Posted: May 25th, 2022

Roles in the Black Freedom Struggles

C.O.R.E. And Its Role in the Black Freedom Struggle

Nearly one hundred forty years ago, a tall, and not very good-looking, bearded man stepped out onto a great, open field. His tired eyes wandered over the bloody ground, over the earth covered with corpses, over the scene of one of the greatest battles in American History, and his words rang out true and clear -.”..Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

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Abraham Lincoln’s famous address gave meaning and purpose to all those young lives so tragically cut short. It etched forever in the minds of posterity the real aim behind that great war. We were a nation of free people. Subjection and slavery were banished for all time from our shores. Or were they? The Civil War freed the slaves. A piece of paper called the Thirteenth Amendment gave to African-Americans the same rights that their White brethren had always enjoyed. Or did it? The very war that ended slavery brought with it Jim Crow. For another century, the “free” Black men and women of the United States of America were condemned to life as second-class citizens. They could not eat in the same restaurants as their White bosses. They could not sit in the front of the bus. Their children could not go to the same schools as White Children. It was a world of separate but equal; “equal” however, only in the sense that all African-Americans were “equally” inferior to Whites.

It was this divided world that gave birth to the Black Freedom Movement. Groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality picked up where the Civil War had left off. It was not enough simply to be free on paper. Real freedom had to be won on the streets and battlegrounds of Twentieth Century America. CORE would be one of the leaders of this fight.

CORE began during the Second World War in response to the continuing segregation of the defense industry. Dissatisfied with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s minimal concessions, James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942. Heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent protest, he sought to model the fight for African-American civil rights on Gandhi’s peaceful campaigns in India. Though initially overshadowed by the already long established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, CORE first attracted national attention in 1947 when it staged the Journey of Reconciliation. (Levy, 1998) Conducted through several of the Southern States, the Journey of Reconciliation was a first attempt at desegregating public facilities throughout the South. Staged at the same time as President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights was preparing its report, the Journey called attention to the plight of Southern Blacks. Among the worst of these problems, was the continued lynching of supposed Black criminals. Such outbursts of vigilante justice brought terror to African-Americans at home, and damaged American reputations abroad. Reacting both to CORE’s visible demonstration of African-American dissatisfaction, and also to these diplomatic concerns, the Committee on Civil Rights issued a strong statement in regard to ameliorating conditions in the South. It’s report, entitled To Secure These Rights, declared the need for Blacks to have full access to the vote, and equal access to the military, employment, and education. (Levy, 1998)

Unfortunately, the Committee’s report turned out to be worth little more than the paper on which it was written. Southern democrats withdrew their support from Truman, and the Southern status quo was maintained. CORE faded from the public eye, and what little was gained in terms of civil rights during the 1950’s was largely the result of work by the NAACP and other organizations. The Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education promised to open up education to all, but it was only a beginning. Rosa Parks too, took her famous bus ride through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, but still the South remained mired in Jim Crow. At last, in 1961 CORE re-emerged on the national scene. That year the organization organized the first of its famous Freedom Rides. Thirteen activists, six white and seven black, boarded two buses in Washington, D.C. They intended to ride all the way through to New Orleans, defying virtually every precept of Jim Crow travel as they went. Blacks would use White restrooms and dining facilities, while Whites would use Black restrooms and dining facilities. (Eskew, 1997) The two groups encountered few problems during the first leg of their journey. In accordance with their non-violent principles, they peacefully integrated facilities as far south as Georgia. However, when the buses reached Alabama they were attacked by the White mob. (Eskew, 1997) On one bus, tires were slashed and windows broken. Ku Klux Klansmen tossed a firebomb into the bus, and its passengers – Black and White – would have been burned alive were it not for the quick action of a State Undercover Agent who drew his gun against the angry Whites who blocked the escape route.

