Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 by a group of students in Chicago. Early members included George Houser, James Farmer, Anna Murray and Bayard Rustin. Members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.

In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. organized by George Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Although Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was against this kind of direct action, he volunteered the service of its southern attorneys during the campaign. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the Journey of Reconciliation and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."

The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Joseph Felmet, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.

Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."

The Journey of Reconciliation achieved a great deal of publicity and was the start of a long campaign of direct action by the Congress of Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave Houser and Bayard Rustin the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy for their attempts to bring an end to segregation in interstate travel.

James Farmer became National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1953 and he helped organize student sit-ins during 1961. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.

The Congress of Racial Equality also organised Freedom Rides in the Deep South. In Birmingham, Alabama, one of the buses was fire-bombed and passengers were beaten by a white mob. By 1961 CORE had 53 chapters throughout the United States. Two years later, the organization helped organize the famous March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. At the end of the march Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 1963 Floyd McKissick replaced James Farmer as national director of CORE. The following year, CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) organised its Freedom Summer campaign. Its main objective was to try an end the political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Deep South. Volunteers from the three organizations decided to concentrate its efforts in Mississippi. In 1962 only 6.7 per cent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country. This involved the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFDP). Over 80,000 people joined the party and 68 delegates attended the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City and challenged the attendance of the all-white Mississippi representation.

CORE, SNCC and NAACP also established 30 Freedom Schools in towns throughout Mississippi. Volunteers taught in the schools and the curriculum now included black history, the philosophy of the civil rights movement. During the summer of 1964 over 3,000 students attended these schools and the experiment provided a model for future educational programs such as Head Start.

Freedom Schools were often targets of white mobs. So also were the homes of local African Americans involved in the campaign. That summer 30 black homes and 37 black churches were firebombed. Over 80 volunteers were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers and three men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on 21st June, 1964. These deaths created nation-wide publicity for the campaign.

The following year, President Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. This proposed legislation removed the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Johnson explained how: "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes."

Although opposed by politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). The legislation empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list.

Floyd McKissick, national director of CORE became a supporter of Black Power and this resulted in some moderates leaving the organization. Until he left in 1968, McKissick increasingly directed CORE's attention to the problems of the black ghetto.

Primary Sources

(1) Bayard Rustin wrote an article for the Louisiana Weekly, to reply to what Thurgood Marshall had said about the Congress on Racial Equality's decision to organize the Journey of Reconciliation (1st April, 1947)

I am sure that Marshall is either ill-formed on the principles and techniques of nonviolence or ignorant of the process of social change.

Unjust social laws and patterns do not change because supreme courts deliver just decisions. One needs merely to observe the continued practice of Jim Crow in interstate travel, six months after the Supreme Court's decision, to see the necessity of resistance. Social progress comes from struggle; all freedom demands a price.

At times freedom will demand that its followers go into situations where even death is to be faced. Resistance on the buses would, for example, mean humiliation, mistreatment by police, arrest, and some physical violence inflicted on the participants.

But if anyone at this date in history believes that the "white problem," which is one of privilege, can be settled without some violence, he is mistaken and fails to realize the ends to which men can be driven to hold on to what they consider their privileges.

This is why Negroes and whites who participate in direct action must pledge themselves to non-violence in word and deed. For in this way alone can the inevitable violence be reduced to a minimum.

(2) Instructions produced by George Houser and Bayard Rustin for the Journey of Reconciliation (April, 1947)

If you are a Negro, sit in a front seat. If you are white, sit in a rear seat.

If the driver asks you to move, tell him calmly and courteously: "As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court".

If the driver summons the police and repeats his order in their presence, tell him exactly what you said when he first asked you to move.

If the police asks you to "come along," without putting you under arrest, tell them you will not go until you are put under arrest.

If the police put you under arrest, go with them peacefully. At the police station, phone the nearest headquarters of the NAACP, or one of your lawyers. They will assist you.

(3) James Farmer, speech at Central State College, Wilberforce, Ohio, on 26th October, 1964.

The American Revolution was fought for a very simple reason - to establish the principle of liberty in our land. That revolution - that phase of it - was essentially successful. The principle was established but the principle did not include all Americans.

