Innis, Roy 1934–
Roy Innis 1934–
Activist, organization official
A controversial figure in the civil rights movement, Roy Innis has guided the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) since the summer of 1968. His stormy career has been marked by radical rhetoric, shifts in ideology, and financial and legal troubles. Nevertheless, his prominent position with CORE— an organization dedicated to the political and economic advancement of people of color—has established him as a significant figure on the front line of American activism.
Innis was born June 6, 1934, in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. He was six years old when his father died, but it was not until 1947 that he moved to the United States, following his mother, who was sending for her children as money became available. The shock of moving from the racially tolerant and predominantly black Virgin Islands to Harlem in New York City was tremendous. At that time discrimination against black Americans was commonplace, and the continually reinforced message of white supremacy led some blacks to question the intellect and competence of their own race. “My father was a cop [back in St. Croix],” Innis told Ebony, “the symbol of authority… The judge was black and had a kind of basic confidence in the ability of black people. But I used to notice how Harlem blacks would be surprised if other blacks were smart. They seemed to feel that only whites were smart.”
Innis attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and in 1950, when he was 16 years old, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. It was two years before his superiors found out he was underage and discharged him. On returning to New York, Innis earned his high school diploma and majored in chemistry at the City College of New York. Subsequently, he worked as a researcher for the Vicks Chemical Company and had three children with his first wife, Violet.
After his first marriage ended, Innis fell in love with and married civil rights activist Doris Funnye. Funnye was active in the Harlem chapter of CORE, an organization from which Innis had previously shied away. “Too many white people were directing traffic,” he told Ebony. Because of Funnye, Innis joined CORE—first to be near her and later because he felt he could make a difference in the organization.
By 1963 he was one of the more active members of CORE’s Harlem chapter. Later called “the very soul of the civil-rights movement” by Jesse Jackson, the Congress of Racial Equality had been founded in 1942 by six young Chicagoans as an interracial passive resistance organization. Led by longtime
Born Roy Emile Alfredo Innis, June 6, 1934, in St. Croix, Virgin Islands; immigrated to the United States, 1947; son of Alexander (a police officer) and Georgianna Thomas Innis; married first wife, Violet (divorced); married Doris Funnye; children: Alexander (deceased), Roy (deceased), Cedric, Patricia, Corinne, Kwame, Niger, Kimathi. Education: Attended City College of New York, 1952-56.
Vicks Chemical Company, research chemist, 1958-63; Montefiore Hospital, New York City, research assistant in cardiovascular research laboratory and hospital union official, 1963-67; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), chairman of Harlem chapter, 1965-67, named associate national director, December 27,1967, national director, 1968-81, and national chairman, 1981—. Resident fellow, Metropolitan Applied Research Center, New York City, 1967; Harlem Commonwealth Council, executive director, 1967-68; coeditor, Manhattan Tribune. Military service: Served in U.S. Army, 1950-52.
Addresses: Office —National Chairman, Congress of Racial Equality, 2111 Nostrand, Brooklyn, NY 11210.
chairman James Farmer, CORE began by protesting discrimination in Chicago restaurants and grew to lead sit-ins at lunch counters in the South and sponsor the famous Freedom Rides that tested compliance with federal orders to desegregate bus lines.
While a member of CORE’s Harlem chapter, Innis was part of a minority whose aims did not coincide with CORE’s stated goal of integration. Innis and his allies sought to promote the notion of “economic competition” while devaluing the idea of integration for blacks. “When I first started hanging around CORE, I didn’t dig the operation,” he told Ebony. “I thought people didn’t know what they were talking about. But I saw sincerity and a lot of energy and drive. I thought if you could harness it, it would be a useful force. I thought their ideology of integration was out of it. I was a black nationalist.”
Innis tried to obtain control of CORE’s Harlem chapter and ran for chairman several times before gaining the post in 1965 over the staunch objection of moderates. During his two years as head of the Harlem branch, he more than any other figure was instrumental in moving the organization from a strategy of nonviolent social change to a strategy of nationalistic self-defense.
In 1966 James Farmer retired from the post of national chairman amid charges that he was too conservative. Reflecting these sentiments, the CORE convention led by Innis and the Harlem chapter elected Floyd McKissick to the vacated position. McKissick moved CORE toward an all-black membership and eliminated the word “multiracial” from its constitution.
