Congress of Racial Equality Forms

The Congress of Racial Equality, more than any other civil rights group, was responsible for the widespread use of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent direct-action protest techniques in the Civil Rights movement in the United States from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The group’s ideology of nonviolence inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summary of Event

African Americans began protesting racial discrimination in the United States before the Civil War, with the main objectives of eliminating racial discrimination and segregation and living in U.S. society on an equal footing with other citizens. Controversy within the African American community about what tactics to use and strategies to follow accompanied the protests. Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans
African Americans;discrimination
Congress of Racial Equality
Civil Rights movement;organizations
[kw]Congress of Racial Equality Forms (Spring, 1942)
[kw]Racial Equality Forms, Congress of (Spring, 1942)
[kw]Equality Forms, Congress of Racial (Spring, 1942)
Congress of Racial Equality
Civil Rights movement;organizations
[g]North America;Spring, 1942: Congress of Racial Equality Forms[00490]
[g]United States;Spring, 1942: Congress of Racial Equality Forms[00490]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Spring, 1942: Congress of Racial Equality Forms[00490]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Spring, 1942: Congress of Racial Equality Forms[00490]
[c]Social issues and reform;Spring, 1942: Congress of Racial Equality Forms[00490]
Farmer, James L., Jr.
Rustin, Bayard
Randolph, A. Philip
Gandhi, Mahatma

At the end of the nineteenth century, the position of African Americans in U.S. society was declining. Racial prejudice flared. Disenfranchisement, lynchings, “Jim Crow” or segregation laws, and exclusion on the basis of race from the skilled trades were prevalent. The early twentieth century saw mounting oppression and discrimination and an increasing frequency of race riots in both the North and the South. In general, this spurred accommodation, rather than protest, among African Americans.

Two other strategies for dealing with racial tensions developed in the early twentieth century. Booker T. Washington Washington, Booker T. and his followers advocated “separatism” as a means of overcoming racism. Another group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;litigation (NAACP), began attacking racial discrimination in the courts. One of the most powerful and longest-lived civil rights groups in U.S. history, the NAACP was founded in 1909 by black radicals, white progressives, and socialists, under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. . It had as its purpose the fight for black constitutional rights, particularly that of integration. As a rule, the NAACP employed legalistic methods of fighting for civil rights, that is, active propagandizing, legal activity, and lobbying for legislation against racial discrimination and segregation.

During World War I, there was a massive migration of African Americans to the North, where there were more jobs. Living conditions, however, were extremely poor. With the end of the war came widespread unemployment and race riots. A new militancy arose among many blacks during this period. The NAACP thrived on this militancy as it fought against lynchings, disenfranchisement, and segregation, particularly in housing and schools. By the 1920’s, the NAACP’s legalistic approach was seen as too conservative by those who advocated physical resistance to white mob violence and those who advocated racial separatism.

During the 1930’s, white American attitudes toward African Americans began to change greatly, as humanitarian interest developed in improving conditions among the underprivileged. An increasingly large black vote in northern cities also drew the attention of Anglo politicians to black welfare. This was a period when interest focused on economic problems among the black community. The conservative NAACP continued its fights for integration, especially in the schools, and the vote for blacks. The NAACP emphasized legal argument as a tactic. A few other black protesting groups, however, used boycotting and picketing during this decade.

During and after World War II, a new, liberal respect for non-Anglos began to grow in the United States. During the early 1940’s, the NAACP continued its legal battle against discrimination and segregation. Two new movements, with a new approach, emerged alongside the NAACP—the March on Washington Movement March on Washington Movement (MOWM) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The March on Washington Movement was born in 1941, when African American railroad workers, led by A. Philip Randolph (then president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) threatened to march on Washington, D.C., unless President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;civil rights integrated U.S. defense industries and the military. Randolph proposed that blacks from across the nation gather in Washington and march en masse to the Lincoln Monument. He also urged similar small-scale local marches. Calling for the march in July, 1941, Randolph cautioned against violence, which he argued would be more harmful than helpful. Roosevelt issued an executive order in June, 1941, establishing a federal Fair Employment Practices Committee. Randolph called off the march.

