CORE Set the Foundation

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Talia Lunken

The civil rights movement in the United States is often categorized to have started in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education. The preparation in place before 1954 for the civil rights movement to happen is often forgotten and untold. Many individuals do not know what the Congress of Racial Equality is, and this article will provide the context for why the Congress of Racial Equality was so pivotal in making strides for the civil rights movement.

Black and white photo of a group of African American men sitting at a counter in a diner.In 1942, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded by an interracial group of students in Chicago.[1] These students pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action in the struggle for civil rights in America.[2] CORE used sit-ins (as shown in the picture to the right)[3] in the 1940s and other nonviolent direct actions that were influenced by Gandhi, to integrate Chicago restaurants and businesses.[4] Through the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and the annual conventions, CORE set the foundation for the success of the civil rights movement.

James Farmer was the origin of the idea for the Congress of Racial Equality in a 1941 memorandum that called for nonviolent direct action as a means to end discrimination.[5] The first successful sit-in in the United States was also staged by CORE. Sit-ins would later come into play in the civil rights movement with the intent to integrate lunch counters, as well as many other public places.[6] When learning about the Civil Rights Movement we often learn about sit-ins and their impact, but what is left out is that these sit-ins occurred before the Civil Rights Movement.

CORE began as an organization that was “college-centered because of the demands on time involved in its training projects and in the sit-ins and picket lines themselves.”[7] The college-centered chapters were made up of “students, teachers, ministers, and trade unionists” and “they were small and elitist.”[8] The work done at the beginning of the CORE was focused in the North and included negotiation sessions with management, training sessions for new members, and workshops for major actions.[9] The focus was on public accommodations as “throughout the North many restaurants, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and barber shops refused to serve Negroes.”[10] By the 1950’s CORE began to expand rapidly, widening membership and forming chapters in the South, and the focus turned from public accommodations to jobs and housing.[11]

CORE had already been around for over a decade before the start of the civil rights movement. This enabled CORE to aid in the planning and execution of actions for civil rights in the 1950s through the 1960s. CORE was able to provide support for actions throughout the civil rights movement, as they already had a following. They had used nonviolent direct action to make strides in racial discrimination as a whole, but more specifically within the areas of public accommodations, employment, voting rights, education, and transportation.

CORE worked to get rid of racial discrimination within public accommodations, one of which was the Youth Men’s Christian Associations. Many YMCAs in 1946 still discriminated “on the basis of race or creed in refusing certain minority groups the right of membership or the full use of facilities.”[12] CORE started the work on integrating YMCAs and granting access for all individuals to use the facilities they offered.

CORE also fought discrimination in restaurants. Restaurants discriminated by “raising prices, closing early, salting food or using spoiled food, creating the fiction of a private club, slow service, etc.”[13] CORE led sit-ins in the 1950s in Baltimore, Maryland to desegregate lunch counters.[14] In the civil rights movement, the progression to more direct action took place, and it was CORE that was able to set this foundation with previous work in public accommodations, as well as being the first organization or movement to stage a sit-in successfully. The civil rights movement went on to use sit-ins in many public places: restaurants, libraries, theaters, schools, universities, stores, and various other places in the fight to integrate public places.[15] Notably, sit-ins were the foundation of the 1960 Student Sit-In Movement, a movement to integrate lunch counters and restaurants.[16] CORE was the beginning of sit-ins, setting a foundation for the civil rights movement’s future successes.

The Congress of Racial Equality was pivotal in the success of the civil rights movement and is a story that is often untold. The Social Welfare History Project categorizes CORE as “the pioneer of nonviolent direct action in the civil rights movement.”[17] The Congress of Racial Equality was also pivotal in the success of the civil rights movement as it was the only national group working full-time to abolish segregation with the use of direct action.[18] When taught about the civil rights movement, the names of Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, the NCAA, and various others are brought up, but many have never heard of the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE. It is important to understand the impact this group had on civil rights and the fight against discrimination in the United States. The Congress of Racial Equality was formed over a decade before the perceived start of the civil rights movement, in 1954 with the Brown vs. Board of Education case. Through the use of direct non-violent action, CORE was able to fight discrimination in public accommodations, housing, schools, employment, and so much more.

[1]Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, August 4, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Sit-Ins,” Congress Of Racial Equality, Accessed April 2, 2023.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marvin Rich, “The Congress of Racial Equality and Its Strategy – JSTOR,” Accessed November 29, 2022.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fourth Annual Convention – 1946 Resolutions, 1946, Series 3, Box 3, Folder 6, Congress of Racial Equality, Executive Secretary’s File, Convention – 1946.

[13] CORE Conference Report, 13,14,15, June 1947. Series 3, Box 3, Folder 7, Congress of Racial Equality, Executive Secretary’s File, Convention – 1947.

[14] Susan Cianci Salvatore, Matt Garcia, Alton Hornsby, Steven Lawson, and Theresa Mah, “Civil Rights in America: Racial Desegregation of Public … – NPS,” National Park Service, 2009.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Paul, Catherine A, “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),” Social Welfare History Project, October 1, 2020.

[18] Ibid.