On December 27 of the following year, McKissick appointed Innis to the post of associate national director. Critics claimed that the appointment was illegal, since McKissick never consulted with CORE’s decision-making body, the National Action Council. According to some observers, Innis had relied on both charisma and scare tactics to further his agenda while serving as chairman of the Harlem chapter.
But while Innis was moving upward in the CORE hierarchy, tragedy struck his family. On April 15, 1968, his 13-year-old son, who was playing with his brother outside a Bronx apartment house a short distance from his mother’s house, was shot by an irate postal worker. “It was a very sad thing to have to explain to a father,” the detective who informed Innis of the shooting told the New York Times. “The kids were just playing. They were just horsing around.”
On July 8 of the same year, Chairman McKissick, himself under fire from CORE’s more radical elements, took a leave of absence from the chairmanship. As associate national director, Innis assumed power, pledging to tighten up the organization and give it direction. According to the Saturday Review, he also proclaimed CORE “once and for all … a black nationalist organization.” Disillusioned with the minimal progress made after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and with failed efforts to desegregate schools in America’s cities, Innis concluded: “Integration as an end in itself is as dead as a doornail.”
At the CORE convention the following September, 47 disgruntled delegates walked out before others formally elected Innis and adopted a new constitution that centralized power and advocated black nationalism. According to the New York Times, Innis remarked: “For the first time, CORE is one team working together… We are moving away from separate little baronies.”
Although the turn to black nationalism led to a severe decline in membership—making CORE what Ebony called “a shadow of its former self”—Innis’s early leadership of the organization was marked by seemingly dramatic action. He founded the Harlem Commonwealth Council, an agency designed to create black-owned businesses and black-directed economic institutions in Harlem, and he served as co-editor of the Manhattan Tribune, a weekly New York tabloid stressing the affairs of Harlem and the upper West Side.
His black nationalist viewpoint converged with conservative ideas and received wide play in conservative magazines such as National Review and U.S. News & World Report. Innis explained black nationalism in Life as “the philosophy of self-determination, the philosophy of an oppressed people… One solution to such oppression is assimilation—in essence, the loss of one’s self… That won’t work for us. We have to devise a philosophy applicable to our own dilemma. We must rehabilitate blacks as people. We must control the institutions in our areas.”
“Integration should not be an end in itself,” Innis stated in U.S. News & World Report. “It should be a means to an end—toward true equality and justice. But if it’s obvious that integration is not achieving those ends, then you seek other means.” An advocate of community power, Innis told the magazine after the 1968 presidential election: “[Richard M.] Nixon should support the concept of community control of schools, welfare, sanitation, fire, police, health and hospitals and all other vital institutions operating in the so-called ghettos.” Innis’s view of school desegregation coincided with both his desire for community control and the philosophy of segregationists. “I say let us create two districts—one predominantly white and one predominantly black—where you now have one district,” he was quoted as saying in U.S. News & World Report. “Each district will create its own board to manage the school system. Each will hire a superintendent. Each will be autonomous and truly equal.”
Judgment Questioned, Legal Issues Raised
But while Innis was making a splash with his ideas, some members of CORE were dropping out, charging that he was running the organization as a one-man show. In addition, Innis became involved in questionable affairs that many considered beyond the realm of CORE’s stated goals. In 1973 Innis toured Uganda and visited murderous dictator Idi Amin, conferring upon him a life membership in CORE. On returning to the United States, Innis told the Saturday Review: “General Amin will lead a liberation army to free those parts of Africa still under the rule of white imperialists.” Innis’s interest in African affairs was not limited to Uganda. In 1976 he claimed to have recruited between 300 and 1,000 black American veterans to fight as mercenaries in the Angolan civil war on the side supported by western countries and South Africa. Denounced as an “anti-African reactionary group,” by the Organization of African Unity, CORE never actually sent soldiers to Africa.
Innis defended his junkets to Angola and Uganda as vital to solving the problems of oppressed people of color throughout the world. When questioned about his use of CORE funds for activities that went beyond the interests of the organization, the Saturday Review reported that he answered: “The monies of CORE are my money and CORE is my organization and I’ll run it the way I see fit.”
