Congress of Racial Equality: History and Impact on Civil Rights

Members of the Congress of Racial Equality picket outside of a diner that denies lunch service to blacks.
The local Congress of Racial Equality picketed several eating places that served black people on a 'take out' basis only, 1965.

Afro Newspaper/Gado / Getty Images

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is a civil rights organization created in 1942 by white University of Chicago student George Houser and black student James Farmer. An affiliate of a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), CORE became known for using nonviolence during the U.S Civil Rights Movement.

The Congress of Racial Equality

  • The Congress of Racial Equality was started by a racially mixed group of Chicago students in 1942. The organization adopted nonviolence as its guiding philosophy.
  • James Farmer became the organization’s first national director in 1953, a position he held until 1966.
  • CORE took part in a number of important civil rights efforts, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and Freedom Summer.
  • In 1964, white supremacists abducted and killed CORE workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. Their disappearance and murder made international headlines, primarily because Goodman and Schwerner were white men from the North.
  • By the late 1960s, CORE had adopted a more militant approach to racial justice, leaving behind its earlier nonviolent ideology.

One CORE activist, Bayard Rustin, would go on to work closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As King rose to fame in the 1950s, he worked with CORE on campaigns such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By the mid-1960s, however, CORE’s vision changed and it embraced the philosophy that would later be known as “black power.”

In addition to Houser, Farmer, and Rustin, CORE’s leaders included the activists Bernice Fisher, James R. Robinson, and Homer Jack. The students had participated in FOR, a global organization influenced by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence. Guided by an ideology based on peace and justice, CORE members in the 1940s took part in acts of civil disobedience, such as sit-ins to confront segregation in Chicago businesses. 

Journey of Reconciliation

In 1947, CORE members arranged a bus ride through different Southern states to challenge Jim Crow laws in light of a recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in interstate travel. This action, which they called the Journey of Reconciliation, became the blueprint for the famous 1961 Freedom Rides. For defying Jim Crow while traveling, CORE members were arrested, with two forced to work on a North Carolina chain gang. 

CORE Button
Anti-lynching Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) button reads "break the noose". The Frent Collection / Getty Images

Montgomery Bus Boycott

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott started on December 5, 1955, CORE members, led by national director Farmer, got involved in the effort to integrate buses in the Alabama city. They helped to spread the word about the mass action, inspired by activist Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. The group also sent members to take part in the boycott, which ended more than a year later on December 20, 1956. By the following October, the Rev. Martin Luther King was a member of CORE’s Advisory Committee.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by King, collaborated with CORE on a variety of initiatives over the next few years. These include efforts to integrate education through the Prayer Pilgrimage for Public Schools, the Voter Education Project, and the Chicago Campaign, during which King and other civil rights leaders unsuccessfully fought for fair housing in the city. CORE activists also led trainings in the South to teach young activists how to challenge racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

The Freedom Rides

Freedom Riders Burned Bus
Freedom Riders on a Greyhound bus sponsored by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), sit on the ground outside the bus after it was set afire by a group of whites who met the group on arrival in Anniston, Alabama, May 14, 1961. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

In 1961, CORE continued its efforts to integrate interstate bus travel by planning the Freedom Rides, during which white and black activists rode on interstate buses together through the South. The Freedom Rides were met with more violence than the earlier Journey of Reconciliation. A white mob in Anniston, Alabama, firebombed a bus the Freedom Riders traveled on and beat the activists as they tried to escape. Despite the violence, the rides continued thanks to the combined efforts of CORE, the SCLC, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On Sept. 22, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited segregation in interstate travel, in large part due to the efforts of the Freedom Riders.

Voting Rights

CORE not only worked to end racial segregation but also to help African Americans exercise their right to vote. Blacks who attempted to vote faced poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers to intimidate them. Blacks who rented housing from whites could even find themselves evicted for trying to vote. They also risked deadly retaliation for visiting the polls. Aware that African Americans would lack true power in the U.S. without registering to vote, CORE participated in 1964’s Freedom Summer, a campaign started by the SNCC with the goal of registering African Americans in Mississippi to vote and participate in the political process. 

However, tragedy struck in June 1964, when three CORE workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—went missing. The bodies of the men were later discovered. They had been abducted and murdered after being arrested and jailed for allegedly speeding. On August 4, 1964, the FBI found their bodies in a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they had been buried. Because Goodman and Schwerner were white and Northern, their disappearance had drawn national media attention. As authorities searched for their bodies, however, they found several slain black men whose disappearance had not garnered much notice beyond Mississippi. In 2005, a man named Edgar Ray Killen, who’d served as a Ku Klux Klan organizer, was convicted of manslaughter for the Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney killings. It is believed that several people conspired to abduct and kill the men, but the grand jury lacked the evidence to indict them. Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison. He died on January 11, 2018 at the age of 92.

The killings of the CORE activists marked a turning point for the group. Since it was founded, the civil rights organization had adopted the principles of nonviolence, but the brutality its membership had faced led some CORE activists to question this philosophy. The growing skepticism toward nonviolence resulted in leadership changes in the group, with national director James Farmer resigning in 1966. He was replaced by Floyd McKissick, who embraced a militant approach to eradicating racism. During McKissick’s tenure, CORE focused on black empowerment and nationalism and distanced itself from its former pacifist ideology. 

Floyd McKissick Holding Black Power Sign
7/22/1966-New York, NY- Floyd B. McKissick, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), carries a sign reading "Black Power" after joining a picket line in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Bettmann / Getty Images

CORE’s Legacy 

CORE played a pivotal role during the civil rights struggle and influenced the movement’s most prominent leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, to adopt nonviolence. Additionally, early CORE activist Bayard Rustin was one of King’s closest political advisors and the organizer of the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963. CORE co-sponsored the event which saw a turnout of more than 250,000 people. The efforts of CORE and its members are associated with a number of civil rights victories—from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Freedom Rides, in which a young Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) took part. CORE’s involvement with civil rights spans the entire movement and, as such, its contributions are firmly imprinted on the fight for racial justice. Although the Congress of Racial Equality still exists today, its influence has significantly faded since the Civil Rights Movement. Roy Innis, successor to Floyd McKissick, served as the group’s national chairman until his death in 2017.

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