Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Please Help Us": The Fort Smith Congress of Racial Equality Chapter, 1962-1965

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Please Help Us": The Fort Smith Congress of Racial Equality Chapter, 1962-1965

Article excerpt

The civil rights movement has been accorded its place in American national folklore as a story of triumph over adversity and of individual and collective heroism.1 Although these are important elements in the movement's history, they have helped to produce a normative model that overlooks the many false starts, failures, and insurmountable obstacles that movement activists faced, both in and outside of the national spotlight. Like any social movement, the civil rights movement experienced more defeats than it did victories, which is invariably the case when a group cast on the margins of society seeks to challenge the vested interests of those in power. We can lose sight of this fact when we focus on movement triumphs alone and force its history into an uncomfortably whiggish narrative in which the march of progress seems inevitable. While it would seem pointless to simply catalogue movement failures, it is equally misleading to focus only on movement achievements and successes without acknowledging the many dead ends, wrong turns, and plain defeats that were an inherent part of that struggle.

Documents from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Records outline the story of Arkansas's only chapter of that national civil rights organization, based in Fort Smith between 1962 and 1965.2 During the same period that Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference won momentous victories in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and Selma, Alabama, in 1965, leading to the passage of landmark national legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-American activists in Arkansas labored outside of the national spotlight to try to make the gains won elsewhere a reality in their day-to-day lives. In doing so, they faced the more common slog of trying to effect change without a nationally recognized, charismatic leader, without the full resources and steady backing of a national civil rights organization, and without the media attention that came with them. While encountering many of the same problems as participants in more renowned civil rights battles, they did not enjoy the high-profile successes that might obscure, or entirely hide, the many differences in opinion and tactics, clashes of egos, and class and gender divisions that existed.

Documenting the story of the Fort Smith CORE chapter allows us to examine the short-lived and mixed legacy of a national civil rights organization in Arkansas. CORE was founded in Chicago in 1942, an offshoot of a pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Soon after its founding, CORE pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action tactics by holding some of the first movement sit-ins, which targeted lunch counters in Chicago. In 1947, along with FOR, CORE sponsored a Journey of Reconciliation, an interracial bus ride across the Upper South to test interstate busses that were ordered to desegregate by the U.S. Supreme Court's Morgan v. Virginia decision (1946). The ride met with some success in testing facilities but failed to grab national attention. When a new wave of nonviolent direct action protest was launched through the student sit-in movement of 1960, CORE national director James Farmer reprised the Journey of Reconciliation. These Freedom Rides followed another U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that ordered an end to segregation in interstate bus terminals. Freedom Riders 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 the protest. 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. …

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