In December of 1978, New York State assistant attorney general William Lee charged Innis and two of his subordinates with misuse of charitable contributions. According to the Saturday Review, the three were accused of unlawful fund-raising practices, maintaining nonexistent “paper programs,” putting the organization’s funds to questionable use, and perpetuating Innis’s one-man directorship of CORE. Specifically, the affidavit stated that CORE employed a “technique of fear and apprehension” in soliciting funds for its Equal Opportunity Journal and added that CORE had become “an organization whose sole raison d’etre had degenerated to the acquisition of more and more money, none of which ever reached the intended beneficiaries, the disadvantaged minority members.”
Harry Zehner of the Saturday Review went on to claim that though the organization was raising in excess of four million dollars a year from corporate contributions, its editorial, community renewal, child day care, prison reform, tutorial reading, media communication, job bank, housing, employment referral, and Operation Self Help programs had “no more than paper existence.”
Following the filing of charges, an injunction preventing CORE from raising funds was filed. The case, however, never went to trial, and on December 30, 1981, CORE and the state attorney general reached an out-of-court settlement that did not require CORE to admit any wrongdoing but did require Innis to contribute $35,000 to the organization over the following three years.
In November of 1980, in the midst of Innis’s financial and legal troubles, a group of 200 dissident CORE members met in Columbia, South Carolina, and voted to dismiss him from the post of national director. According to the New York Times, CORE member and South Carolina state representative Theo Mitchell said the organization “ha[d] been used for personal gain, egotism and grandiose plans.” The same meeting elected Waverly Yates, head of CORE’s Washington office and one of the organization’s founders, to replace Innis. When Innis refused to hand over the chairmanship, Yates and others filed a lawsuit that was ultimately ruled in Innis’s favor.
While Innis’s political philosophy had always been marked by conservative tendencies, he took an overt swing to the right during the 1980s. In October of 1984 he took the stand as a character witness for perennial right-wing presidential candidate Lyndon La Rouche, who was eventually convicted of tax evasion. The following month he urged African Americans to desert Democrat Walter Mondale’s presidential candidacy, saying black voters “had nothing to lose and everything to gain” by supporting Republican candidate Ronald Reagan over Mondale. “The successful desegregation of the Republican Party,” he told the New York Times “can be one of the most important and healthy political developments for the black community and for the country at large.”
Looking to exploit his popularity on the political right, Innis told a 1985 New York Republican gathering that he would run for a Brooklyn seat in the House of Representatives the following year and that, though politics necessitated he run as a Democrat, he would sit with the Republicans if he won. A month before the election—which he lost—the IRS fined him $56,000 in back taxes plus $28,000 in civil fraud penalties. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The IRS… claimed he got $116,000 in unreported income from CORE in 1975 and 1976, [which] he allegedly spent … on travel, apartment rent, jewelry, furniture, entertainment, and other personal items.”
Innis gained considerable exposure in 1988 when his appearances on television talk shows degenerated into bizarre skirmishes. On August 9 of that year, he appeared with the controversial Reverend Al Sharpton in a taping of the Morton Downey Jr. Show. When Sharpton questioned Innis’s abilities and authority as a black leader, a shouting match began. The show’s producer told the Chicago Tribune: “Innis stood up and was basically telling Sharpton to let him speak…. [He] towered over him.” Then, the story went on, “as the rotund Sharpton started to get up, Innis pushed him. Rev. Sharpton fell into the chair and toppled over backward onto the floor.”
In November of the same year, Innis appeared with white-supremacist Tom Metzger on the Geraldo Rivera Show. According to the New York Times, Innis attacked Metzger after Metzger offended him with an inflammatory, racially motivated remark. A scuffle ensued, and soon members of the audience joined in, with chairs, punches, and insults being hurled in all directions. Later, Innis told the Times, “I was just trying to cool things down quickly and end the verbal assault against me. I wanted to avoid a Sharpton-like confrontation.”
In the late 1980s, Innis focused on issues in addition to racism that affected the black community. Crime became an important topic. In a Christian Science Monitor interview, he noted, “Crime is bigger and more destructive than racism… Crime affects our community, its business, education, jobs, health. Senior citizens can’t walk the streets without endangering their health.”
