(A History of) The Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality
CORE started in 1942. Influenced by the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi, it pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action in the United States (U.S.) through sit-ins and demonstrations in order to fight segregation, discrimination and institutionalized racism. Although CORE was dedicated to multiracialism, members in its early days were made up of mostly White mid-westerners. CORE was primarily based in the North.
Along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC), CORE became by the late 1950’s one of the most important civil rights organizations. Its decentralized hierarchy oversaw autonomous chapters all across the country which focused on issues such as the right to vote, housing, employment and education.
Inspired by the 1960 student sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, CORE began a national campaign of sit-ins and demonstrations against the Woolworth chain stores. Combined with the Freedom Rides of 1961, these two campaigns marked a renaissance for CORE as the protests brought them increased public standing and membership. Dubbed ‘the wild child of civil rights movement’, CORE was seen as the cutting edge of the freedom struggle(1). The New York chapter of CORE, which would became Harlem CORE, was one of the first chapters established and became the largest. New members like Susan Brownmiller, who led a picket line at a Woolworth’s, exemplified this group: young, left, white, college educated and usually middle class. All members were part time volunteers. Its office was located on west 42nd st between 5th and 6th avenue, directly across the street from Bryant Park in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
At the end of 1961, the chapter moved to Harlem, then the largest Black community in the nation. This move reflected a larger trend with in CORE as it consciously began to shift from its old ideology of 'color blind interacialism’ and increased the number of Black members and Blacks in leadership positions (2). In the national office, located in downtown Manhattan near City Hall, James Farmer replaced James Robinson as national chairman, the head of CORE. Both were founding members of CORE, but Farmer was Black and Robinson, also a former chairman of New York CORE, was White.
It also marked a desire among members for CORE to focus on the everyday problems of the Black community and less with middle class concerns. By moving to west 125th street, a central location in Harlem, the chapter sought to operate as a way station. Just a few doors down from the legendary Apollo Theater, their office shared the same floor as the New York chapter of the NAACP led then by Percy Sutton. According to newspaper accounts, their numbers increased to 250 members (3). However, members from that time state the core members, those considered most consistently active, numbered closer to fifty, perhaps sixty. Because of lack of access to archival documents like membership lists, it is impossible for me to verify and know for sure how many members there were are at any given time.
Members were split evenly between Blacks and Whites, almost all college students and working professionals, the average age being 27 (4). There were very few of other ethnicities, although there were some Latino members, mostly Puerto Ricans. All of Harlem CORE's chairmen were Black.