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Fighting for the CORE of Equality: Education

June 21, 1997

The Congress of Racial Equality was founded in 1942 by a group of activists on the South Side of Chicago who wanted to combat racism and battle for civil rights. Members became known as the "freedom riders" after a CORE-sponsored bus ride through the South to test a 1947 court ruling that black passengers on interstate routes could not be forced to sit in the back of the bus. The organization was on the front lines of an often raucous civil rights movement. Los Angeles businessman CELES KING III became chairman of the California branch of the group in the 1970s, when the organization gained prominence here in the wake of the Watts riots. This month, CORE celebrates its 55th anniversary. MATEA GOLD spoke with King about CORE's current role and the state of race relations.

CORE was established with somewhat of a specific idea: to make America live up to its initial purpose, to have a freer country that was more democratic with more opportunities for all. Of course, the country didn't ever really mature to that particular point, but that did not stop the goal: to have a place with more opportunity.

At that time, racism was more ingrained in America. The idea was to give everyone a more level field; it included women, as well as minorities. Of course, at that time, the principal minority to be concerned with was the black race.

The [early days of the civil rights movement] was appropriate and effective, but the demands were too modest. They could have more dramatically brought to a halt the situation of biases, the situation of scaling down possibilities for minorities. They could have asked for a much stronger affirmative approach to allow those who were 300 years behind to catch up.

The problem is we seemed to have crested at a much better level at the late '60s and early '70s, when significant changes took place. At that time, there were openings and there were concepts of better interaction between citizens of this country, regardless of ethnicity.

But now it does appear that things are going backward. Some of the very clear signs of this are Propositions 187 and 209, which show that deep inside the fabric of this state, and probably America, there is a good deal of tension between the races.

We think that things are gradually going downhill again, that there are too many people in this country who basically are racist in their approach.

We can no longer continue down this path. I don't think the relationships [between the races] are getting better; I think they're getting progressively worse. Regardless of the polls, I think tensions are higher today than they have been in a long time. We must halt racism and begin work for our joint survival. If there's not a significant effort to solve the problem, we're going to actually sink deeper into this hole where the end results will be a society that is totally divided.

CORE wants everybody to have a fair break. All Americans should have an opportunity to go as far as they can. They need an opportunity for an education. They need an opportunity after the education to pursue jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that will give them a chance to enhance their lives.

One of the things that is absolutely key is education. One reason we do not think Proposition 209 was in the national interest was because it restricts the possibility that those on the lower socioeconomic ladder rung to access educational opportunities.

I think the solutions of today will be significantly different from the solutions of the past. I do not see that the Freedom Riders, the picket lines surrounding establishments or a lot of those things are going to play a major role. Our major role has got to be education. Because today, so many of the problems we're running into are very sophisticated. Now we have people who know how to inflict racism without the arrogance used in the past. It's much more subtle.

One of the major challenges of today is to create a more civil society. We should learn to be more courteous, more respectful of each other and we should learn to help each other.

We each have a certain orbit of influence. And if we each were to work within that orbit, we can turn this country around.

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