On August 3, 1942, an interracial group of University of Chicago students founded the Congress on Racial Equality, known widely as CORE.
These students, Bernice Fisher, James R. Robinson, James Farmer, Joe Guinn, George Houser, and Homer Jack had affiliated previously with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group known for its pacifist, non-violent philosophy. CORE was a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, standing at the forefront of many well-known events and introducing strategies of resistance. In 1942, for example, CORE staged the first sit-ins, the practice of taking up space in places that refused to serve African Americans, well before other organizations. The group had a non-hierarchical, loosely organized structure that caused some local chapters to resent perceived intrusions from the national leaders. This lack of structure and a central figurehead helps explain why the Congress on Racial Equality, despite its well-documented record of achievements, does not often receive the level of historical coverage of other civil rights groups. The Congress on Racial Equality is also significant because from the beginning it embraced an interracial identity.
Journey of Reconciliation
For the first five years, the Congress on Racial Equality focused its efforts in the North. In 1947, members decided to test Southern adherence to the Supreme Court’s 1946 decision finding racial segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. The ruling, at least on paper, made it possible for interracial bus riders to sit together in defiance of Southern state laws. In practice, most localities refused to accept the change. CORE sent sixteen men by bus to the upper-South states of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The men sat in a racially integrated fashion during the trip. Police arrested the riders on numerous occasions. In North Carolina, officials arrested four riders, sentencing three, most notable Bayard Rustin, a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., to the infamous chain gang. Other civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) did not agree with CORE’s overt challenge of Southern law. CORE, as was its tendency, pushed others to higher levels of activism.
The racial segregation of interstate travel remained an issue of concern for the Congress on Racial Equality. Most of the South steadfastly refused to adhere to either the 1946 or 1961 Supreme Court decisions mandating integration in interstate travel. The 1961 ruling added strength to the prior decision by making it a violation of federal law to segregate, inside the bus terminal, passengers traveling through the state. CORE decided to highlight this illegal activity, in May of 1961, by this time taking a series of interracial trips through states of the Deep South.
Most activists expected some degree of violent resistance from white Southerners. A group in Anniston, Alabama, firebombed a bus. In Montgomery, Alabama, police, told to protect the riders, left the bus terminal unattended. A mob attacked and brutally beat the riders, sending many to the hospital. The riders continued into Mississippi, where they filled the jails, a strategy employed by Mahatma Gandhi. By traveling into and through Southern towns often ignored by the media, the Congress on Racial Equality’s Freedom Rides of 1961 brought much needed attention to the dual issues of racism and violence in the South.
The mid-1960s and Beyond
The Congress on Racial Equality continued to grow throughout the 1960s after the notoriety of the Freedom Rides. The group was a co-sponsor of the 1963 March on Washington, which brought the nation Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” The 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, which brought college students to the state to register African American voters, saw the unfortunate murders of CORE members James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in an incident represented in the movie Mississippi Burning. CORE returned to the North after 1963 to deal with issues such as housing discrimination. Since the 1960s, the Congress on Racial Equality agenda has emphasized economic advancement and self-determination for African Americans.