For many people it did not mean liberty. It did not, for example, apply to women in the early days of America. Women did not have the rights which were guaranteed to other Americans. They did not have even the right of suffrage, and they had to struggle to achieve that right. They struggled under the banner of the suffragettes and significantly, my friends, they used techniques which are quite similar to those which for the past several years have dominated the civil-rights movement.

This principle established in the eighteenth century in the first stage of the American Revolution did not include workers. Working men and women of our country got half the freedoms which had been proclaimed. They had no voice concerning their wages or hours or establishing their working conditions. That was not freedom. They then had to struggle for their freedom, for their own inclusion in the American compact of liberty. They fought hard with the same weapons - the demonstration, the march, the picket line, the boycott. They established the principle of their inclusion; they won the right to collective bargaining and the right for union recognition.

For many years like a great slumbering giant, Negroes accepted the status quo. For a long time, we thought so little of ourselves that we accepted segregation and discrimination, with all of its degradation.

The fight for freedom is combined with the fight for equality, and we must realize that this is the fight for America - not just black America but all America. In the words of the great rabbi who wrote, 2,000 years ago, "Hither, if I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"

(4) I. F. Stone, I. F. Stone's Weekly (4th June, 1962)

Norman Thomas, spoke if them as "secular saints" - this handful of young Negroes in their teens and early twenties. They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. Never has a tinier minority done more for the liberation of a whole people than these few youngsters of C.O.R.E. (Congress for Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).

(5) James Peck, a member of the Freedom Rides, wrote about his experiences in Alabama on 14th May, 1961, in his book, Freedom Rider (1962)

When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital.

(6) In 1964, 650 members of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee went to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. One student wrote to his parents explaining what happened in the county of Milestoon when they attempted to help blacks register.

We got about 14 Negroes to go to the court house with the intention of registering to vote. Sheriff Smith greeted the party with a six shooter drawn from his pocket, and said "Okay, who's first?" Most of the Negroes remained cautiously quiet. After several seconds a man who had never before been a leader stepped up to the Sheriff, smiled and said, "I'm first, Hartman Turnbow". All registration applications were permitted to be filled out and all were judged illiterate. The next week, Turnbow's house was bombed with Molotov cocktails. When the Turnbows left the burning house, they were shot at. A couple of days later, Turnbow was accused of having bombed his own house which wasn't insured. Sheriff Smith was the one witness against them. Mr. Turnbow was convicted.

(7) In 1964, eleven civil rights campaigners were murdered in Mississippi. This included the murders of two white men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Michael Schwerner's wife made a statement to newspapers on the murders.

My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm had been sounded.

(8) James Zwerg was badly injured and left in the road for over an hour. White ambulances refused to take him to hospital. Afterwards he was interviewed in hospital by reporters

Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue. No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep going until we can ride anywhere in the South.

(9) James Farmer was the director of the Congress of Racial Equality and was the main organizer of the Freedom Rides. In Plaquemine, Louisiana, Farmer was surrounded by a white mob who claimed they intended to lynch him.

I was certain I was going to die. What kind of death would it be? Would they mutilate me first? What does it feel like to die? Then I grew panicky about the insurance. Had I paid the last installment? My wife and little girls - how would it be for them? Well, damn it, if I had to die, at least let the organization wring some use out of my death. I hoped the newspapers were out there. Plenty of them. With plenty of cameras.

(10) George Houser, interviewed by Jervis Anderson for his book, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (1972)

We in the non-violent movement of the 1940s certainly thought that we were initiating something of importance in American life. Of course, we weren't able to put it in perspective then. But we were filled with vim and vigor, and we hoped that a mass movement could develop, even if we did not think that we were going to produce it. In retrospect, I would say we were precursors. The things we did in the 1940s were the same things that ushered the civil rights revolution. Our Journey of Reconciliation preceded the Freedom Rides of 1961 by fourteen years. Conditions were not quite ready for the full-blown movement when we were undertaking our initial actions. But I think we helped to lay the foundations for what followed, and I feel proud of that.