And when the second bus reached the same town, Klansmen actually boarded the bus; violently ejected the African-Americans from the White section of this bus, and violently beat those White activists who dared to intervene. Indeed, one activist actually suffered permanent brain damage from the severity of the beating. (Eskew, 1997)

After this tragic beginning, the Freedom Rides continued. However, each successive journey through the Deep South underscored the deep divisions still seething beneath the surface of American society. In an attempt to avoid further problems over the civil rights question, President John F. Kennedy had taken only minimal steps toward ensuring the rights of African-Americans. While he paid lip service to the concept – appointing Black judges and the like – he left the enforcement of civil rights legislation up to the local authorities. This “Federal Plan” was even more confusing and unworkable than it sounded. Not only was the decision on how, or even whether, to enforce Supreme Court decisions, and federal laws left up to the states and localities, but even on this level there was no clear agreement over policy. Officials in the same city, or even in the same department took opposite sides in the conflict. In Birmingham, the battle for Black civil rights spread from the buses and bus stations to the steel mills and factories. As CORE continued to pursue its Freedom Rides, the Birmingham electorate split according to racial and class lines, gaping wounds that were only aggravated by the split over the enforcement of existing regulations. Birmingham’s Chief of Police protected the Freedom Riders, while his superior, the Commissioner, continued to staunchly enforce segregation at the bus station. (Eskew, 1997) Ultimately, the Freedom Rides brought Birmingham politics to the boiling point. The fatal challenge to Jim Crow that the Freedom Riders represented forced the people and officials of Birmingham to choose between an old and a new South. Low-class White steelworkers sided with the segregationist candidates for office, while the unskilled Black steelworkers and Upper Class Whites sided with the more progressive candidates. Amid the confusion, two governments emerged in the city of Birmingham.

African-Americans were beginning to stand up for their rights, but as the chaos in Birmingham showed, little would be gained until Blacks could freely express themselves at the ballot box. So long as pro-segregation White retained a stranglehold on public office, there would be little chance of any real or permanent change. Elected officials could still use their power to sway the White mob, and their speeches could still inflame lower class White voters against their even less skilled Black counterparts. The old South was a hierarchical society, a relic of the days of planters and slaves. The Poor Whites had always fit uncomfortably into this class system. Uneducated, unenlightened, and at best small landowners, they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Even in a city like Birmingham, White factory workers did not have the kinds of union protection and concomitant labor laws that protected their fellows in the North. The only thing that kept these people from exploding themselves into open rebellion against their subjugation by the White Upper Class was their firmly held, and firmly encouraged, belief that they were superior in every way to their African-American compatriots. To destroy the old system of Jim Crow was to create a virtual revolution throughout the South.

CORE took the leading role in organizing what was called “Freedom Summer.” It was a drive to get out the Black vote, or more specifically, a drive to register African-Americans to vote. Though guaranteed that right by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it was a right frequently overlooked in the Southern States. Poll taxes, reading tests, and even sometimes outright intimidation, all conspired to keep most Blacks off the voting rolls. What CORE and its partner organizations in the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations set out to accomplish in Freedom Summer was nothing short of a complete transformation in African-American attitudes. The old value-system – a grudging acceptance of their lot as second-class citizens – would have to be replaced by a new understanding of the role of Blacks in American society. As Miss Jane Pittman, the centenarian former slave and title character of the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman put it, “Nothing out there now but white hate and nigger fear, and the fear is the only way to keep going. One day they must realize fear is worse than any death. When that time come they will be ready to move….” And perhaps even more to the point, “Freedom here is able to make a little living and have the white folks say you is good.” (King, 1992) African-Americans must come to realize that the life they are living is not the life of free men and women. Slaves too “enjoyed” the prospects of having just enough food, and just enough clothing and shelter to survive. They too earned their sustenance by submitting to the brutality, or threatened brutality, of their White masters. It was up to CORE and all other civil rights organizations to make African-Americans realize the real meaning and extent of the rights they enjoyed as citizens of the United States of America, as living, breathing human beings. As a civil rights worker once said,” When you ask a man to join you, you are asking for a confession that his life up until now has been lived upside down.” (King, 1992) And that was precisely what Freedom Summer was about, turning Southern Society upside down.

