affiliates by the end of 1942. Most chapters were located in the Midwest; they contained fifteen to thirty members, who were usually middle-class college students and were predominantly white. Local groups retained primary membership affiliation and control over local funds. As a result, chapter activities varied widely and were not centrally coordinated. Chapters where pacifists dominated focused almost entirely on educating and converting racists, rather than on direct action. The repressive atmosphere of the South in the 1940s severely curtailed the activity of CORE's few southern affiliates. New York, Chicago, and Detroit were the most active and militant chapters, conducting training workshops in nonviolent direct action for volunteers in selected northern cities. They also organized sit-ins—a tactic pioneered by CORE activists—and picket lines at segregated restaurants, swimming pools, movie theaters, and department stores.
CORE had some success in integrating public accommodations and recreational areas, but it was clear to CORE's founders that to mount a sustained assault on racism they would have to create a stronger national structure. In 1943 Farmer was elected the first chairman of CORE, and Bernice Fisher was elected secretary-treasurer. By 1946, due to both the reluctance of local chapters to relinquish their independence or share their funds and to the infrequency of national planning meetings, CORE faced an organizational crisis. After much debate, CORE revamped its national structure: Farmer resigned and George Houser occupied the newly created leadership position of executive secretary. Houser played a central role in defining the ideology of CORE as editor of the CORE-lator, the organizational newsletter, and author of almost
all CORE literature. He focused CORE's organizational energy and limited resources on a closer coordination of local activities among its thirteen affiliates, with the ultimate goal of building a mass movement.
The culmination of Houser's efforts was CORE's first nationally coordinated action, the Journey of Reconciliation—a two-week trip into the Upper South to test the 1946 Morgan decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which outlawed segregation in interstate travel. In April of 1947, sixteen men—eight white and eight black—traveled by bus through the region challenging segregated seating arrangements that relegated blacks to the back of the bus. The protesters were confronted by some violence and overt hostility, but in general they were faced with apathy from most whites, who were unaware of the Morgan decision. In many instances, black passengers on the bus followed suit when they saw racial mores being successfully challenged. The arrest of four of the protesters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—with three of them, Bayard Rustin, Igal Roodenko, and Joe Felmet, forced to serve thirty days on a chain gang—catapulted CORE and the Journey of Reconciliation to national attention.
In 1947, CORE took further steps to strengthen its organizational structure by creating an office of field secretaries to travel around the country to organize new CORE chapters. Two year later COREs leadership created the National Council—a policymaking body with one representative from each local chapter—to improve communication between the local and the national chapters. In 1951, CORE hired James Robinson to coordinate fund-raising efforts. Despite these efforts, the early 1950s marked another period of organizational decline for CORE, as the number of affiliated chapters dropped from a high of twenty at the end of the 1940s and fluctuated around eleven during the early 1950s.
Weakened by continuing debates over the role of pacifism and the national organizational structure, CORE's growth was further stunted by anticommunism. Although CORE's executive committee had drafted a "Statement on Communism" in 1948, saying that it would not work with communists, CORE's civil rights activities were attacked as "subversive" and "un-American" in the hostile racial climate of the 1950s. At this organizational nadir, Houser resigned and the national structure was once again reorganized to divide his duties among three people: Billie Ames, a white activist from CORE's St. Louis chapter, became group coordinator and took charge of organizational correspondence; James Peck, a white Journey of Reconciliation veteran, was in charge of editing the CORE-lator; and James Robinson continued to serve as treasurer. Wallace Nelson, who had held the salaried position of field secretary, was replaced by four volunteers.
CORE found a renewed sense of purpose in the mid- 1950s. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision declared separate but equal educational facilities unconstitutional. One year later, the Montgomery bus boycott mobilized thousands of African Americans to challenge segregated buses. CORE activists—as pioneers of the strategy of nonviolent direct action—provided philosophical resources to the boycott and dispatched LeRoy Carter, a black field-secretary, to Montgomery to provide support. Electrified by rising black protest, CORE decided to channel the majority of the organization's energy into expanding into the South.
To facilitate this expansion, there was a revival of the national staff. In 1957, James Robinson, whose tireless fund-raising efforts had boosted organizational finances, was appointed executive secretary. He worked closely with the National Action Committee, comprising influential members based in New York who made policy decisions. CORE created a staff position for a public relations coordinator, who was in charge of promoting CORE as a major civil rights organization alongside the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was founded after the Montgomery bus boycott. In addition, the CORE-lator was transformed from an organizational organ into an informative news magazine that reported on the social movements emerging in the South.
