The Congress of Racial Equality was founded in Chicago 1942 with the support of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. James Farmer, FOR secretary of race relations started CORE with a memorandum which argued for Gandhian non-violent direct action as a strategy to end racial discrimination. Local Chicago activists joined with Farmer to create a Chicago based civil rights group to advocate and utilize the ideas in Farmer's brotherhood memo. This group, including Bernice Fischer, James Robinson, George Houser, and others would become the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality.
CORE expanded its chapters during the 1940s despite efforts by FOR to limit its growth. The organization staged sit-in protests, lectures, nonviolent training workshops, and boycotts. Some were successful while others were not. By the early 1950s, CORE chapters declined precipitously but made its first forays into the upper south. CORE leaders Billie Ames, James Robinson, Lula Farmer, and James Peck played pivotal roles in expanding CORE's work during this period. They were joined by other major leaders including Charles Odham, Marvin Rich, Evelyn Rich, Patricia Due and Priscilla Stephens. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was instrumental in highlighting CORE's nonviolent philosophy, and the organization stabilized and expanded rapidly as a result.
CORE's membership and activities increased exponentially, particularly after its Freedom Rides project in 1961. Mostly a northern based chapter with a predominantly white membership, the organization transformed during this era due to increasing black membership and chapters in the south. CORE became well known for its southern protests and national directed most of its resources to the southern arena. However, northern chapters also increased. Originally these branches supported southern activities through sympathy protests and financial assistance. But, Northern chapters veered from these initial activities and focused on local concerns including employment discrimination, de facto school segregation, police brutality, housing discrimination, and other racial and working class issues.
By the mid 1960s, the tenor of CORE began to change. Northern chapters found that the nonviolence strategy did not help with systemic issues of racism which often combined with economic inequality. Likewise, southern chapters learned that nonviolence was barely tenable in the midst of rampant, unchecked violence and death. These circumstances were highlighted by the events surrounding Freedom Summer (Mississippi Summer Project). CORE joined other civil rights groups in a summer project which developed freedom schools, citizenship centers, and started mass voter registration. Before Freedom Summer could officially begin, three members of CORE (James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman) disappeared and were later found dead. Meanwhile, CORE members faced violent reprisals in Louisiana where the organization launched a similar freedom summer project.
In the north, the failure of school desegregation fights lead many chapters to embrace a new approach to protest that centers on political and economic empowerment. These chapters play a key role in moving CORE from direct action protest toward community organization, electoral politics, and economic development. In 1966, this new direction joins with a call for black empowerment symbolized by one phrase, "Black Power!" National CORE sets a new path toward black power programming. It political black power project enables Carl Stokes's victory as the first black mayor of an urban city. Additionally, economic empowerment projects lead CORE to create a national community development corporation. However, these efforts bring uneven results. Circumstances are exacerbated due to CORE's financial debt. Black power programs change after Roy Innis becomes National Director of CORE CORE transitions from black power to political conservatism and CORE drastically changes from its earlier beginnings.