The many people, Black and White, who participated in Freedom Summer’s drive to get out the vote developed an entirely new outlook on life and on the world around them. The activists learned skills and techniques that were of value to them not merely as protestors against a particular social injustice, but also as ways of doing and looking at things that would influence every aspect of their lives. The experience drew them together, taught them self-sufficiency and group solidarity, and showed them how to tackle difficult problems. (Jasper, 1997)

For the first time, large numbers of African-Americans in the Deep South were exposed to people from the outside world, Blacks and Whites who were not direct players in the system of segregation, and who had knowledge of other living conditions, and other ways of viewing what was right and what was wrong. “Separate but Equal” had given even the physical surroundings of the Southern Black its unique and discriminatory stamp.

Then the pavement bellied out and sidewalks disappeared or fell away in broken pieces: Niggertown. Rows of shanties perched on stones and bricks and joined together in precarious asymmetry were interrupted, though not often, by a spacious lawn adorned with [an] air-conditioned ranch house and a fence. The better-off Negroes had no choice of neighbors. The only other structures with anything of the right angle housed grocery stores with Chinese names and churches.” (Pinkney, 1975)

Such were the impression of a Mississippi civil rights worker in 1964. African-Americans lived in a world apart. But as the experience of Freedom summer showed, African-American civil rights could not be one by African-Americans alone. The White majority would have to become involved. It too would have to be “woken up,” it’s world turned upside down as well.

And this is exactly what happened at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. Traditionalist faculty and staff were stunned by the unaccustomed sight of students protesting in favor of civil rights. Tables were set up, leaflets given out, Joan Baez sang, “We Shall Overcome” – and frightened administrators overreacted. A student flyer summed up the action:


In the middle of the night, the police began dragging 800 of your fellow students from Sproul Hall. Sproul Hall was turned into a booking station; the University has become an armed camp — armed against its own students!

Now the police take over.

Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the students’ demands, the administration is attempting to destroy the FSM…. The administration position is clear. It is saying “We decide what is acceptable freedom of speech on this campus. Those who disagree will be ignored; when they can no longer be ignored, they will be destroyed.

We have not been defeated by the University’s troops! Our protest will continue until the justice of our cause is acknowledged. You must take a stand now! No longer can the faculty attempt to mediate from the outskirts of the crowd. No longer can students on this campus afford to accept humbly administrative fiat. Raise your voice now!

WE SHALL OVERCOME.” (Anderson, 1996)

After things had quieted down, and Berkeley’s faculty and staff had voted overwhelmingly in giving to students the right to protest and freely express their views, CORE’s president and founder, James Farmer, was invited to speak at the campus. His words confirmed the fact these mostly middle-class white students had learned the first lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, that all people have the right to speak freely, and to organize peaceably to protest social injustice.

Farmer told the crowd that the ‘battle for free speech’ could not be lost, for that would ‘turn off the faucet of the civil rights movement.’ When someone charged that he was an ‘outside agitator,’ he replied, ‘Every housewife knows the value of an agitator. It’s the instrument inside the washing machine that bangs around and gets out all the dirt.’ ” (Anderson, 1997)

At last, CORE’s ideals were firing the hearts and minds of a new generation. White youths who previously had not seen the linkage between themselves and oppressed Blacks in the Deep South now saw the importance of the Black Freedom Struggle both for themselves and for all of their fellow human beings. Freedom of speech and peaceable assembly were constitutional and human rights that were the inalienable property of all, and not just of the lucky few who happened to control the reins of power. Following James Farmer’s speech to the students at Berkeley, CORE and all of the other nonviolent organizations involved in the Black freedom Movement could be assured of the support of college-educated non-Southern Whites. The way was open to for the civil rights campaign to spread throughout America. From now on, reactionary Southern Whites would still be waging a war, but it would be a losing war.

