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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The founding of CORE and the Journey of Reconciliation

Rodenko describes the formation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1940s and their effort to challenge segregation in interstate travel in 1947 with the Journey of Reconciliation. Based on principles of pacifism and Ghandian non-violence, CORE was founded with the intent to challenge racism with nonviolent direct action. Following the 1946 Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate travel, CORE organized an interracial group of men to travel throughout the South on Trailways and Greyhound buses. Rodenko explains the principles behind their actions and describes the arrest of himself and fellow activist Bayard Rustin in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Igal Roodenko, April 11, 1974. Interview B-0010. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

At any rate, here we were refusing to participate in the war against Hitler, and we had to find ways to rationalize and so the World War II period, those of us who were in CO camps and in prison - I'm not saying very many of us were involved in this - but quite a number were involved in the soul-searching. We found that we had to find positive alternatives, that pacifism was not simply nay-saying. Now, alongside of that came the extraordinary example of Gandhi in India. We found for the first time we knew of, a person who was not only committed to non-violence, but who was committed to what we thought we were dealing with, the questions of the roots of violence and the roots of war: with the sources of conflict, of bloody conflict within the community, within the family, within the indivudual, long before the guns actually started shooting. We tried to find ways to connect the Gandhian experience, and the Gandhian insights and approach to the American scene. At times, we had very silly ideas about getting people to spin their own cloth, and things like that, that was silly. Finally, we came to the conclusion that the area in American life which most called for the Gandhian approach was the area of racism. The traditional methods of dealing with racist problems until then, which was that of the NAACP which was quiet education and so on, didn't seem enough. We were impressed by some of the dramatic acts of civil disobedience that Gandhi engaged in against the British government. We already had the experience of civil disobedience, by being in prison for refusing to be drafted. So that the combination between the two seemed to be a logical one. Some of the people who came out of prison then in the mid-forties organized the Committee on Racial Equality, first in Chicago, and then in New York, and quickly engaged in local activities. There was a roller-skating rink in Chicago that refused to allow blacks . . .
These were primarily whites?
Yes, these were white, middle-class pacifists, and largely religious, Christian. So they worked on this roller-skating rink and won. So we worked on this swimming pool just outside of New York City that didn'y allow blacks in, and there were a few heads busted and people jailed, but we won that too. The Palisades swimming pool was opened up. Then, by '47, the idea came along that we ought to get into the belly of the beast, that is, into the South. We had this very simplistic Yankee attitude that this was really where the discrimination and the hatred and so on were, and that while we weren't perfect up North, we were pretty good. It was the old missionary attitude, my soul is alright, it is those poor heathen African souls which need saving. So the Journey of Reconciliation was started. The specific idea was that, in 1946, the Supreme Court passed the Irene Morgan decision. Here was a black woman who contesetd the Jim Crow seating in public transportation and won, the court holding that if one held a ticket going from one state to another, the Jim Crow laws were an undue burden on interstate traffic. We were very excited about this, but within a year we decided we wanted to find out how much the bus companies, Trailways and Greyhound, were living up to this decision. So we very carefully planned this Journey of Reconciliation which was to last two weeks. We got interstate tickets, starting from Washington, down through Richmnod and down into North Carolina, across North Carolina into Kentucky and Tennessee, and then back through Virginia to Washington. We broke up into two groups, one group going Trailways and the other Greyhound. We would stop each night in a town and generally have a public meeting at a college or a black church, and then proceed the next day. Each day we would decide on two guinea pigs, a black and a white would sit together in the front or two whites would sit in the back, or two blacks would sit in the front. The others on the trip, and there were about twenty or twenty five of us, * would act as observers, so that if and when these cases came to court they could act as witnesses. * Altogether, about six to eight each on Greyhound and Trailways. We were pretty apprehensive at first, at least I know that I was. Yet, there were some courageous souls who sort of set the pattern from the very first day, Conrad Lynn an absolutely outspoken black lawyer; Wally Nelson, a black activist and pacifist for many years; Bayard Rustin, black organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who traveled throughout the South for many years, during the thirties, as an anti-war organizer. The others of us got a little courageous as it went along. What happened in most of these things is that we would sit down according to plan and the bus driver would tell us we couldn't do this, and then we would tell him as politely as we could that we were going on the Supreme Court decision, and we recognized his right to be as - we didn't say it this way - to be as prejudiced as he wanted to be, but you can't enforce an illegal prejudice on us. We insisted upon sitting where we were sitting, and the only way we would move is if we are placed under arrest, in which case we would be able to bring this situation to court and have it adjudicated, under the law. Sometimes the holdup was very brief, and sometimes it was stretched out. The Greyhound buses were very cooperative, in the sense that when they saw how determined we were, they overlooked us as much as possible. They ignored it, they did not occasion any arrests. Trailways were much more difficult about this, and there must have been six or seven arrests in the course of the Trailways trip, but the charges were all dropped except in our case, and this is the Chapel Hill arrest. The orginal plan was for Joe Felmet here, and was it Andy Johnson, Andy was black, for the two of them to sit in the front of the bus, and I was sitting in the back, somewhere over a wheel, and Bayard [Rustin] was sitting somewhere behind me, and there might have been two or three others in the bus, I don't remember. Then the bus driver got into the bus, ready to take off, and he looked around, counting his passengers, and he saw these two people together in the third seat behind him, and he came over and told them they couldn't do it, and Joe and Andy went through the verbal confrontation. This was kind of stretched out some, and finally the driver decided the only thing he could do was go out and call the police, and the police station was just across the street from the bus station at that time. The police came in and they asked Joe, who was sitting on the aisle, to get out of the way so they could arrest Andy, Andy had said he would not go voluntarily, they would have to take him. The tone seemed to be that we white folk understand what it is all about, don't we Joe, and Joe of course would cooperate and get out of the way, but, of course, Joe didn't. So they had to lug them both out, and this held up the bus a while longer, because the driver had to go into the police station and sign the papers and go through the formalities.
How did the other passengers respond?
They were - the nice middle - class white upbringing is that if you don't know what to do about a thing, ignore it. I do that. There was sort of a frozen non-response there. People obviously knew what was going on, but there was no response there. I'll get back to this in a moment. As they were taken out - and this is one of those nice examples of non-verbal communication - $ Bayard and I were not supposed to know each other, and I monentarily turned my head, and my eye half-caught his, and without another word, we both got up together and walked down the bus, and took the two seats that had just been vacated.