The help-wanted ad in a local paper said the job was working for a national fundraiser. It was right up Phil Cooper’s alley. After several decades at a major corporation, he was given a severance package and a decent pension in 2000. But he still needed to work to make ends meet. So last April he went to the third floor at 817 Broadway and filled out an application. The ad didn’t say so, and Cooper (not his real name) didn’t realize he was applying for a job at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), run by Roy Innis, the controversial Republican who recently called for the Justice Department to investigate mosques attended by African Americans for potential terrorist recruitment.
“I didn’t know CORE was in the fundraising business,” says Cooper, who as a young man marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in New York City. At a preliminary interview, he was told they were fundraising for Project Independence, “a welfare reform program.”
Cooper was offered a job on the spot. On his first day, he was handed a written pitch from which he was to work. “There was a coach, Reuben Rivers,” recalls Cooper, “and a portable box in everyone’s cubicle so that Rivers could pick up and listen to the call. It was very confusing at times, because we had to stop listening to the person on the phone and listen to him.” Rivers, he says, was making sure each telemarketer in CORE’s cramped “boiler room” was sticking to the script.
“This is (Name of Caller) with the Equal Opportunity Affairs Department of CORE. Who is the owner or president there now?” Once the person on the other end, usually a secretary, asked the subject of the call, the CORE operative replied, “The matter of which I am calling is of a very sensitive nature and I am not at liberty to go into detail with anyone but the owner or president. May I have his name so I may address him properly please.”
“Some people cut us off at the pass,” says Cooper. “They ended the call. They didn’t want to be bothered. But for those who stayed on the line, we were told to say this was a civic matter. A lot of people interpreted civic for civil and thought it was a legal matter.” The script gave 10 solicitation avenues, called rebuttals.
If someone said they had a committee or a board of directors that reviewed requests for money, rebuttal A was used: “We’re asking you to make a decision not from your company policy but form [sic] your heart. Those in need don’t know about boards, committees, or company policies. They depend upon people like you and me who are concerned enough about them to make decisions . . . So will you support CORE with the __ dollars? The procedure is, first we send you a pledge invoice and our letter of thanks, and of course, your beautiful patron membership certificate, OK ?”
While some of the rebuttals seem more pathetic than coercive, the $495 “patron membership pitch” is much more cynical. “The reason for the call is, we’re setting up CORE’s annual patron membership drive, and I want to bring you up to date about your status with CORE . . . OK? I’ll tell you what’s happened here. Our people in the field receive recommendations, as well as complaints about the fair hiring practices and attitudes of companies in many areas across the country. I’m happy to report that we have received no complaints about you or your company. We hope this means that you’re in full compliance in letter, but most importantly, in spirit.“
“I construed it as a racial hustle,” says Cooper, who lasted five months. “I considered it a professional hustle.” The firms called were from a list supplied by Dun & Bradstreet, which received a nominal fee for each telephone number. “They don’t know and they don’t care,” says Cooper. And he’s not alone. Alfred Mohammed’s tenure was only two months, but he deemed the hiring-practices lines a ruse. “They were using the race card to hustle money from people.”
Ethical or moral questions at CORE have been raised as far back as 1976, when the state received complaints that CORE was browbeating companies into donations. In 1981, the state accused CORE of illegal fundraising practices, questioning the way the group represented itself. Under a settlement agreement, Innis, CORE’s chairman, admitted no wrongdoing, but had to pay $35,000 to CORE out of his own funds. Innis charged racism.
While Innis professes that CORE maintains community projects, on closer scrutiny these often turn out to be nothing more than paper programs. He has never seemed to care much about public criticism. In 1977, in response to complaints from former CORE leaders, he told The Washington Post: “These guys are bitter. They will use whatever means are at their command to destroy us.”
Still, James Farmer, who founded CORE in 1942, told New York Newsday 10 years ago, “CORE has no functioning chapters; it holds no conventions, no elections, no meetings, sets no policies, has no social programs and does no fund-raising. In my opinion, CORE is fraudulent.”
But Project Independence, a job-training program, does in fact exist. Some of its graduates have appeared with President George W. Bush at the White House. “We’re very proud of it. We talk about our program a lot,” said Angelique Beverly, listed as a contributing editor to Corelator, CORE’s official organ. But Beverly wavered when pressed with questions concerning numbers of graduates, the program costs, and how CORE funds this and five other programs, including a legal-defense fund and an anti-drug task force.
“There are many people who you could talk to . . . anyway, I will pass on your information. The Village Voice is not our friend. But that doesn’t mean he [Innis] won’t talk to you.” Innis never did return any calls.
He straddles a contradiction, which allows him to operate with impunity. Opposed to affirmative action, busing, and gun control, and a critic of “race mongers” such as presidential candidate Reverend Al Sharpton, Innis is at the head of the post-race movement. “My brand of conservatism is the traditional, most decent and rational expression of the American personality,” Innis told The New York Times in 1996. But when he or CORE is challenged, Innis is the first to howl racism.
Since taking the helm in 1968, Innis, once a registered Democrat, has steered CORE to the right, making occasional detours into ideological lunacy such as befriending Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He ended the group’s integrationist tradition, turning it into an operation that gives aid and comfort to those who want to see the civil rights gains of the last 40 years erased. Ironically, it was Innis’s plan to get economic investment from Arab states in the late 1970s that might have brought scrutiny from governmental agencies, and a shout of “conspiracy” from Innis.
In its glory days, CORE was part of the big three civil right organizations, along with the NAACP and the Urban League. But it is now a specter of its former self, run as a fiefdom by Innis. In the 1980s, he had a few televised physical dust-ups with white supremacist Tom Metzger and with Sharpton. Last December, Innis defended Senator Trent Lott, saying that Lott was not racist, even though his praise of the good old segregationist days cost him the Senate majority leadership.
For the most part, though, Innis keeps a low profile, allowing his son and apparent successor, Niger, to take the spotlight. Cooper said he rarely saw Innis, but the more he toiled for the organization, the more debased he felt. “My conscience didn’t allow me to stay there,” says Cooper. “I realized I was working for a guy who was working against the interest of African Americans.”