A few years ago I did some freelance transcription work while I was unemployed. One gig I had was someone’s college thesis from 1979. The topic was CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, which was responsible for the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 and the Freedom Rides in 1961, both important events in the civil rights movement.
In 1942, James Farmer and a group of students founded the Committee on Racial Equality, which would later become the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer was born in 1920 in Marshall, Texas. His father held a PhD in theology from Boston University and was both a Methodist minister and a professor at Wiley College, and his mother was a homemaker and teacher. Farmer was a genius who enrolled at Wiley at the age of 14. At 21 he was invited to the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt to speak with President Roosevelt. After earning his BS from Wiley, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University’s School of Religion in 1941, where he was deeply influenced by a professor of social ethics who introduced him to pacifism and Gandhi’s nonviolent methods.
Using Krishnalal Shridharani’s book War Without Violence (1939, Harcourt Brace) as inspiration, Farmer, along with students George Houser, James Robins, and Bernice Fisher, founded CORE in Chicago in 1942. The group had met while working together in a Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a pacifist Christian organization with chapters worldwide) and each member was dedicated to the cause of desegregation and civil rights through nonviolent means.
Farmer was instrumental in coordinating the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides, which he insisted go one step further than the Journey of Reconciliation by going through the south. The Freedom Rides were so violent and so shocking to the American people, that after an initial admonishment by the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission was finally forced to desegregate.
An incredible victory for people everywhere, Civil Rights could not have occurred without the leadership and guidance of CORE and James Farmer. However, their recent activities? Pretty surprising, all things considered.
After finishing the thesis, I decided to Google CORE to see what they had been up to lately. In the late 1960s, CORE’s members became divided in motivation, with one faction falling closer in alignment with the Black Panther movement, and further away from nonviolence and peaceful means. Eventually, Farmer lost control of CORE to a conservative Black Nationalist, Roy Innis, in 1968 (though some say Farmer resigned in 1965 after Innis won control of CORE’s Harlem chapter). Innis quickly purged white members from CORE, something that Farmer surely would have disagreed with. In 1993, Farmer made a statement indicating he believed CORE to now be “fraudulent”, and most civil rights activists agree.
Though Innis, a staunch conservative, has worked on initiatives to help public school integration and to help the dreaded welfare mothers find jobs. CORE’s efforts under Innis have been largely discouraging. In 1973 Innis went on a tour of Africa, conferring honorary lifetime membership on Uganda’s genocidal dictator, Idi Amin, and allegedly recruited black American vets to fight as mercenaries in Angola’s civil war – on both sides of the war (though reports vary on whether or not he actually ever did this or just bragged about it). He closed out the decade with a federal investigation into CORE’s finances, eventually settling with the state of New York in 1981 (they reached a settlement wherein Innis did not have to admit to any wrongdoing, but was forced to pay compensation of $35,000 annually for three years to the organizations he had been allegedly defrauding).
The 1980s saw a hard right turn, with Innis not only serving as a character witness for everyone’s favorite presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche, and urging African Americans to desert Walter Mondale as a presidential candidate, stating that the “successful desegregation of the Republican party can be one of the most important and healthy political developments for the black community and for the country at large” (while true, it’s naive to think it possible). Towards the end of the 1980s, the IRS came knocking again, going after Innis for $56,000 in back taxes, and $28,000 in civil fraud penalties. Innis’ pinnacle of good times, however, occurred in 1988, when he appeared with Al Sharpton on Chicago’s Morton Downey Jr. Show. Innis pushed the good Reverend, who toppled backwards in his chair (video attached).
The 1990s and 2000s have been marked by Innis’ dedication to fighting legislation to protect the environment (CORE has been heavily funded throughout the 2000s by Exxon Mobil, who undoubtedly influenced the group’s decision to fight for more drilling) and, sadly, fighting the legalization of gay marriage. Given that the Congress on Racial Equality was founded on principles diametrically opposed to barring equal rights, it’s incredibly disturbing that its current leadership believes a “chosen lifestyle” is “not on the same moral high ground as race.”
One cannot help but wonder if his tortured direction in life (and at CORE’s helm) is all derived from a tragic incident on April 15, 1968, right as Innis was rising to prominence in CORE. Innis’ 13-year old son, Roy Jr., was playing ball with his brother in their Bronx neighborhood. An irate white postal worker was overcome with rage at the boys for roughhousing in the street, and shot and killed Roy Jr. In an even more bizarrely tragic twist, Innis’ younger son, Alexander, was shot and killed by two friends in 1982, at the age of 26. Indeed, in the late 1980s, Innis became hyper-focused on the issue of black on black crime and gun control. Sadly, his conservative values have perverted any potential good that could have come of these two passionate beliefs, and today, CORE largely remains an ineffective, corrupt body in the world of civil rights.
I had an opportunity to speak with the author of the thesis that inspired my dig for more information when I sent him the final transcription. After a short pause, he sighed, and said, “Well, that’s bizarre, it’s not what James Farmer would have wanted. I certainly hope it’s not how CORE is remembered.” And it shouldn’t be.*
*It should be remembered as the organization that gave rise to the man who once knocked over Al Sharpton.