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The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is a civil rights organization founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1942 that pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action tactics in the civil rights movement. Most notably, the organization gained national prominence in 1961 through sponsoring the Freedom Rides, which sought to test supposedly desegregated bus terminal facilities. Although CORE was a marginal presence in Arkansas compared to other civil rights organizations, it established a chapter in the state, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), that lasted from 1962 to 1965.
CORE was an offshoot of the pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In 1942, it held some of the civil rights movement’s first sit-ins, targeting lunch counters in Chicago. In 1947, along with FOR, CORE sponsored the Journey of Reconciliation, an interracial bus ride across the Upper South to test interstate buses that had been ordered to desegregate in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946). The ride met with some success but failed to garner national attention.
When a new wave of nonviolent direct action was launched through the sit-in movement of 1960, CORE national director James Farmer reprised the Journey of Reconciliation. This time, the protests were known as Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides followed another U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that ordered an end to segregation in interstate bus terminals.
The Freedom Rides ventured into the Deep South, where they were attacked by segregationists in Alabama. As CORE abandoned the Freedom Rides amid escalating violence, another civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), vowed to continue them. Eventually, the federal government was forced to act to protect the riders against white violence. A number of follow-up rides to test bus terminal facilities across the South were instigated by CORE in conjunction with other civil rights organizations that worked together in a Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee (FRCC).
One of the follow-up rides, setting off from St. Louis, Missouri, arrived in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on July 10, 1961. Two African-American Freedom Riders, Benjamin Cox and Bliss Anne Malone, and two white Freedom Riders, John Curtis Raines and Janet Reinitz, were arrested by Little Rock city police soon after arrival. A fifth black Freedom Rider, Annie Lumpkin, was there as an observer.
The riders were held overnight and tried the next morning in the court of municipal judge Quinn Glover. Glover offered them a deal: if they headed back home, he would set them free. They agreed. However, when they later discovered that Glover actually meant for them to go back to St. Louis rather than to continue their ride, they turned down the deal and submitted to re-arrest. After the intervention of city businessmen worried about the negative national headlines the episode might trigger, Glover agreed to release them if they left the state. This time, he said that they could continue their journey on to New Orleans, Louisiana, as planned.
Though the Freedom Ride in Little Rock did not achieve its immediate goal of desegregating bus terminals, this was finally achieved by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission later that year on November 1, 1961 (an order that covered all southern bus terminals). The Freedom Ride also promoted the founding of an important new local Little Rock civil rights organization, the Council on Community Affairs (COCA), in 1962.
At a grassroots level, however, CORE was a marginal presence in Arkansas. This was largely due to competition from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and SNCC, which were already established in the state by the 1960s. Only one CORE chapter ever existed in Arkansas, at Fort Smith, between 1962 and 1965.
When the Fort Smith CORE chapter filed for affiliation with the CORE national office on June 26, 1962, it listed Safeway store worker Reginald Watson as chair. The chapter had sixteen active members and twenty-four associate members. All were African American.
The chapter reported that it was in negotiations with the mayor and a local committee to desegregate Kress, McCrory, and Woolworth lunch counters, and that it was also pushing for the desegregation of restaurants. A national office CORE field secretary, Mary Hamilton, visited Fort Smith chapter members in September 1962. She reported that the group consisted of “day workers, three ministers, one doctor and one dentist” as well as “a few soldiers from Fort Chaffee.” The chapter held meetings every first and third Tuesday in the basement of Mallalieu Methodist Episcopal Church at North 9th and H Streets.
The chapter successfully arranged the nomination of Dr. Harry McDonald, a CORE member and president of the Fort Smith NAACP, to run for a position on the Fort Smith school board. McDonald lost the contest. In December 1962, Mary Hamilton visited again. She discovered that negotiations for desegregation were going well, and she felt that the situation would be resolved without the need for direct action. Her main worry was dissention within the chapter. Two members, who were established black leaders in the city, were concerned about Watson’s leadership and wanted him removed. Hamilton persuaded chapter members that they were better off working together in a united front. In the summer of 1963, several downtown lunch counters desegregated. Afterward, the chapter tried to persuade local stores to hire black workers.
Reginald Watson’s last letter to the CORE national office, sent in March 1965, reads: “I have been fired from my position at Safeway Stores here because of my work with CORE. I will need support from National and sister chapters if I am to do much about this. I also request that you send someone to Fort Smith to help me reorganize the chapter. Since I do not have a job and can’t get a comparable one here I may have to leave Fort Smith to get work. When I leave the chapter others may also drop out. I do not want this to happen. I want a bigger and better chapter in Fort Smith. Please help us.” This is the last recorded CORE activity in Arkansas.
For additional information:
Congress of Racial Equality Records, 1941–1967. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Regional Office Records, 1954–1966. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.
Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Kirk, John. “‘Please Help Us’: The Fort Smith Congress of Racial Equality Chapter, 1962–1965.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 73 (Autumn 2014): 293–317.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated 12/1/2014
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