The March on Washington Movement continued to exist for a short while. In an address to the movement in September, 1942, Randolph advocated that nonviolent direct action, Civil disobedience similar to that used by Mahatma Gandhi in India, be used by all-black groups to combat racial discrimination and segregation. He outlined a plan for forming small blocs of blacks ready to mobilize by the millions to march on Washington or to conduct simultaneous smaller marches across the nation. The movement was important, first, because it was an all-black organization that advocated mass action by those living in urban ghettos to solve economic problems and, second, because it laid the groundwork for the nonviolent direct-action movement of the 1960’s.

CORE, however, was the group that made nonviolent direct action a widespread and effective civil rights protest technique. CORE grew out of the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality Chicago Committee of Racial Equality , which met in Chicago in the spring of 1942. The Fellowship of Reconciliation Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an almost entirely white Quaker pacifist Pacifism group, had established a “cell” of about a dozen people at the University of Chicago in October, 1941. Many of the cell’s members wanted to apply Gandhi’s nonviolent direct action techniques to the United States’ racial problems. FOR authorized James L. Farmer, Jr., a FOR staff member, to form in 1942 what later was named the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality. The group’s first six members were Farmer and George Houser (another FOR staff member), Bernice Fisher, Homer Jack, Joe Guinn, and James R. Robinson. The group contained blacks and whites as well as Protestants and Catholics, but all members were pacifists.

CORE wrote two statements in 1942 outlining its basic commitment to interracial, nonviolent direct action and setting down the principles according to which its direct action demonstrations later would proceed. Its statement of purpose proclaimed goals of eliminating segregation and racial discrimination in public accommodation, housing, and other areas, through one method only—interracial nonviolent direct action. It denounced violence as a method of opposing racial discrimination, even if the protester is physically attacked, because CORE members believed social conflicts could not be resolved by means of violence. Among acceptable forms of protest, they identified negotiation, mediation, demonstration, and picketing.

CORE’s second important statement, its “Action Discipline,” []”Action Discipline” (Committee on Racial Equality)[Action Discipline] explained the group’s belief that nonviolent direct action should be combined with goodwill toward those who discriminate. Although it underwent some revision, the “Action Discipline” remained the group’s official statement of principle and philosophy until the 1960’s. CORE’s protest technique was a combination of Gandhi’s approach and the “sit-in,” Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests the latter of which had developed from “sit-down” strikes similar to Gandhi’s that had been used in the United States in the 1930’s.

During its first year, the Chicago Committee worked to eliminate racial discrimination at a Chicago roller rink and at an apartment building, as well as at the University of Chicago hospital, medical school, and barbershop. Segregation;public accommodations According to Farmer, the first sit-in was directed against the Jack Spratt restaurant in Chicago in May, 1942. It was successful in ending segregation of seating.

Local CORE committees formed in large cities around the country, as Farmer and another early CORE member, Bayard Rustin, lectured on race relations for FOR in late 1942 and early 1943. An independent federation of local committees was formed at a planning conference organized by Bernice Fisher and the Chicago Committee. It was held in Chicago in June, 1943, under Farmer’s leadership. Nine local committees sent representatives, and they decided to affiliate under the name of the Committees of Racial Equality. In 1944, the national federation adopted the name Congress of Racial Equality and appointed Farmer as its national chairman and Fisher as the national secretary-treasurer.


CORE influenced the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the United States in a variety of ways. It was the black protest group that used nonviolent direct-action protest techniques, such as sit-ins, more than any other. Beginning with its first sit-in in a Chicago restaurant, CORE organized pivotal events in the history of civil rights protest. In April, 1947, CORE and FOR staged a “Journey of Reconciliation” across the upper South to test the integration of interstate bus transport. Freedom Rides This was the first example of what was later called a “Freedom Ride,” a nonviolent direct-action protest technique. In the mid-1950’s, the attack on segregated public accommodations and transportation intensified. In May and June, 1961, the Freedom Rides brought CORE to national attention and made it the principal national exponent of nonviolent direct action protest and the principal national black civil rights protest group.

