(A History of) The Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality

Roy Innis (1965-1968)

Originally from St. Croix, Roy Innis moved to Harlem at thirteen. Like Bob Moses of SNCC, he attended Stuyvesant High School. He joined the Army at sixteen and was promoted to sergeant before he was eighteen. An Army buddy, Wilbert Kirby, would years later would become his vice chairman. After studying chemistry at City College, Innis worked as a chemist. It should be noted that these schools at the time were not only considered the city's most elite public schools, they were almost exclusively all White schools, an experience that would have certainly shaped Innis' attitudes towards the public school system.

When Innis became chapter chairman, it represented a significant shift for the national organization as a whole. Switching the name of the chapter from New York CORE to Harlem CORE, Innis essentially changed the chapter from an integrationist group into a Black power group. Whites that were still members were no longer allowed to participate in ‘actions’. They could only act in support roles.

Women were also forced to play subordinate roles as Innis emphasized developing Black male leadership. He instituted his Black Male Caucus, Monday night weekly meetings where Black men could come and discuss ideas on how to ‘counteract the systematic emasculation of the Black male in American society’ (20).

Their ideas on nationalism differed in many ways from other groups such as the Nation of Islam. As an example, it was not uncommon for Black men in Harlem CORE to be dating White women at this time. While it was behavior that was looked down on, it was also an unofficial rule that was frequently ignored. Innis also changed the policy on the use of non-violence. Members were encouraged to be prepared and taught to defend themselves from violent attacks. An amateur boxer himself, Innis hired karate instructors to give self defense classes to members of the chapter and the local community. It was made clear, though, that unlike other Black power groups, Harlem CORE was not seeking a direct confrontation with the ‘mightiest military machine the world had ever seen’ (21).

When Floyd McKissick succeeded James Farmer as the National Director for CORE in 1966, the Harlem CORE philosophy soon became the national CORE philosophy. At the 1966 national CORE convention in Baltimore, it was Harlem CORE that introduced the resolution calling for Black Power and self determination. It was also Harlem CORE which was instrumental in having CORE adopt a policy of self defense as opposed to a non-violent philosophy (22).

Harlem CORE's education campaigns focused on hiring Black and Puerto Rican teachers and principals in the public school system as well as the inclusion of Black and Puerto Rican history in the curriculum. Working in coalition with other groups including the Black Panthers and SNCC, Harlem CORE's protests focused on P.S. 139 , I.S. 201 and P.S. 175 (led by, among others, HC member Ralph Poynter). The chapter became more militant in its tactics which included laying down on and blocking the sidewalk so principals could not pass, breaking through police barricades, fighting back physically against police officers and going limp when arrested so that police had to physically carry them away (23).

In 1967, Harlem CORE put forward a proposal before the New York State legislature to create an independent Board of Education for Harlem. Victor Solomon, then the education committee chairman, was a principal spokesman. He argued in a published paper that since the NYC Board of Education could not fulfill the minimum needs of the Harlem community, the Harlem community should be given control of the schools within their district. The district schools would still retain government funding, but delegated members of the Harlem community would be responsible for all decision making (24).

By the 1968 annual convention, a power struggle among four different camps within CORE came to a head. Roy Innis and Sonny Carson of Brooklyn CORE vied for control of the national organization in the election for national chairman. A group within Harlem CORE who had supported Innis previously found themselves supporting the revolutionary Carson instead. Many members felt Innis was abusing his authority by working to advance his own interests ahead of the community and Harlem CORE’s work. CORE, according to Carson, had become irrelevant and no longer addressing the needs of the Black community.

Reformist Innis, who supported building Black capitalism as a method of community control, became national chairman. Several chapters like Brooklyn and Bronx CORE defected in protest. Many of those Harlem CORE members who supported the Carson faction found themselves, like the White members before them, eventually pushed out. Other members left on their own.