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Congress of Racial Equality Biography

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Congress of Racial Equality Biography

Photo of Alice Neel’s 1964 portrait of CORE founder James Farmer.

Cliff 1066/Flickr.com

The Congress of Racial Equality may not be a household name but crack open any U.S. history book, and there's no question that the fight for civil rights may have turned out very differently without CORE's contributions. CORE's nonviolent protest techniques, recruitment strategies and expansion efforts led to key victories during the civil rights movement, including the desegregation of interstate bus and rail lines due to the Freedom Rides. Learn more about the importance of CORE's role in the African-American struggle for justice with this biography of the group's history, information on its platform, and facts about its mission and leadership today.

The Founding of CORE

CORE is largely known today for the imprint it made on the civil rights struggle in the South. The organization first launched in the North, however, when a racially mixed group of Chicago students--James L. Farmer, George Houser, Bernice Fisher, James R. Robinson, Homer Jack and Joe Guinn--decided to mobilize in 1942 for racial justice. The fight for civil rights was nothing new to these students, as many of them belonged to a pacifist group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which aimed to transform racist attitudes, according to CORE. Like the then unknown Martin Luther King Jr., the CORE team found inspiration in Mahatma Gandhi's example of nonviolence.

Early Years

Expanding CORE beyond Chicago's city limits proved vital to CORE's success. The congress achieved this expansion by sending Farmer and Bayard Rustin, a FOR activist who would go on to work with King, on a national recruitment mission. The initial recruits shared four things in common: they were white, middle class, in college and from the Midwest. Such members would play a key role in helping CORE target Jim Crow in the South.

Soon after its launch, CORE put its efforts into desegregating public accommodations. The group attacked Jim Crow in this arena by holding sit-ins. CORE also made a name for itself by engaging in strategies such as jail-ins, where activists arrested for taking a stand chose to remain behind bars instead of be released on bail. In addition, CORE organized what were later known as Freedom Rides to strike down segregation on interstate travel. To test a Supreme Court decision that deemed Jim Crow on interstate travel unconstitutional, CORE sent eight white and black men each to the South in 1947 on a "Journey of Reconciliation." A quarter of the men were arrested, including Rustin, who was ordered to work on a chain gang.

Via its variety of nonviolent techniques, CORE managed to win some victories in its efforts to strike down segregation in public facilities. As a result of these triumphs, the decentralized group decided that the time had come for national leadership. Members were eager to test out CORE's nonviolent actions nationwide. Accordingly, in 1953, CORE founder James Farmer took on the role of national director, the group's first.

CORE at its Peak

The 1950s ushered in a series of triumphs for the civil rights movement and thus a series of triumphs for CORE. The group underwent a rebirth of sorts when the Supreme Court ruled in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education that a "separate but equal" policy in public schools was unconstitutional. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in which African Americans organized against segregation on city buses marked another victory. These landmark victories inspired CORE to concentrate its efforts largely in the South.

CORE earned national recognition when it helped lead the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. Before long, CORE was planning sit-ins throughout the region. But sit-ins weren't the only CORE strategy that gained popularity in the South. There were also the Freedom Rides, inspired by the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947. CORE mobilized racially mixed groups to set out on the rides in May 1961. Although the riders faced grave danger from violent white supremacists opposed to integration, the riders' efforts garnered international attention and led to an end of Jim Crow in interstate travel.

With 53 branches throughout the nation at 1961's end, CORE became involved in a variety of civil rights mobilizations, including President John Kennedy's Voter Education Project, the 1963 March on Washington and 1964's Freedom Summer. During that summer CORE volunteers from across the country traveled to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote and to address inequalities in education with the formation of Freedom Schools. Freedom Summer suffered a tragedy when a white mob killed three CORE members--James Chaney, an African-American, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both Jewish--in Philadelphia, Miss. The 1988 film "Mississippi Burning" was inspired by the murders.

A New Direction

In the 1960s, CORE shifted from being a racially mixed organization, heavily composed of white, middle-class college students, to a mostly black group who questioned the effectiveness of nonviolence to combat racial discrimination. Due to the change in CORE's membership and attitudes, James Farmer stepped down as national director in 1966. Floyd McKissick, described as a militant, replaced Farmer and adopted the philosophy of black power.

McKissick would not last as national director as long as his predecessor had. He'd inherited a group that suffered from debt and disorganization. Unable to transform CORE's financial situation, McKissick stepped down from leadership in 1968. Roy Innis replaced him, making fundraising a priority and black economic development a key part of CORE's platform.

CORE Today

Today, Roy Innis serves as national chairman of CORE. With headquarters in New York City, CORE has chapters across the United States as well as in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Central and South America. CORE's motto is "Truth! Logic! Courage!" According to its website, anyone who believes that "all people are created equal" and desires to make equality a reality worldwide can become a member of CORE.

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