Get on the Bus! A Look Back at the Historic Freedom Rides
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Congress of Racial Equality

Title: Congress of Racial Equality
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The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was an early pioneer of nonviolent direct-action campaigns that took place during the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The organization grew out of the Christian pacifist student organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which was started in 1942. At the outset, the group's goal was to foster improvement in race relations. CORE's nonviolent, direct-action ideology was used a number of times within urban African American communities during the era in their struggle against racial discrimination. These protests developed out of a long-established protest tradition that ranged from the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" Campaign in Chicago and New York City during the 1930s, A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement of the 1940s, and the more militant mood among African Americans over the obvious contradictions between American's democratic war propaganda and its violation of democratic principles at home. Each of these campaigns came in response to inadequate housing opportunities, job segregation, and discrimination in public accommodations and public spaces. This discrimination resulted from white resistance to the growing number of black migrants moving north in search of better economic and social opportunities in the early 20th cenury, and during World War II and the postwar period.

The first CORE chapter, the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality, was formed in 1942 at the University of Chicago. The leaders of this new, interracial organization, which included future national directors James Farmer and James A. Robinson, were skeptical and critical of conservative actions of older civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, which often insisted on lengthy court battles to fight Jim Crow. The first CORE chapter instead embarked on campaigns that directly confronted discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. In March 1942, for instance, the group chose the White City Roller Rink as its first site to test Illinois's civil rights law. Here, 24 CORE members sought entry into the facility. When the African Americans in the group were denied entry, the group negotiated with the manager to end segregation at the location. Later that same year, the group targeted discrimination in housing at the University of Chicago Hospital and Medical School and at the university barbershop.

After changing its name to the Congress of Racial Equality in 1943, CORE expanded its operations and affiliated with other civil rights groups across the country. This proved difficult, because CORE affiliates resisted centralized leadership out of the belief that a central structure would deprive local chapters of valuable, and often limited, financial resources. Moreover, problems in Northern urbanized areas transcended mere segregation and encompassed a myriad of other issues—in particular, residential and employment discrimination. Many chapter leaders believed that creating a bureaucracy unfamiliar with local issues would severely limit the type of activism that could be used.

Despite this resistance, throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, local CORE groups managed some substantial victories. In 1949, St. Louis CORE, operating in a locale whose African American populace had increased during wartime migration, launched a successful campaign to desegregate Woolworth's lunch counters through Sit-ins and picketing. In another example, CORE operations in Omaha, Nebraska, successfully pressured a local Coca-Cola plant to agree to more equitable hiring practices. Unfortunately, the successes of these campaigns were not enough to maintain morale and activism among CORE affiliates across the nation. By 1954, while the NAACP was enjoying success as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education case; and 1955, when Martin Luther King Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott gained national attention, CORE suffered from organizational disarray and growing anticommunist investigations.

In 1961, CORE reached an important point in its organizational history when James Farmer, after a brief time working for the NAACP, became its national director. Farmer's influence on CORE's activism developed after he attended Howard University's Divinity School. Farmer refused ordination as a Methodist minister, saying he could not preach in a church that practiced discrimination. Subsequently he began work for a number of pacifist and socialist groups, applied for conscientious objector status, and was deferred from the draft during World War II because of his divinity degree. During his early career as an activist, Farmer worked for two Chicago organizations, a pacifist group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), in 1941, and later CORE from 1942 to 1945. With FOR, Farmer helped draft responses to such social ills as war, violence, bigotry, and poverty. With CORE, where he served as the group's first chair, Farmer proposed a new strategy based less on religious pacifism and more on the principle of nonviolent direct action that was used in Northern urban areas during the Great Migration and World War II eras as African Americans increasingly questioned the contradictions between American racism and the nation's war for democracy.

Before Farmer (whose charisma proved invaluable in strengthening CORE's ability to increase its profile within the African American community), CORE had begun to develop a reputation as being a predominantly white organization. With Farmer as its leader, the group moved into a more influential position among African American protest organizations because of its willingness to directly confront racial inequality.

