New Collection |  Sheila Michaels Civil Rights Organization Oral History Collection


The Oral History Archives at Columbia is pleased to open for researcher use the Sheila Michael Civil Rights Organizational Oral History Collection. Here archives assistant Keri Kelly reflects on notable themes from her close work with the collection.

The history of the Civil Rights Movement is often narrated through its most salient events and heroic figures like the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. The Sheila Michaels Civil Rights Organization Oral History Collection offers a more democratized narration of the Movement, through interviews with the many footsoldiers who made change possible through consistent and diligent activism. This collection contains interviews with members of the Congress of Racial Equality in chapters across the country, most prominently New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and New Orleans. Many interviewees also belong to offshoot organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes, and some belong to a predecessor organization to CORE, Fellowship of Reconciliation. It also includes interviews with leaders of these organizations such as Percy Green, founder of ACTION, Marvin Rich, Community Relations Director for National CORE, James Robinson, co-founder of Chicago CORE, Charles Oldham, longtime Chairman of National CORE, and many more.

The main goals of CORE in the 1950s through the mid-1960s were voter registration and the integration of public establishments like restaurants and buses. The fight for integration was grueling. Supreme Court rulings like Morgan v. Virginia, Boynton v. Virginia, and Brown v. The Board of Education did not guarantee the enforcement of integration in all 50 states. CORE made it their mission to verify that the federal laws were being upheld, particularly in Southern states.

Joanne Plummer was the Executive Director of New York CORE in the early 1960s, and she was part of the investigative group for the Freedom Highways project. They were an integrated group of CORE staffers who visited nearly every Howard Johnson’s motel on the national interstate highway from Washington D.C. to Miami to gather reconnaissance for later targeted integration actions like sit-ins.

We had a lot of complaints that, “I can’t get into this Howard Johnson’s, and we’re a Black family.”… So our job was to investigate what the true situation was. And it was only Howard Johnson’s because if we could crack Howard Johnson’s then everybody else would follow…So the instructions to us were, “Make no waves. Don’t be conspicuous. Don’t make scenes.” Go into the Howard Johnson’s and see what we could get. Now, if they let us go in and sit down at the table together, Travis and Bob and I as an integrated group, that was one thing. Once we were seated at the table, could Travis go into the bathroom? Once we were seated, if we were seated in a special section of the dining room, would they serve us a full meal? Could we only have coffee and take it out? In other words, they wouldn’t seat us at all, but they would give us something to take out. We could buy anything we want and take it out with us, or would they offer to feed us in the kitchen?


This collection illuminates the difficult lifestyles CORE staffers led; constantly traveling across the U.S. to protest wherever they were needed, living off donations and strangers’ kindnesses, being beaten, jailed, and hunger striking.

Bradford Lyttle was a member of Chicago CORE in the 1940s and 1950s. He discusses his experience on the Quebec to Guantanamo Walk for Peace [PDF] which sought to integrate the towns it passed through and protest against the Cuban embargoes. While traveling through Albany, Georgia which was under the control of police chief  Laurie Pritchett, the group was jailed and decided to go on a hunger strike, which lasted for months.

Chief Pritchett was a very well-educated man…He said that “Martin Luther came down here with 1,500 demonstrators, and we put them in jail, and we kept them there. They eventually paid us their fines of about $100,000, and they went home, and that’s what’s going to happen to you.” He told us that upfront, and so we had a little discussion amongst ourselves, and we said, “If we’re going to do anything in this city, we have to up the ante a bit,” so we decided to fast. “If you arrest us, we’ll fast,” so that’s what happened. He arrested us, picked us up, and put us in paddy wagons, took us all, and put us in Albany jail where we didn’t eat. We were brutalized initially, but after a week or so or two weeks, nobody eating or very few people eating, Pritchett called me out. I was the coordinator of the project. He said, “Look, Lyttle.” He said, “How long—how much are you people going to fast?” I said, “Well, people here don’t like racial discrimination, Chief,” and I said, “they might fast a long time.” He said, “Will they die?” and I said, “Well, some of these people don’t like racial discrimination so much that I think they would die to oppose it.”

The Michaels collection also explores the social politics of the Civil Rights Movement from the prevalent “party culture” within CORE activists circles and the ethics of enjoying activism to the intra-Movement squabbles and ideological disagreements that became more common and intense in the late 1960s as the Movement was losing steam.

Mimi Feingold-Real, Patricia Jordan, Judith Mohr Hochberg, and Jean Wiley all discuss their feelings that white activists were being pushed out of CORE in the late 1960s with the onset of the Black Power Movement.

Patricia Jordan shares a disturbing story of a physical altercation with a fellow St. Louis CORE staff member.

I had one guy beat me up real bad…He came in and made some kind of remark. And I was supposed to take it. And I answered him back…I can’t remember if it was sexist or racist, but I have a feeling it was sexist. I’m rather touchy about my place in the world. I do not like somebody coming in and browbeat me and try to tell me where I belong. And yes, I think he also was saying I didn’t belong there because I was white, too. But somehow we come to blows. 

Val Coleman began working with CORE in 1960, and was one of the last white staff members to leave in 1968 before CORE shifted its objectives and mission. He discusses the tension that arose when National CORE was attempting to choose a successor to Jim Farmer as chairman.

So anyway, right below the surface was this bubbling force of thing—in CORE it took the form of a terrible, factional struggle over who was to be the next national chairman. And that issue, and the issue was whether or not it was to be Alan Gartner, a white man from Boston, or Floyd McKissick, a Black man from North Carolina.

Coleman also describes how the Civil Rights Movement’s momentum fizzled out after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because the larger American public assumed the objective was accomplished, and how CORE, as it operated during the Movement, finally dissolved in the late 1960s. Coleman also alludes to the nation’s pivot towards conservatism in the following years, and suggests it might have been a backlash against the democratic efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.

Pick out some goals. Legislative goals, whatever, you know. Go get those and get them within three to five years, because that’s all America has; it’s the attention span of American social movements. It’s always true. It’s always been true. So by ’66 we were out of the game. We were simply off the board. And a matter of fact, the truth is, right after the Kansas City convention, after the passage of the Voter Rights Act in ’65, not the Kansas City—the Voter Rights Act of ’65, the game was up…Because somehow everybody thought, well, they got what they want. That’s it now. You know. So the temperament changed and that’s when the backlash began.

He also comments on a fire that severely damaged the 135th Street location of CORE around 1968.

Well, CORE was defunct, literally went out of business. And [Roy Innis] simply picked up the name and moved into the office on 135th Street and then, as far as I know, burned it down. Because there was a fire and it was a terrible fire because it destroyed, among other things, a trans-file of mine, which contained a lot of very valuable archival material. 

The Sheila Michaels Civil Rights Organization Oral History Collection is a pertinent resource for anyone seeking an understanding of how social movements operate in American society, the efficacy and shortcomings of the frameworks and strategies of past Civil Rights organizations, or the intimate, day-to-day realities of activists in the Civil Rights Movement.

Keri Kelly is a recent graduate of Columbia College with a BA in creative writing. She worked as an archives assistant at the Oral History Archives at Columbia, and was part of the team that processed the Sheila Michaels Civil Rights Organization Oral History Collection. 

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