Reference Entry

Congress of Racial Equality

Cassandra L. McKay

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Congress of Racial Equality

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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. The group changed its name to the Congress of Racial Equality in 1943. In the late 1930s and early 1940s World War II was heralded as the war for freedom and democracy, yet in America black soldiers who had experienced first-class citizenship abroad were treated as second-class citizens at home.American students, influenced by the Christian student movement of the 1930s, were aware of this contradiction. They formed a small band of dedicated young pacifists, initially called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). FOR members were deeply committed to applying Mahatma Gandhi's teachings of nonviolent resistance to everyday life. One cell group of FOR, established at the University of Chicago in October 1941, was intensely committed to applying Gandhian principles to racial problems. From the work of this cell group emerged the first CORE group, the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality. Six individuals founded the organization. Two were African American and four were white. Bernice Fisher and Homer Jack were white divinity students at the University of Chicago; Joe Guinn, an African American from Chicago, and James R. Robinson, a white from upstate New York, were liberal arts students at the University of Chicago; James Farmer, an African American FOR fieldworker, earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Howard University; and George Houser was a white part-time FOR fieldworker and conscientious objector to World War II. Houser had served a prison term before his matriculation as a University of Chicago divinity student. Both Farmer and Houser had been prominent in Methodist student circles in the 1930s, and their Methodism influenced their early leadership of CORE.In 1942, CORE began protests against segregation of public accommodations. One of the first direct actions taken by the cell group was the establishment of Fellowship House, an interracial men's cooperative, to challenge discriminatory housing practices around the University of Chicago campus. Continued interest grew in combating racial discrimination in the area, attracting a diverse number of young people. CORE was primarily funded by voluntary contributions from its members. Members were required to be well-versed in the principles of nonviolent philosophy and to attend general and committee meetings regularly. Committee or action units investigated and planned projects against discrimination in schools, hospitals, housing, and places of public accommodation. The Chicago CORE chapter attacked acts of racist discrimination at the University of Chicago's hospital and medical school. Off-campus and downtown restaurants were also challenged for their discriminatory practices against blacks. CORE held interracial sit-ins demanding services to all people and petitioned patrons to protest as they paid their bills.Nationally, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and former FOR youth secretary, were instrumental in CORE's fight against racial discrimination. The New York City chapter targeted the unfair employment practices of the Woolworth Company. The CORE chapter of Syracuse, New York, tackled housing discrimination, as well as the city's largest hotel, which banned accommodations to blacks. The Denver, Colorado, chapter tested the local theaters’ and restaurants’ federal compliance for nondiscriminatory accommodations of blacks. As a result of the chapter's direct action, some restaurants began to serve blacks for the first time.Although there was increased national interest in the fight against racial discrimination, CORE's relationships with other national organizations were tentative at best. In the early days of CORE the organization opposed all racial chauvinism and aimed to break down barriers of segregation, even break down black nationalism. CORE viewed the work of A. Philip Randolph, planner of the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) of 1941, as nationalistic. The Vanguard League of Baltimore, Maryland, was considered separatist and nonpacifist. The work of the NAACP and the Urban League was seen as only peripheral to the nation's racial problem. CORE members emphasized interracial and nonviolent direct action because they believed that such action was key to solving the problem of racial discrimination.The first national convention was held in 1943. James Farmer became the first national chairman and Bernice Fisher was elected secretary-treasurer. The established constitution reiterated the purpose of CORE: to form multiracial groups that would work to abolish the color line through direct acts of nonviolence. This constitution did not however establish a national organization structure. National CORE had the power to affiliate new chapters and suspend inactive ones, but no other centralized structure was instituted. Decentralization was seen as a way to respect the freedom of individual chapters to work on behalf of their local concerns rather than the concerns of a national organization. Unfortunately, as a result of this decentralization, the national organization lacked membership lists of chapter affiliates, funding for salaries, and a national office space.At the 1944 convention a new constitution was