Case Study: C.O.R.E. and Its Role

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[. . .] The old value-system - a grudging acceptance of their lot as second-class citizens - would have to be replaced by a new understanding of the role of Blacks in American society. As Miss Jane Pittman, the centenarian former slave and title character of the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman put it, "Nothing out there now but white hate and nigger fear, and the fear is the only way to keep going. One day they must realize fear is worse than any death. When that time come they will be ready to move...." And perhaps even more to the point, "Freedom here is able to make a little living and have the white folks say you is good." (King, 1992) African-Americans must come to realize that the life they are living is not the life of free men and women. Slaves too "enjoyed" the prospects of having just enough food, and just enough clothing and shelter to survive. They too earned their sustenance by submitting to the brutality, or threatened brutality, of their White masters. It was up to CORE and all other civil rights organizations to make African-Americans realize the real meaning and extent of the rights they enjoyed as citizens of the United States of America, as living, breathing human beings. As a civil rights worker once said," When you ask a man to join you, you are asking for a confession that his life up until now has been lived upside down." (King, 1992) And that was precisely what Freedom Summer was about, turning Southern Society upside down.

The many people, Black and White, who participated in Freedom Summer's drive to get out the vote developed an entirely new outlook on life and on the world around them. The activists learned skills and techniques that were of value to them not merely as protestors against a particular social injustice, but also as ways of doing and looking at things that would influence every aspect of their lives. The experience drew them together, taught them self-sufficiency and group solidarity, and showed them how to tackle difficult problems. (Jasper, 1997)

For the first time, large numbers of African-Americans in the Deep South were exposed to people from the outside world, Blacks and Whites who were not direct players in the system of segregation, and who had knowledge of other living conditions, and other ways of viewing what was right and what was wrong. "Separate but Equal" had given even the physical surroundings of the Southern Black its unique and discriminatory stamp.

Then the pavement bellied out and sidewalks disappeared or fell away in broken pieces: Niggertown. Rows of shanties perched on stones and bricks and joined together in precarious asymmetry were interrupted, though not often, by a spacious lawn adorned with [an] air-conditioned ranch house and a fence. The better-off Negroes had no choice of neighbors. The only other structures with anything of the right angle housed grocery stores with Chinese names and churches." (Pinkney, 1975)

Such were the impression of a Mississippi civil rights worker in 1964. African-Americans lived in a world apart. But as the experience of Freedom summer showed, African-American civil rights could not be one by African-Americans alone. The White majority would have to become involved. It too would have to be "woken up," it's world turned upside down as well.

And this is exactly what happened at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. Traditionalist faculty and staff were stunned by the unaccustomed sight of students protesting in favor of civil rights. Tables were set up, leaflets given out, Joan Baez sang, "We Shall Overcome" - and frightened administrators overreacted. A student flyer summed up the action:

IT IS HAPPENING NOW!

In the middle of the night, the police began dragging 800 of your fellow students from Sproul Hall. Sproul Hall was turned into a booking station; the University has become an armed camp -- armed against its own students!

Now the police take over.

Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the students' demands, the administration is attempting to destroy the FSM.... The administration position is clear. It is saying "We decide what is acceptable freedom of speech on this campus. Those who disagree will be ignored; when they can no longer be ignored, they will be destroyed.

We have not been defeated by the University's troops! Our protest will continue until the justice of our cause is acknowledged. You must take a stand now! No longer can the faculty attempt to mediate from the outskirts of the crowd. No longer can students on this campus afford to accept humbly administrative fiat. Raise your voice now!

WE SHALL OVERCOME." (Anderson, 1996)

After things had quieted down, and Berkeley's faculty and staff had voted overwhelmingly in giving to students the right to protest and freely express their views, CORE's president and founder, James Farmer, was invited to speak at the campus. His words confirmed the fact these mostly middle-class white students had learned the first lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, that all people have the right to speak freely, and to organize peaceably to protest social injustice.

Farmer told the crowd that the 'battle for free speech' could not be lost, for that would 'turn off the faucet of the civil rights movement.' When someone charged that he was an 'outside agitator,' he replied, 'Every housewife knows the value of an agitator. It's the instrument inside the washing machine that bangs around and gets out all the dirt.' " (Anderson, 1997)

At last, CORE's ideals were firing the hearts and minds of a new generation. White youths who previously had not seen the linkage between themselves and oppressed Blacks in the Deep South now saw the importance of the Black Freedom Struggle both for themselves and for all of their fellow human beings. Freedom of speech and peaceable assembly were constitutional and human rights that were the inalienable property of all, and not just of the lucky few who happened to control the reins of power. Following James Farmer's speech to the students at Berkeley, CORE and all of the other nonviolent organizations involved in the Black freedom Movement could be assured of the support of college-educated non-Southern Whites. The way was open to for the civil rights campaign to spread throughout America. From now on, reactionary Southern Whites would still be waging a war, but it would be a losing war.

The 1960s also brought fresh blood and a radical new direction to CORE. In 1966, James Farmer retired as president of the organization. He was succeeded by a lawyer name Floyd B. McKissick. McKissick, together with Bayard Rustin, the head of CORE's Harlem Chapter, responded to changed conditions by abandoning the organization's non-violent stance. Increased violence in the South coupled with White resistance to further radical change, and the emergence of increasingly militant Black Freedom groups, led McKissick and Rustin to guide CORE along a militant course. Together, they and CORE would use whatever means necessary to continue the fight for full and equal African-American civil rights and opportunities. Legal discrimination and de facto economic and social discrimination would become things of the past. James Meredith, the student who desegregated the University of Mississippi, was shot while leading a peaceful protest. Instantly, McKissick linked up with other Black activists, including Stokely Carmichael, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King. Stokely was all for a violent confrontation, but Dr. King persuaded Floyd McKissick and others to reluctantly sign a promise to conduct a march as a "silent suffering army." Dr. King's reasoning was sound. As African-Americans made up only ten percent of the population, the path of violent resistance was unlikely to succeed. (Peake, 1987) The shooting of Meredith, and two years later the tragic assassination of Dr. King, were to convince McKissick and Rustin that militant action was the only way possible.

To this new militancy, Bayard Ruskin added his own brand of conflict. An educated Northerner from a working class background, Ruskin increasingly disagreed with many of the tactics and goals of the other militants. While organization's such as Stokely Carmichael's Black Panthers and others, increasingly advocated full recognition of African-Americans as a distinct community and demanded reparations for past injuries, Ruskin irritated Blacks and many liberal Whites as well by condemning Affirmative Action, special African-American Studies Programs in School, and other pro-Black ideas. He even endorsed Daniel Patrick Moynahan's study that showed the Black family structure as a major part of the African-American problem. Ruskin was out on his own advocating integrationism. He believed, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, that African-Americans were in desperate need of remedial education in English and math, and that Affirmative Action, job quotas, and special programs advocating Black cultural distinctiveness only separated Blacks out from the larger American culture and society. (De Leon, 1994) For many activists, it seemed as Rustin and his branch of CORE had at long last buckled under White pressure. For the radical militants, it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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