The 1960s also brought fresh blood and a radical new direction to CORE. In 1966, James Farmer retired as president of the organization. He was succeeded by a lawyer name Floyd B. McKissick. McKissick, together with Bayard Rustin, the head of CORE’s Harlem Chapter, responded to changed conditions by abandoning the organization’s non-violent stance. Increased violence in the South coupled with White resistance to further radical change, and the emergence of increasingly militant Black Freedom groups, led McKissick and Rustin to guide CORE along a militant course. Together, they and CORE would use whatever means necessary to continue the fight for full and equal African-American civil rights and opportunities. Legal discrimination and de facto economic and social discrimination would become things of the past. James Meredith, the student who desegregated the University of Mississippi, was shot while leading a peaceful protest. Instantly, McKissick linked up with other Black activists, including Stokely Carmichael, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King. Stokely was all for a violent confrontation, but Dr. King persuaded Floyd McKissick and others to reluctantly sign a promise to conduct a march as a “silent suffering army.” Dr. King’s reasoning was sound. As African-Americans made up only ten percent of the population, the path of violent resistance was unlikely to succeed. (Peake, 1987) The shooting of Meredith, and two years later the tragic assassination of Dr. King, were to convince McKissick and Rustin that militant action was the only way possible.

To this new militancy, Bayard Ruskin added his own brand of conflict. An educated Northerner from a working class background, Ruskin increasingly disagreed with many of the tactics and goals of the other militants. While organization’s such as Stokely Carmichael’s Black Panthers and others, increasingly advocated full recognition of African-Americans as a distinct community and demanded reparations for past injuries, Ruskin irritated Blacks and many liberal Whites as well by condemning Affirmative Action, special African-American Studies Programs in School, and other pro-Black ideas. He even endorsed Daniel Patrick Moynahan’s study that showed the Black family structure as a major part of the African-American problem. Ruskin was out on his own advocating integrationism. He believed, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, that African-Americans were in desperate need of remedial education in English and math, and that Affirmative Action, job quotas, and special programs advocating Black cultural distinctiveness only separated Blacks out from the larger American culture and society. (De Leon, 1994) For many activists, it seemed as Rustin and his branch of CORE had at long last buckled under White pressure. For the radical militants, it was the old story of Uncle Tom. Rustin had fought ferociously for African-American civil rights, and now he was selling out to the White Man.

The later divergences in CORE’s policies and its difference with other African-American groups did not help the smooth continuation of the Black Freedom Movement. Until the mid to late 1960s the Congress of Racial Equality had worked closely with other organizations. It’s intellectual stance, and firm commitment to non-violence gave African-Americans the moral upper hand in their frequent confrontations with often violent – and even at times murderous – Whites. Such attitudes also attracted support from among educated Whites throughout the country. CORE and its brother organizations were able to articulate a coherent program regarding what needed to be done in the cause of Black Freedom and why. By giving into the violence of ignorant segregationists, and letting the assassinations of Dr. King and others change the course of the movement, CORE, and other civil rights groups produced the great divide that still exists today. Today, more than thirty years after the legal battle has been won, African-Americans still walk the fine line between entitlement and assertion, and between belonging and escaping. No group can have it both ways, and perhaps had CORE and the others stuck to their original creed – the creed of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Mohandas K. Gandhi – that right always triumphs over might, they might not have to.

Works Cited″Anderson, Terry H. The Movement and the Sixties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. De Leon, David, ed. Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle / . Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Jasper, James M. The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. King, Richard H. Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Levy, Peter B. The Civil Rights Movement. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the Nineteen-Eighties. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. Pinkney, Alphonso. Black Americans. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prenitice-Hall, 1975.

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