On May 4, 1961, CORE brought its confrontational style to the Deep South when 13 CORE members departed via bus from Washington, D.C., in two interracial groups as part of the Freedom Rides. The endeavor was modeled after the 1946 Journey of Reconciliation, which tested the limits of a Supreme Court ruling banning discrimination in interstate travel sponsored by CORE and FOR. The Freedom Rides, a demonstration that Farmer had long pushed the NAACP to undertake, was a new effort to challenge Southern segregation in interstate travel and test a recent Supreme Court ruling, Boynton v. Virginia, that extended nondiscrimination to bus terminal accommodations. The Freedom Rides were a dangerous undertaking, and on May 13, outside Birmingham, Alabama, an armed mob attacked buses carrying a group of Freedom Riders and firebombed one of the buses. These incidents prompted CORE activists to abandon the remainder of their trip, and the riders were transported to New Orleans under the protection of the Justice Department. These actions, although initially disappointing, inspired other Freedom Rides throughout the South and demonstrated how a protest strategy, tested and proven in Northern states, could be implemented in the South. In the end, the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives in the South succeeded in moving CORE into a better position to fight racism throughout the North and South.

The visceral hatred demonstrated by Southern whites and the extreme racial violence aimed against the Freedom Riders made national news and thrust CORE into the national spotlight. The events surrounding the Freedom Rides transformed the national profile of the group in civil rights circles. During Farmer's tenure, CORE and Farmer soon developed a reputation of being one of the "Big Four" in the civil tights movement—along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, and Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—and was considered by many to be the spiritual leader of the movement.

In 1962, CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the NAACP organized its Freedom Summer campaign. The primary objective was to end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. Volunteers from these three groups concentrated efforts in Mississippi where, in 1962, only 6.7% of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country. This activism included the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). CORE, along with SNCC and NAACP, also established 30 Freedom Schools in towns throughout Mississippi. Volunteers taught in the schools and the curriculum now included black history and the philosophy of the civil rights movement. During the summer of 1964, more than 3,000 students attended these schools, and the experiment provided a model for future educational programs such as Head Start.

White mobs frequently targeted the Freedom Schools but also attacked the homes of local African Americans involved in the campaign. During the summer months, 30 black homes and 37 black churches were bombed, and more than 80 volunteers were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers. In addition, the murder of three voting rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—by the Ku Klux Klan on June 21, 1964, created nationwide publicity for the Freedom Summer campaign.

The year 1963 ushered in a new philosophy in the civil rights movement: "Freedom Now!" For many activists within CORE, the achievements won between 1960 and 1963 brought only token success. This new philosophy brought organizations like CORE into more substantial debates with the NAACP and Urban League, which were devoting much of their resources to ending segregation in public spaces and less attention to economic freedom. Nowhere was this more important than in the 1963 March on Washington. In the initial planning of the march, CORE was approached by A. Philip Randolph to cosponsor the event. As the event grew and more organizations agreed to participate, however, the original impetus of the march—jobs—became a secondary focus behind the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) openly argued against militant direct action or sit-ins in exchange for CORE's participation. This conflict accentuated an already contentious relationship between CORE and these other groups over such issues as membership, funding, and prestige.

By 1964, civil rights activists found it increasingly difficult to coordinate activities with other groups. For CORE, this cooperation was made more difficult, as the organization developed a more militant critique of the Vietnam War and promoted Black Nationalism. This conflict gained growing momentum within CORE when Floyd McKissick succeeded James Farmer in 1966. McKissick's ascension marked a shift from an adherence to Gandhian principles of nonviolent direct action to a philosophy of Black Nationalism.

CORE's nationalist shift was modeled on that of other groups of the period, particularly, SNCC. For CORE, this position was not only a marked departure from the group's origins but also alienated white members and financial support. Although during McKissick's tenure, whites were not expelled from the organization, during the 1967 CORE convention, McKissick's opponents within the group demanded the dismissal of all white members from the organization. In 1968, Roy Innis became national director, and the transition of CORE into a black nationalist body was complete. White financial support virtually disappeared, and CORE found itself at the brink of bankruptcy.

After 1968, political developments within the organization caused CORE to create a more politically conservative platform. For example, CORE supported the presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. More recently, CORE commented on same-sex marriage and black health, calling the issue not something that is a civil right but a human one. Moreover, COREcares, an HIV/AIDS advocacy, education, and prevention program for black women, was dismantled; and Innis is on the board of Project 21, a conservative public policy group that provides broadcasters and the print media with prominent African American conservative commentators as columnists and guests. The organization now refers to itself as "The National Leadership Network of Black Conservatives."

Lionel Kimble Jr.


Further Reading
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1947–1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; Farmer, James L. Freedom, When? New York: Random House, 1966; Farmer, James L. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography. New York: Arbor House, 1985; Noble, Phil. Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town. Montgomery, AL: New South Books, 2003; Rachal, John R. “‘The Long, Hot Summer’: The Mississippi Response to Freedom Summer, 1964.” Journal of Negro History 84, no. 4 (1999): 315–39.
 

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