CORE's Floyd McKissick

May 09, 1991

Today's school children may read of Floyd McKissick or learn about the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) from history books. But during the turbulent 1960s, Mr. McKissick was a daily news event. Time and again, he raised hackles with speeches, led charged-up demonstrators or found new ways to challenge the restrictions of separate and unequal status for blacks.

Mr. McKissick, 69, died April 28. At the height of his influence, during the chaotic days of Vietnam war protests, few of his opponents knew he had won a Purple Heart during World War II. He attended North Carolina College, then, represented by Thurgood Marshall, sued to become the first black student at the University of North Carolina law school. Just after he passed the bar exam, Mr. McKissick went on the attack again.

As legal counsel to CORE, Mr. McKissick criss-crossed the South, bringing a fiery passion to the Freedom Rides that eventually desegregated 120 interstate bus terminals. More moderate leaders wanted a cooling-off period, but CORE refused.

In 1966, as CORE executive director, ex-GI McKissick denounced the Southeast Asia war, saying blacks were "going over to Vietnam and dying for something that they don't have a right for here."

It was not only President Johnson who was discomfited by his style. In 1967, he rebuffed Martin Luther King's call for massive demonstrations in the North, saying CORE would focus instead on helping blacks gain political and economic power. He then joined a project to help the poor.

Mr. McKissick, appointed a district judge by North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin in 1990, was unable to accomplish his dream of building a new city of black entrepreneurs under the Nixon administration's New Communities Act programs. People like Floyd McKissick, cast into the crucible of historic change, rarely do accomplish all they set out to do. Without them, however, this would be a much meaner, less open society. That's a mighty big accomplishment to have as an epitaph.

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