Most importantly, CORE directly confronted its relationship to the black community for the first time. Although its predominantly white leadership structure remained firmly in place, African Americans such as James McCain, who was appointed field secretary in 1957, were sought out for prominent and visible positions. Publicity for CORE was also sought in the black press. Nonetheless, CORE's ideological commitment to interracialism continued to be unwavering. McCain, for example, worked closely with James Carey, a white field secretary, to demonstrate the viability of interracial organizing to potential new affiliates. However, the fundamental nature of the organization had begun to change. Interracialism—which had been defined since CORE's inception as racial diversity within chapters—was redefined on a regional level. To reflect the probability of minimal white support for CORE in the South, as well as the continued inability of majority white chapters on the West Coast to secure a black membership base, the interracial requirement for chapters was removed from the constitution. In addition, although CORE retained its base among white and black middle-class college students, its class and age composition was radically altered as many younger and poorer African Americans, with few ideological links to pacifism, joined its ranks.
By 1960 the number of CORE chapters had risen to twenty-four, with new chapters springing up in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky. With a stable national structure, growing income, new constituencies, and increased visibility, CORE finally seemed poised to join the ranks of the major civil rights organizations. In February 1960, when four college students sat in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina to protest segregation and ignited a wave of student protest that spread throughout the South, CORE activists scrambled to provide guidance. In Florida, CORE members pioneered the "jail-in" technique when five members chose to serve out their sentences rather than pay bail after being arrested for sitting in at a department store counter. One year later, CORE activists organized another "jail-in" in Rock Hill, South Carolina. This time, they received national attention, helping to galvanize the black community and setting a precedent of "jail–no bail" that became an important direct action strategy in the civil rights movement. In the North, affiliates started sympathy demonstrations for the student demonstrators and called for nationwide boycotts to attempt to place economic pressure on national chains to desegregate their facilities.
In May 1961, CORE mounted its most militant challenge to segregation: the Freedom Rides. Modeled on the earlier Journey of Reconciliation, the Freedom Rides were protests against segregated interstate buses and terminals in the South. Seven white and six black activists, including James Farmer (who had been appointed CORE executive director earlier that year), participated in the Freedom Rides. After successfully challenging segregation in Virginia and North Carolina, the Freedom Riders faced harassment, intimidation, and violence from racist southern whites in the Deep South. Two riders were attacked in Rock Hill, South Carolina; two were arrested in Winnesboro, South Carolina; and in a violent climax, riders were beaten and their bus bombed by a white mob near Birmingham, Alabama. After this event, which was recorded by the press for a shocked nation to see, CORE terminated the rides. Activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resumed the Freedom Rides in Mississippi, unleashing a white backlash so virulent that the Kennedy administration was forced to intervene with federal protection. Though SNCC activists—with some resentment on the part of CORE officials—took the leadership of the protest and received most of the credit for the remaining Freedom Rides, CORE continued to provide guidance to the freedom riders and stationed field secretaries in key southern cities to assist riders. Many CORE activists, including Farmer, rejoined the rides when SNCC continued them. The freedom riders finally triumphed in September 1961 when the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order prohibiting segregated facilities in interstate travel.
The Freedom Rides placed CORE in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. As a result of the national attention that the rides had generated, James Farmer joined SNCC's John Lewis and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as national spokespersons for the civil rights movement. By the end of 1961, CORE—with fifty-three affiliated chapters, rising income, and increased visibility—was able to mount new activities. CORE was an active participant in the wave of direct action protest that swept through the South in 1962 and 1963. In 1962, CORE worked closely with the local NAACP to launch the Freedom Highways project designed to desegregate Howard Johnson hotels along North Carolina highways. Faced with retaliatory white violence, and locked into increasingly contentious competition with the other civil rights organizations, CORE broadened the scope of its activities. In 1962, CORE joined the Voter Education Project (VEP) initiated by President John F. Kennedy and mounted vigorous voter registration campaigns in Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
CORE activists played a pivotal role in many of the leading events of the civil rights movement. In 1963, CORE joined the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC in sponsoring the March on Washington. As a part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a statewide coalition of civil rights organizations engaged in voter registration, CORE played a crucial role in the Freedom Summer in 1964 in Mississippi. James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, two of three civil rights workers killed in June 1964 by racist whites in the infamous case that focused national attention on the South, were members of CORE.