Members of the Congress of Racial Equality display a sign at a 1963 civil rights protest. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy is seen addressing the crowd.

(Library of Congress)

CORE also was involved in organizing the March on Washington on August 27, 1963. This march originally intended to call attention to increasing black unemployment, but it also took on the goal of pressuring the administration to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was at this huge, peaceful rally of 250,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

CORE spread the message of nonviolent direct action protest to other leaders and groups. King, one of the major figures in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott beginning in 1955, was greatly influenced by CORE’s ideology. In the late 1950’s, the use of nonviolent, direct-action protest increased markedly. This was partly a result of King’s personal appeal and his founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, which advocated Gandhian nonviolence.

Nonviolent direct action reached its peak in the student sit-ins of 1960. These began with the February, 1960, sit-in by four North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State College students at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This event is regarded as the beginning of the civil rights revolution, and it was the most significant single event that encouraged and gave form to mass protest in the Civil Rights movement. These college students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and took their philosophy from King, but they called on CORE for assistance in training protesters and organizing sit-ins. As college sit-in groups multiplied in the South after 1960, direct-action techniques won success and became the favored tactics among civil rights protest groups.

Justifiably remembered as one of the key groups giving rise to the Civil Rights movement, given its pioneering use of nonviolent direct-action techniques in the 1940’s, CORE’s influence and activity diminished during the late 1970’s. It has since revived and is based in New York City. Congress of Racial Equality
Civil Rights movement;organizations

Further Reading

  • Bell, Inge Powell. CORE and the Strategy of Nonviolence. New York: Random House, 1968. This work traces and analyzes the development of CORE’s use of nonviolent direct action from its early days until the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Both conceptual and historical, it is useful for showing how direct action distinguished CORE from the older mainstream civil rights organizations. Contains notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Blumberg, Rhoda Lois. Civil Rights: The 1960’s Freedom Struggle. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A very useful history of civil rights protest from the mid-1950’s into the late 1960’s. Gives a brief chronology of major events in the Civil Rights movement. Discusses CORE’s activities and the activities of other civil rights organizations. Chapter 2 gives a concise history of racial discrimination and protest from the early twentieth century to the mid-1950’s.
  • Farmer, James. Freedom, When? New York: Random House, 1965. A very personal and didactic narrative by one of the founders of CORE, in which he reminisces about its philosophy, background, formation, and activities. Includes a brief biography of Farmer.
  • Johnson, Ollie A., III, and Karin L. Stanford, eds. Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. A collection that explores the role of black organizations since the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960’s. Includes a chapter on CORE, “From Protest to Black Conservatism: The Demise of the Congress of Racial Equality,” by Charles E. Jones. Bibliography, index.
  • Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. This massive tome, exhaustively researched and documented, details the history and assesses the accomplishments of CORE from its founding in 1942 through its internal ideological schisms, acceptance of Black Power, and loss of vitality in the late 1960’s.
  • Meier, August, Elliott Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick. Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. This highly recommended collection of primary writings comparing and contrasting the approach to protest by various twentieth century black organizations provides illuminating excerpts of writings by leaders in CORE and other groups. Has a superb introduction describing the character and historical evolution of black protest and placing CORE within its historical and philosophical context.
  • Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971. A chronological collection of essays that includes personal accounts and reports of such landmarks as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides. Contains essays Rustin wrote for CORE and FOR publications and other selections from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.
  • Schmeidler, Emilie. “Shaping Ideas and Actions: CORE, SCLC, and SNCC in the Struggle for Equality.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Michigan, 1980. Examines CORE’s place among the leading civil rights advocacy organizations whose principal method was nonviolent direct action. The section on CORE includes a valuable analysis of the CORE model of direct action that combined Gandhian methods and distinctive efforts to shape positive interracial attitudes. Reference notes, bibliography, table of contents.

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