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CORE's Route 40 Project: Maryland campaign for desegregation and U.S. Civil Rights, 1961
In 1960 and 1961, the Washington, D.C., area experienced an increase in diplomatic representatives from Africa, causing tension and emphasizing the issue of segregation in the area. Visiting African diplomats were exposed to segregation in many restaurants, facilities, and other public accommodations, particularly along Route 40 - a primary means of travel between the embassies in Washington D.C. and the United Nations headquarters in New York - where nearly all of the restaurants and facilities were only open to white customers. African dignitaries were turned away from these establishments, despite the diplomatic license plates and insignia on their cars.
Rather embarrassed by the situation, the Kennedy Administration began to pressure restaurants and gas stations along Route 40 to serve African diplomats. There was going to be an announcement of a new policy penalizing establishments that refused service to dark-skinned foreign diplomats; however, the announcement was canceled with the realization that black citizens would be unhappy with this distinction and preferential treatment. Indeed, news of the situation was met with dissent from the black population, who thought it unjust for segregated facilities to serve African diplomats, but not American-born black citizens. A number of black students from nearby colleges dressed in traditional African garb, posing as diplomats, and were served.
Aware of the growing displeasure with the situation, and still struggling with the fact that many diplomats were being refused service, the Federal Government pressured the Maryland legislature to desegregate the commonly traveled reads between D.C. and New York. The Maryland legislature resisted, which encouraged the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to begin a campaign to compliment the Federal efforts to desegregate Route 40.
CORE had been recently working on the Freedom Riders campaigns, and through a combination of the success from those efforts and the publicity gathered by the Route 40 situation, the group had little trouble gathering volunteers for sit-ins along the Route, from Baltimore, MD to Wilmington, DE. CORE rapidly gained partners, eventually ending up with such groups as Baltimore's Civic Interest Group (CIG), the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) from Howard University, the Northern Student Movement, and the NAACP. More student groups, including Brandeis, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, New York University, and Johns Hopkins, joined the effort.
In addition to a number of sit-ins, in mid-October of 1961, CORE announced its intent to organize a massive Freedom Ride up Route 40, to occur on November 11th. The ride would have involved a series of "tests" - during which biracial groups would fill every seat and wait to be served - and protests at individual restaurants. Meanwhile, the State Department and other groups worked behind the scenes and attempted to persuade the establishments to desegregate voluntarily.
The sit-in groups were well organized and ready to move out when word came that the protest had been suspended - they had already won.
As of November 8th, forty-seven restaurants along Route 40 (thirty-five in Maryland and twelve in Deleware) had already agreed to desegregate - approximately half of the target establishments along the route. CORE officials declared a partial victory and commended the newly-integrated restaurants. Furthermore, they issued a warning that sit-ins and checks would continue; both to be sure integration was maintained in restaurants in which it had been established and to encourage the desegregation of restaurants in which it had not.
It is worth noting that the organization efforts put into the protest did not go to waste. Meeting as scheduled at Howard University, the Freedom Riders instead focused their efforts on the city of Baltimore, conducting a massive sit-in and picket demonstration there marking the beginning of a campaign to desegregate the city, which bore a resemblance to locations further south.
With about half of the restaurants and other establishments still segregated, The Route 40 Project was far from over, and the sit-ins would continue for quite some time. However, the project was ultimately successful and inspired many similar campaigns such as the Eastern Shore Project, which expanded the desegregation effort further along the coast, and the Freedom Highways campaigns, which pushed the Route 40 efforts further into the South, along US-1 and into Virginia and North Carolina. The success of the Route 40 campaign encouraged the leaders of the civil rights movements to continue and expand their efforts, and inspired confidence in all participants that a brighter future was within reach.