The Long Sad Slide From Leading Civil Rights Organization to Anti-Black Lives Matter Group

The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, was once a great civil rights organization. Then came Roy Innis.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES:  Roy Innis (L), National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, holds up the hand of Texas Governor and US Presidential Candidate George W. Bush (R) at the group's Harmony Awards 26 June 2000 in New York. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, is best known for its pathbreaking role in organizing acts designed to confront and end apartheid in America, from the Freedom Rides throughout the South to the pivotal March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

Now the group — or what’s left of it — protests against black protesters.

Roy Innis, who took control of CORE in 1968, dramatically transformed the group’s mission from racial integration to black separatism — and eventually to lobbying on behalf of corporate interests and the police state.

His son, Niger Innis, now the group’s spokesperson, appears on Fox News and other conservative media outlets throughout the country denouncing Black Lives Matter and claiming to be a representative of the civil rights movement. Discussing the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown on a television program on August 11, for instance, Niger Innis called Black Lives Matter protesters a “bunch of vultures coming in from places like New York and California” who came to Ferguson only to cause trouble.

Modern civil rights advocates, for their part, bristle at the media platform given to CORE. “Mainstream media uses these groups in an attempt to denounce the importance of police reform and accountability in the wake of the shooting deaths of numerous unarmed black people across this country,” Nekima Levy-Pounds, a Black Lives Matter activist and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, told The Intercept.

CORE, she said, now provides rhetoric that “reinforces a white supremacist view” of Black Lives Matter. CORE did not respond to a request for comment.

During the August 11 program, Niger Innis derisively compared the confrontational tactics of Black Lives Matter protesters to the Black Panthers, claiming that such strategies were rejected by his father, who Niger said sought reform only through proactive solutions. “The only thing that my father was protesting in those days was that he wanted more blacks on the police force,” Innis chuckled.

But Niger Innis’ portrayal of his father obscures a history that is far more complex. The Intercept compiled a history using primary source documents and investigative reports largely from Jet, the New York Times and New York magazine.

Roy Emil Alfredo Ennis was born in the Virgin Islands and immigrated to New York when he was in 13. Roy, who joined CORE after seeking to date a member of the organization, slowly began working his way up the leadership ranks. As the assistant to CORE leader Floyd McKissick, Roy Innis traveled the country, helping CORE — which at the time was an integrated, nonviolent civil rights group seeking an end to racial discrimination — set up new chapters.

In the years preceding Innis’ rise to leadership, CORE played an instrumental role in some of the most storied events in civil rights history. The group partnered with the NAACP to mobilize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, as well as the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi. Many members, both white and black, faced police and vigilante violence. Three young CORE members were murdered by Klan supporters in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Indeed, CORE has been in the news in recent months because of the interest in Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who was a leader of CORE in Chicago in the early 1960s, and was arrested in college for participating in a protest of segregation in Chicago public schools.

The year 1968 brought new challenges and tragedy. On April 15, a postal worker shot and killed Innis’ son, Roy Jr., allegedly because he was bothered by the noise the boy was making outside of his apartment. The previous week, Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis.

The turmoil following the death of King turned the tide on simmering divisions within CORE, with many claiming that they now distrusted the so-called “accommodationist” approach of nonviolence. The previous two years had seen a number of CORE chapters breaking away from the vision of CORE founder James Farmer, who sought an inclusive approach for ending racial segregation and discrimination in society.

In June 1968, a slate of Black Nationalist leaders won election to the leadership of CORE with Innis as the new CORE chairman. Declaring the traditional civil rights era over, Innis changed the CORE constitution to ban white people from the organization, and explained that the change reflected “an era of Black Nationalism.” Innis also called for separate schools for African American children.

As Innis began to openly embrace Black Nationalism, he also began his pivot to the right. Just before he became the national CORE chair, Innis met covertly with Richard Nixon. Innis, according to an account from conservative journalist Robert Novak, worked to align community support for Nixon so he could one day serve as the “President’s man in the ghetto.” Nixon would go on to endorse a vision of “black capitalism.”

Lawyers from Nixon’s law firm even helped CORE draft proposed legislation providing economic support for African American-owned businesses.