Innis remained in the public eye throughout the early 1990s. In a 1991 Wall Street Journal editorial, “Gun Control Sprouts From Racist Soil,” he argued that banning handguns would keep guns out of the hands of black families in high crime areas who needed protection. He stated in an interview with Robert Santiago for Emerge that “CORE is the only group with the courage to admit the obvious—that black folks, minority folks, folks in high-crime areas need to arm themselves legally.”
All controversy aside, Innis continues to be an important voice on the American civil rights scene. He, along with a group of other prominent African American leaders, was called to the White House as a consultant after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, linked to anger about perceived police brutality toward blacks. He commented in the Emerge interview that CORE’s agenda for the future involves battling the sources and effects of crime within the black community: “CORE and Roy Innis were the first to jump on the question of black crime…. Our No. 1 problem today is black crime. If the white man goes away tonight, we still have black crime.”
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1987.
Ebony, October 1969.
Emerge, August 1992, p. 11.
Life, December 13, 1968.
National Review, February 11, 1969.
New York Times, July 24, 1966; April 16, 1968; June 26, 1968; November 14, 1968; April 1, 1980; November 23, 1980; December 31, 1981; November 4, 1984; November 25, 1985; November 4, 1988.
Saturday Review, April 28, 1979.
U.S. News & World Report, November 25, 1968; March 2, 1970.
Village Voice, July 12, 1988.
Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1986; November 21, 1991.
June 6, 1934
Civil rights activist Roy Emile Alfredo Innis was born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and moved to New York City with his mother in 1946. He served in the army for two years during the Korean War and attended the City College of New York from 1952 to 1956, majoring in chemistry. He worked as a chemist at Montefiore Hospital in New York City. In 1963, Innis joined the Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial civil rights organization committed to nonviolent direct action. In 1964 he became chairman of the chapter's education committee. He advocated community control of public schools as an essential first step toward black self-determination. He was elected chapter chairman the following year and proposed an amendment to the New York State constitution that would provide an independent school board for Harlem. In 1967 he was one of the founders of the Harlem Commonwealth Council, an organization committed to supporting black-owned businesses in Harlem. He served as the organization's first executive director.
Innis became one of the leading advocates of black nationalism and Black Power within CORE, and in 1968 he was elected CORE's national director. He took control of the organization during a period in which its influence and vitality were declining. Under his leadership, which was characterized by tight centralization of organizational activities and vocal advocacy of black capitalism and separatism, CORE's mass base further declined. Despite this fact, Innis remained in the public eye.
Innis popularized his ideas as coeditor of the Manhattan Tribune —a weekly newspaper focusing on Harlem and the Upper West Side—which he founded with white journalist William Haddad in 1968. Later that year he promoted a Community Self-Determination bill, which was presented before Congress. He received national attention in 1973 when he debated Nobel Prize–winning physicist William Shockley on the issue of black genetic inferiority on NBC's late-night Tomorrow Show.
In 1980, after former CORE members led by James Farmer mounted an unsuccessful effort to wrest control of the organization from Innis, he consolidated his hold over the organization by becoming national chairman. By this time Innis's polemical oratory, his argument that societal racism had largely abated, and his support of Republican candidates placed him in the vanguard of black conservatism. In 1987 he received much notoriety for his support for Bernhard Goetz, a white man who shot black alleged muggers on a New York subway, and his championing of Robert Bork, a controversial U.S. Supreme Court nominee who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Innis entered the political arena in 1986 when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress from Brooklyn as a Democrat. In the 1993 Democratic primary, he unsuccessfully challenged David Dinkins, the first African-American mayor of New York City, and he then became a vocal supporter of Dinkins's Republican challenger, Rudolph Giuliani, who won the election. In 1994 Innis celebrated his twenty-fifth year of leadership of CORE. Innis has remained active, traveling to Nigeria from 1996 to 1998 to monitor elections.
Jones, Charles. "From Protest to Black Conservatism: The Demise of the Congress of Racial Equality." In Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights Era, edited by Ollie A. Johnson III and Karin L. Stanford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
robyn spencer (1996)
Updated by author 2005