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Congress of Racial Equality: Fighting Discrimination and Segregation

Introduction

In 1942, a group of students from Chicago broke off from the pacifist civil rights group Fellowship of Reconciliation to form their own organization. These students were inspired by the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and his use of nonviolent protest to fight inequality. 

Explanation

The students called their organization the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. 

Congress of Racial Equality 

The Congress of Racial Equality was one of the leading activist organizations at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Founded by an interracial group of students in 1942, CORE sought to fight racial discrimination through nonviolent, direct-action advocacy. It was a crucial player in the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and 1963 March on Washington. In the late 1960s, CORE shifted from emphasizing pacifism to focusing more on Black nationalism and separatism.  

The History

During its first few years, CORE focused on using nonviolent tactics to challenge segregation in the north. Though it was an interracial group, most members were White and middle class. In 1942, CORE staged one of the first sit-ins in the country at a coffee shop in Chicago. In 1947, it expanded its advocacy to the upper South by organizing the Journey of Reconciliation, an integrated bus ride through multiple states in the upper South. Riders wanted to see if law enforcement would respect a 1946 Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation in interstate travel. They encountered little violence, but multiple riders were arrested. 

In 1955, CORE expanded fully to the South. It trained demonstrators at the Montgomery bus boycott in nonviolent advocacy and began fighting other instances of public segregation in the South. In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. joined CORE’s Advisory Committee. CORE and King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, partnered on several initiatives in the late 1950s, including the Prayer Pilgrimage for Public Schools, which advocated for school integration, and the Voter Education Project, which was a large-scale voter registration project. In 1963, CORE would co-sponsor the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. 

In 1961, James Farmer became CORE’s first Black national director. He organized the 1961 Freedom Rides, which were inspired by the earlier Journey of Reconciliation. The Freedom Rides aimed to desegregate interstate transportation, but unlike the Journey of Reconciliation, Freedom Riders traveled into the Deep South. The Black and White riders were met with shocking amounts of violence; in Alabama, a bus was firebombed, and passengers were viciously attacked. The mob violence and the subsequent lack of response from local and national authorities prompted public outcry. 

Over the next few years, CORE increased its focus on voter registration. It joined the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, which coordinated local and national civil rights groups in Mississippi. COFO ran the 1964 Freedom Summer project, which got White northern volunteers to help activists register Black voters in Mississippi. The project hoped to fight intimidation and discrimination in the voting process and prevent the disenfranchisement of Black voters. 

During Freedom Summer, the KKK killed three volunteers: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The murders gained widespread national attention, especially because Goodman and Schquerner were White. 

By the mid-1960s, many CORE members were growing disillusioned with nonviolence. The murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, along with other violent attacks in the South, contributed to this shift. In 1966, Floyd McKissick replaced Farmer as the national director of CORE. Under McKissick, CORE focused on ideologies of Black Power and Black separatism and reduced the involvement of White members. The assassination of King in 1968 accelerated this shift; McKissick called King “the last prince of nonviolence” and declared nonviolence “a dead philosophy.” 

Roy Innis succeeded McKissick as the national director of CORE. In the first decades of his tenure, he - and, by extension, CORE - became increasingly conservative. Under Innis, CORE supported Republican presidents Ronald Reagon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, and was alienated by other civil rights organizations. Innis remains the national director of CORE today. 

So What?

CORE was one of the first organizations to use nonviolent tactics during the American civil rights movement. It organized some of the most important demonstrations of the movement, including the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer. It brought national attention to discrimination and disenfranchisement of African Americans and increased support for the civil rights movement. CORE’s advocacy helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which made significant strides in ending legalized discrimination and segregation in American life. 

Its shift away from pacifism also highlighted the tensions between White moderates and Black activists. This tension can be seen today, including in Black Lives Matter protests. White moderates may criticize protesters for property damage or for making what they believe are unreasonable demands, while Black activists criticize those moderates for performative activism and not listening to those who are actually oppressed.

Think Further

  1. CORE began as an organization made up of mostly white moderates. What might a mostly-white organization focused on racial equality overlook? How can a more diverse membership change and improve a group’s priorities?
  2. How did the violence suffered by the demonstrators during the Freedom Rides help the civil rights movement? Why?
  3. The murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner caused national outcry. How might that have been different if all three of the victims had been Black, instead of only one?

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  1. “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 21 May 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/congress-racial-equality-core.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Congress of Racial Equality.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Apr. 2012, www.britannica.com/topic/Congress-of-Racial-Equality.
  3. History.com Editors. “CORE.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/congress-of-racial-equality.
  4. McCurdy, Devon. “Congress of Racial Equality (1942).” Black Past, 16 Dec. 2007, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/congress-racial-equality-1942/.
  5. Rachell, L.E.J. “Why the Congress of Racial Equality Has Been Forgotten – And Why It Still Matters Today.” History News Network, 10 Feb. 2019, historynewsnetwork.org/article/171193.