The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was especially important in Mississippi from 1961 to 1966. CORE was formed in Chicago in 1942 to test the effectiveness of nonviolence in desegregating restaurants and other public facilities in the United States. In 1947 the group staged a journey of reconciliation to test the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation on interstate transportation. An interracial group of fourteen riders, including James Peck and Bayard Rustin, rode two buses through the Upper South, encountering little violence and only a few arrests.
CORE enjoyed little support in the South until the late 1950s, when the organization began cosponsoring workshops on nonviolent direct action with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). CORE played an instrumental role in educating and organizing students for the nascent sit-in movement, and in 1960 representatives of the group attended the Atlanta conference that established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a permanent organization, with CORE’s nonviolent direct action strategy and its “jail, no bail” policy greatly influencing the new group’s stance.
As efforts to push for desegregation became increasingly organized, CORE members Gordon Carey and Tom Gaither recommended that the organization conduct another Freedom Ride in the summer of 1961 to test the Supreme Court’s ruling that terminals for interstate travelers could not be segregated. After CORE’s national council approved the project, the group’s new national director, James Farmer, issued a call for volunteers on 13 March 1961. An interracial group of thirteen riders, among them John Lewis and Henry Thomas, proposed riding two buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. Before the first group of riders left on 4 May, Peck and Farmer held a session on nonviolence. The group encountered little violence prior to reaching Anniston, Alabama, where a white mob set one bus on fire and beat the riders. With several riders badly injured and no drivers willing to transport them to Montgomery, CORE decided to end the ride and flew the riders to New Orleans.
After SNCC workers encouraged CORE members to continue the rides and vowed to join them, Farmer joined SNCC and SCLC leaders at a press conference to announce that the rides would continue. Because of the violence in Alabama, the Kennedy administration told Mississippi governor Ross Barnett that if he protected the riders, the federal government would not interfere when local police arrested the demonstrators. The buses safely arrived in Jackson, where the riders were arrested for breaching the peace or for refusing to obey officers. The activists received fines and suspended sentences of sixty days, but they refused to pay either their fines or bail, and most of them remained jail for thirty-nine days, the maximum time they could serve and still appeal their convictions.
CORE adopted a strategy of filling Mississippi’s jails, and Gaither went to Jackson to coordinate the continuing busloads of activists. By the end of the summer, a total of 328 riders were being held in city and county jails as well as Parchman Prison. The Justice Department encouraged the Interstate Commerce Commission to prohibit separate facilities in terminals, and that policy went into effect on 1 November 1961. CORE organizers subsequently remained in Mississippi, with Gaither moving to Clarksdale to work with Aaron Henry and David Dennis working in several communities, including Jackson, Ruleville, and Hattiesburg. Other CORE workers joined SNCC in McComb, where they were beaten on several occasions for attempting to eat at the lunch counter in the Greyhound bus terminal.
With Mississippi as the focus for voter registration drives and desegregation efforts, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which was formed in 1961 by black groups working for social justice, was reorganized in 1962 to include CORE and SNCC. The SCLC and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also joined COFO, so the alliance allowed the young workers of CORE and SNCC to tap into the older groups’ networks. COFO designated CORE (represented by Dennis) to work in Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District. Because of the Kennedy administration’s pressure to focus on voter registration rather than desegregation, COFO organized the Voter Education Project, which was largely funded by foundations close to the Kennedys.
CORE chose to begin its voter registration drive in Madison County and particularly the town of Canton because SNCC lacked workers in the area and the local NAACP chapter was inactive. CORE later expanded the campaign into Leake, Neshoba, Leflore, and Rankin Counties. Like SNCC, CORE sought to develop local leadership and encourage grassroots organizing. In 1963 the only staff member for the Madison County project was George Raymond, who had first come to Mississippi during the 1961 Freedom Rides, but by 1964 CORE’s Madison County project was the most active in the state, with seven organizers, including Anne Moody and Rudy Lombard. Two Canton residents, Annie Devine and C. O. Chinn, were instrumental in CORE’s success, donating resources and helping the workers gain community members’ trust and support. Despite police intimidation and the high levels of white violence in the area, CORE workers canvassed neighborhoods, held mass meetings at local churches, and organized a boycott of white businesses.