adopted. James Farmer and Bernice Fisher were reelected as chairman and secretary-treasurer, respectively. In addition three vice chairmen were added. Still, this new arrangement proved to be ineffectual, with officers failing to carry out their responsibilities.In 1945 the constitution was modified to reflect a more conventional organizational structure. The executive committee now consisted of one chairman, one vice chairman, one treasurer, one executive secretary, and one recording secretary. A council was also established consisting of the executive committee and two representatives from each CORE chapter. The creation of the executive secretary position allowed for a centralized structure, yet the establishment of the council allowed CORE leaders to be more responsive to affiliates. The council met semiannually and made major decisions. The council also had the power to affiliate new chapters. The executive committee met more frequently, but was empowered to make only emergency decisions. James Farmer stepped down as national chairman and was succeeded by Frank Shearer of the Vanguard League. George Houser became the first executive secretary.As executive secretary, Houser envisioned a yearlong leadership-training project in preparation for a large-scale multiracial nonviolent movement. Recognizing the need for more experienced leadership, Houser reluctantly enlisted the help of A. Philip Randolph of MOWM, as well as of Roy Wilkins, assistant secretary to the NAACP. Unfortunately, all involved parties doubted the feasibility of the project and the vision died, not to be revived again until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.The Age of Martin Luther King Jr.In the late 1940s CORE was now a national organization, but its budget was nevertheless practically nonexistent; therefore the members of the council were unpaid. Houser, as executive secretary, reluctantly pushed for chapter members’ dues to be divided among national and local offices. Local chapters did not comply, and the national budget remained minuscule. Despite the inadequate budget, a national project, the Journey of Reconciliation, was implemented. In April 1947 CORE sent eight white men and eight black men into the upper southern states in order to test compliance with the 1946 Supreme Court decision against segregation in interstate travel. This Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two-week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But instead, riders of the Journey of Reconciliation team were threatened with violence and were arrested several times, and three of the riders were forced to work on a chain gang. Arrested riders confronted North Carolina citizens, police, and judges who had no knowledge of the 1946 Supreme Court decision. Subsequently, charges were dropped in most of the team's cases. The direct action of the Journey did not lead to compliance with transportation desegregation but it did achieve a great deal of publicity for CORE. Still, affiliates were reluctant to support financially the hiring of staff to continue CORE's momentum as a force for civil rights.During President Truman's administration, civil rights for blacks greatly increased with the desegregation of the armed forces and the appointment of the first black circuit court judge. Yet during this time, CORE—being more radical than other civil rights organizations—lost members because of the McCarthy anticommunist hysteria. On the national level CORE had to rally local chapters together in order to provide a more directed and singular focus for civil rights. It could no longer function as a fractured group of autonomous affiliates. In December 1955 the charismatic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. successfully led the Montgomery bus boycott. The use of nonviolent direct action was attributed to CORE, whose philosophy had laid the foundation for such action.In 1961 James Farmer was elected as the first national director of CORE. His leadership and the improved national climate for racial equality resulted in a revival of CORE's popularity. During that same year CORE, along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), reinstated the Journey of Reconciliation rides, later naming them the Freedom Rides. The direct action of the Freedom Rides resulted in the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) finally enforcing the 1946 decision and also in the 1960 Supreme Court ruling against segregated interstate carriers and terminal stations. The law became effective on 1 November 1961.The Freedom Rides placed a tremendous financial burden on CORE. It was only by the generous donations of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund that CORE was able to post bail and pay arraignment fees for arrested riders. In 1963 CORE helped to organize the March on Washington. On 28 August of that year more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens. In the mid-1960s CORE boasted 80,000 members. CORE's paid staff had grown from 7 to 137, and there were now 140 full-fledged chapters.The civil rights movement's turning point was 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Also, three major civil rights organizations, CORE, the SNCC, and the NAACP, organized their Freedom Summer campaign. Freedom Summer's main objective was to empower African Americans in the Deep South politically, via voter registration and so-called Freedom Schools. Yet even as progress was being made in the fight for civil rights, delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were denied a voting seat at the 1964 Democratic Convention. As a result civil rights organizations began to split into moderate and radical factions. The more radical blacks embraced Black Power. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 also sparked more militancy among blacks. Presiding members of CORE followed this trend and changed its emphasis from integration to a more nationalist agenda. This sentiment influenced the election of Floyd McKissick as national director in 1966, replacing James Farmer. Because of this revised agenda, many moderates left the organization.Behind CORE's stance of black separatism, there was little successful program development. CORE continued to struggle financially, losing many of its financial backers of the past. New initiatives to empower black political leadership and increase job training failed from lack of financial support and suspected mismanagement of funds. In 1968 Floyd McKissick announced his retirement and Roy Innis replaced him as the national director. That same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Dr. King had been a member of CORE's advisory committee and was even offered the national directorship before James Farmer was elected to the position. CORE had already made a shift to black nationalism, yet the assassination of King still rattled CORE members’ commitment to nonviolence. There was a surge of discontent with the effectiveness of nonviolence, when violence seemed to permeate the country. In its fight for civil rights CORE continued to adopt a more radical stance than other civil rights organizations did. The notion of Black Power would move the organization away from its initial mission of racial integration and nonviolence to one of racial separatism and self-preservation.Contemporary America.Since CORE's inception in 1942 there have been three national directors: James Farmer (1961–1966), Floyd McKissick (1966–1968), and Roy Innis, who has been the national director since 1968. Innis's first acts as national director were to deny whites active membership in CORE and to convert the organization into a small centralized body, restricting the autonomy of local chapters. In the press Innis declared that CORE had finally become a black nationalist organization emphasizing separatism, so that blacks could control their own destiny. He demanded that the American Constitution be revised to recognize blacks as a separate nation.To further this cause Innis supported the 1968 presidential bid of the Republican Richard Nixon. Innis felt that Nixon's support of school decentralization and community control were better strategies for black advancement than the welfare programs supported by the Democrats. In the South, Innis pushed for separate school districts that would be completely controlled by blacks. He rejected any population programs and birth-control policies formulated by whites. He felt that such plans were inherently genocidal. Focusing on political leverage Innis actually favored a heavy urban population of blacks, hoping to maintain an increase in their political representation.Over the years Innis has been admired and despised as an opportunist. In the 1970s Innis toured seven African countries, seeking to enhance and build on the black pride movement of the previous decade. Yet Innis is also known to have befriended Idi Amin, the tyrannical president of Uganda. He later recanted his association because of the brutality of Amin's regime. In 1978 Innis was charged by New York State officials with mismanagement of charitable funds, but he later settled out of court.In 1993 Innis made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of New York City. He challenged the incumbent David Dinkins, the first black person to hold the that office. With little capital Innis still won 26 percent of the vote at the Democratic primary. Continuing his relations with Africa, Innis led a team of delegates to Nigeria in 1996—at the time Nigeria was transitioning from military to civilian rule—in order to monitor the first elections. A nationally known advocate of Second Amendment rights, Innis has tried to help the National Rifle Association overturn a Maryland ban against cheap handguns. Innis joined the Libertarian Party in 1998 and advocates the idea that the most fundamental freedom for all people is the right to govern themselves.Contrary to his former separatist stance, Innis has embraced the conservative Republican Party. In 2002 he suggested to the Bush administration that new Nation of Islam converts, particularly African American inmates and college students, should be watched carefully because of their alleged potential involvement in terrorist acts against the United States. In that same year the Republican Senator Trent Lott called upon Innis in hopes of mending relations with black citizens after Lott voiced support for the 1948 presidential campaign of the segregationist Strom Thurmond. Roy Innis has held membership on the board of several conservative organizations, including the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank, the National Rifle Association, and the Landmark Legal Foundation, one of the more vocal critics of former president Bill Clinton. CORE maintains its headquarters in New York City.

Reference Entry.  2564 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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