Making a movement: The meaning of community in the Congress of Racial Equality, 1958-1968

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


Civil rights, Social movements, Community, Congress of Racial Equality

Subject Categories

History | Sociology


Until recently, scholarship on the civil rights movement concentrated on national organizations, prominent leaders, events of national significance, federal legislation and judicial victories. In the past decade, many scholars have agreed that this literature fails to reflect the thousands of individuals who peopled the black freedom struggle. Scholars issued a call and repeated it often: historians need to investigate the history of local communities and grassroots organizations. Each investigation into the struggle for black equality from a local perspective contributes another building block to achieving a more complete understanding of the twentieth century fight against racism. Historians have studied local people through grassroots organizations and community-wide battles against racism, but they largely ignore the individuals who fought racial discrimination in their own communities through the local chapters of national civil rights organizations.

Making a Movement: The Meaning of Community in the Congress of Racial Equality, 1958-1968 closely examines the experience of the local people who joined the New Orleans and Washington, D.C. chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to try to eradicate racism in their own lives. Their efforts not only combatted racial discrimination, but forged these individuals into a community of activists. Community members shared values, principles, motivations, goals, emotions and backgrounds; community united them and enabled the membership to fight racism not as individuals but as a powerful group.

Studying the Congress of Racial Equality through two of its chapters not only documents the lives of these little-known people, but challenges our overall assumptions about CORE and the civil rights movement in general. Contrary to our present assumptions about the struggle for black equality, the story of the New Orleans and Washington CORE chapters illustrates the close interrelationship between local and national civil rights activity, the absence of ideological differences as a significant factor in community conflict and the shift from nonviolent direct action to the organization of ghetto communities as an important factor in the affiliates' demise. Historians need to pursue these new areas of inquiry as they research additional CORE chapters and the affiliates of other national civil rights organizations.


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