By 1963, CORE activities—severely curtailed by arrests and racial violence—shifted from the South to the
North. Two thirds of CORE's sixty-eight chapters were in the North and West, concentrated mainly in California and New York. In the North, CORE chapters directly confronted discrimination and segregation in housing and employment, using tactics such as picketing and the boycott. As they began to address some of the problems of economically disadvantaged African Americans in the North—including unemployment, housing discrimination, and police brutality—they began to attract more working-class African-American members. To strengthen their image as a black-protest organization, leadership of northern chapters was almost always black, and CORE chapters moved their headquarters into the black community. As member composition changed and CORE acquired a more militant image, CORE's deeply held ideological beliefs and tactics of social change were increasingly challenged by black working-class members. These members were willing to engage in more confrontational tactics, such as resisting arrest, obstructing traffic, all night sit-ins, and other forms of militant civil disobedience. Drawing on different ideological traditions, they viewed nonviolence as a tactic to be abandoned when no longer expedient—not as a deeply held philosophical belief. They often identified with Malcolm X, who preached racial
pride and black separatism, rather than with Gandhian notions of a beloved community.
By 1964 the integrationist, southern-based civil rights coalition was splintering, and consensus over tactics and strategy within CORE was destroyed. Vigorous debates emerged within CORE about the roles of whites (by 1964, less than 50 percent of the membership) in the organization. Infused with heightened black pride and nationalism, angered by the paternalism of some white members, and believing that black people should lead in the liberation of the black community, many black CORE members pushed for the diminution of the role of whites within the organization; an increasingly vocal minority called for the expulsion of whites.
As CORE struggled for organizational and programmatic direction, old tensions between rank and file members of the national leadership resurfaced as local chapters, operating almost autonomously, turned to grass-roots activism in poor black communities. In the South, CORE activities centered on building self-supporting community organizations to meet the needs of local communities. Activists organized projects that ranged from job discrimination protests to voter registration to securing mail delivery for black neighborhoods. In the North, CORE activists continued in the tradition of direct action. They fostered neighborhood organizations with local leadership, started community centers and job placement centers, and organized rent strikes and welfare rights protests.
In 1966 the National CORE convention endorsed the slogan of Black Power. Under the leadership of Farmer and Floyd McKissick—elected in 1963 as CORE national chairman—CORE adopted a national position supporting black self-determination, local control of community institutions, and coalition politics. In 1967 the word "multiracial" was deleted from the constitution, and whites began an exodus from the organization. One year later, Roy Innis, a dynamic and outspoken leader of CORE's Harlem chapter, replaced Farmer, and under the new title of national director took control of the organization. Innis staunchly believed in separatism and black self-determination and argued that blacks were a "nation with-in a nation." He barred whites from active membership in CORE and centralized decision-making authority to assert control over local chapter activities. By this point, however, CORE was a weakened organization with only a handful of affiliated chapters and dwindling resources.
Innis's economic nationalism and support for black capitalism led to an extremely conservative political stance for CORE on issues ranging from civil rights legislation and foreign policy to gun control and welfare. In 1970 he met with southern whites to promote separate schools as a viable alternative to court-imposed desegregation and busing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, almost all CORE activities ground to a halt as Innis and CORE came under increasing criticism. In 1976 Farmer severed all ties with CORE in protest of Innis's separatism and his attempt to recruit black Vietnam veterans to fight in Angola's civil war on the side of the South-African-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In 1981, after being accused by the New York State attorney general's office of misusing charitable contributions, Innis agreed to contribute $35,000 to the organization over a three-year period in exchange for not admitting to any irregularities in handling funds. In the early 1980s, former CORE members, led by Farmer, attempted to transform CORE into a multiracial organization, but Innis remained firmly in command. In 1987 Innis supported Bernhard Goetz, a white man who shot black alleged muggers on the subways in New York; and Robert Bork, a conservative Supreme Court nominee. CORE chapters have mounted only sporadic activities in the 1990s, but Innis—at this point, one of the leading black conservatives—has maintained visibility as national director of the organization.
See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Farmer, James; Freedom Rides; Freedom Summer; Innis, Roy; McKissick, Floyd B.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Rustin, Bayard; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Bell, Inge Powell. CORE and the Strategy of Nonviolence. New York: Random House, 1968.
Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. Black Protest in the Sixties. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970. Reprint, New York: Wiener, 1991.
Peck, James. Cracking the Color Line: Nonviolent Direct Action Methods of Eliminating Racial Discrimination. New York: CORE, 1960.
Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
carol v. r. george (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005