Open support for the Republican ticket was difficult, but Innis’ comments in the press made his leanings clear. On “Meet the Press,” Innis did not explicitly endorse a candidate for president, but said, “I praise Nixon when he said that black nationalism is relevant.”

The Innis effort was part of a multifaceted attempt by the Nixon campaign to peel off black support from the Democratic Party. The White House tapes reveal conversations between Nixon and his aides about efforts to recruit and fund black presidential candidates with a “fourth party” during the 1972 election. His operatives privately referred to one such plan as “Operation Coal.”

The Nixon election victory in 1968, which markedly increased the GOP share of the black vote compared to the Barry Goldwater election in 1964, did not result in any appointments or official support for Innis.

Instead, the 1970s became a period of great drift for CORE, which continued down a path of militant Black Nationalism.

In 1972, Innis became the American consigliere for Ugandan strongman Idi Amin. As Jet reported, Innis developed programs to bring skilled American workers to help with Amin’s fledgling government. He also supported Amin’s brutal crackdown on non-Africans, including the decision to expel 80,000 people of Asian descent from Uganda. In a telegram, Innis said he “supports in spirit and fact” the deportation decision, calling Uganda “the ancestral homeland of African people [which] must operate first and foremost for the development of African people.”

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Innis fought off a number of attempts to oust him from the leadership of CORE. One lawsuit accused him of mishandling CORE’s finances. Former CORE leaders James Farmer and Floyd McKissick claimed that Innis had used CORE funds for “trips to Europe and Africa, prize fight tickets, lavish furniture, living expenses for themselves and estranged wives, and rent for personal living quarters.” In response, Innis charged that the lawsuit was a “racist … political cheap trick.” In 1980, a group of dissident CORE leaders voted in a new leader, Waverly Yates, head of CORE’s Washington affiliate, but Innis refused to hand over the chairmanship.

In 1986, the IRS fined Innis $56,000 in back taxes plus $28,000 in civil fraud penalties because of $116,000 in unreported income from CORE in the mid-1970s, which he allegedly spent on ”travel, apartment rent, jewelry, furniture, entertainment, and other personal items.”

As the years went on, Innis’ political agenda drifted to open support for the Republican Party, and he played a major role in the debates on crime and gun control. He openly campaigned for Ronald Reagan, and ran against New York Mayor David Dinkins for the mayoral Democratic primary in 1993. Also that year, CORE founder James Farmer declared, “CORE has no functioning chapters; it holds no conventions, no elections, no meetings, sets no policies, has no social programs and does no fund-raising. In my opinion, CORE is fraudulent.”

As Niger Innis recounted on a 2013 appearance with AACONS, an African American online radio program, his father’s support for police organizations and Rudy Giuliani paved the way for the stop-and-frisk programs that Niger Innis claimed have reduced urban crime. “Part of the partnership” between community groups and law enforcement, Niger Innis said, “is criminal profiling, not racial profiling.”

Over the last 25 years, CORE has morphed almost completely into an organization that lends African-American support to causes linked to its corporate donors. As Mother Jones reported in 2005, CORE took money from Monsanto and mobilized opposition to regulations on Monsanto products. After receiving $40,000 in contributions from ExxonMobil, CORE organized protests in support of ExxonMobil at its shareholder meeting. With funds from the National Rifle Association, of which Roy Innis is now a board member, CORE has filed amicus briefs claiming that gun control laws stem from racism in society.

Niger Innis now simultaneously works as a Tea Party leader and CORE’s chief spokesperson, and is a frequent speaker at conservative events. “My organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, fought side by side with Dr. King and Americans of all colors,” Niger Innis declared at an Americans for Prosperity-organized event in Wisconsin. “For my well-paid brothers at the NAACP,” he intoned, “if you’re looking for a racist at this crowd, he’s right here! … I am a racist and a racial partisan for the human race!”

Last year, Niger Innis ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress as a Republican in Nevada.

And these days, Roy and his son Niger are favorites of the conservative movement. Presenting a prize to Roy Innis at the CPAC convention in 2010, NRA president Wayne LaPierre called him “a real American hero, his story should be taught in every American school and it should be admired by every patriot.”

Caption: Roy Innis with George W. Bush in 2000.

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