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."
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…