On 28 February 1964 CORE held Madison County’s first Freedom Day, during which 350 black residents tried to register to vote. With only 5 permitted to take the test, CORE and local residents scheduled two more Freedom Days. On the third day, 29 May, Farmer spoke to boost morale, but in the absence of national media, the police stopped a march to the courthouse and arrested 55 marchers. Dennis and other CORE workers remained defiant, and Dennis sent a telegram to Pres. Lyndon Johnson, chiding him for failing to protect the workers. In early June many of the 55 demonstrators arrested remained in jail, assailants shot at the freedom house, and a bomb exploded on the sidewalk outside CORE’s office. Local African Americans continued to support CORE, however, and the organization recruited more summer volunteers to participate in COFO’s Freedom Summer Project. Led by Raymond, workers opened ten freedom schools, continued to promote the boycott of Canton’s white merchants, and worked in the local community center. In addition, CORE worker Mike Piore organized a Farmers’ League to provide information about the federal government’s acreage allotment program.
After receiving news of CORE’s efforts in Canton, Greenwood scheduled its first Freedom Day for 25 March 1964. The night before, workers held a mass meeting that featured Farmer as a speaker and was attended by more than 400 residents. Despite the arrests of several workers and the Klan’s burning of a cross in front of SNCC’s office, 200 residents of Leflore County went to register on Freedom Day. The hopeful registrants were protected by almost 100 demonstrators, including some white ministers, who formed a line around the courthouse. Police arrested no one, but only 35 blacks were allowed to take the test. The Mississippi legislature responded on 8 April by barring pickets of state buildings, an attempt to deprive the registrants of protection. Greenwood’s second Freedom Day occurred on 9 April, and police arrested 46 demonstrators, charging them with violating the new law. Eight demonstrators were evicted from the plantations where they worked and lived, and opponents shot into the homes of several volunteers.
Recruited by CORE’s Matt Suarez in the fall of 1963, James Chaney helped Suarez and Raymond organize Canton’s first Freedom Day before moving to Meridian, where he met Michael Schwerner and his wife, Rita, New Yorkers who had recently joined the CORE staff. The Schwerners organized a community center that provided locals with reading and sewing classes, clerical training, and a library. After CORE appointed Schwerner as the project director for Mississippi’s 4th District, he and Chaney began planning freedom houses, freedom schools, and community centers in Neshoba County. To announce their plans, the two workers met with residents at the Mount Zion Methodist Church in the Longdale community outside of Philadelphia. Mount Zion was later chosen as a freedom school site, but because of its support of the movement, Klansmen attacked church members as they were leaving the building on 16 June 1964 and later returned to burn the church. Chaney and Schwerner, however, continued recruiting volunteers, including Andrew Goodman, with whom they spent the night of 20 June in Meridian. The three workers attempted to drive back to Philadelphia the next day but were arrested and jailed. After their release, police stopped them and turned them over to a white mob. Klansmen executed the three men and buried them in a dam that was under construction. Their bodies were not found until 4 August. CORE’s Dennis delivered the eulogy at Chaney’s funeral, and the organization’s national council voted to build a community center in Meridian as a memorial to the workers.
In addition to voter registration projects, CORE, along with the SCLC, SNCC, the NAACP, and the Urban League, participated in the 1963 March on Washington and in a Freedom Walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson. A member of the Baltimore’s CORE chapter, William Moore, initiated the walk, carrying signs protesting discrimination, but after he was murdered in Alabama, CORE and SNCC decided to jointly continue the freedom walk. Similarly in 1966, CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC continued James Meredith’s March against Fear from Memphis to Jackson after Meredith was shot.
After 1966, however, CORE was largely absent from Mississippi. The preceding year, CORE and SNCC had begun to embrace black separatism and to focus on more urban areas and on the problems of unemployment, poor housing, and inadequate schools. Despite their physical absence, however, both organizations continued to affect the state because they had helped to develop local leadership.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)