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Fri, 12.08.1916

Bernice Fisher, Union Activist born

Bernice Fisher

*On this date, in 1916, Elsie Bernice Fisher was born.  She was a white-American activist and union organizer.  From Rochester, N.Y., Fisher's father was Jay Merritt Fisher; her mother was Annie Rosetta (Morrison) Fisher.

She graduated from Monroe High School in Rochester in 1934. She studied at the Rochester Collegiate Center from 1935 to 1936.  Fisher attended Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y., from 1939 to 1941.  Fisher graduated from the University of Chicago on June 18, 1943, with a major area of Divinity.  As an activist, Fisher headed a cell with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in Chicago to concentrate on race relations.  Bayard Rustin was a campus traveler for the Fellowship of Reconciliation; he worked with and advised the founders. This small cell gave the people the beginnings of her tireless work to establish the Committee on Racial Equality.

Soon the founders, including Fisher, changed the name to Congress of Racial Equality CORE.  The founding members of CORE were James L. Farmer, Jr., Bernice Fisher, George Houser, Homer A. Jack, James Russell Robinson, and Joe Guinn.  In addition to his Chicago activities, Farmer traveled the country with and spoke about the national vision for CORE. He said Fisher was the nuts and bolts person for CORE in Chicago and later St. Louis.   Fisher has been called the "godmother of the restaurant 'sit-in' technique"   In 1942, CORE's six founders followed the nonviolent organizing techniques outlined in Krishnalal Shridharani's War Without Violence. This was a codification of Gandhi’s techniques.  Based on Gandhi's teachings, Fisher made a list of rules to follow at demonstrations, that was distributed as a handbill at some demonstrations.

Following Gandhi's first rule of involving the community and finding its priorities, this first group of Fishers concentrated on integrating housing, repealing laws against integrating neighborhoods in Chicago, and integrating restaurants and amusement venues in Chicago.  News of CORE's work spread, and others followed their lead. In 1943, shortly after the first CORE sit-ins, a group of seventeen young women at Howard University in Washington, DC began an unpublicized sit-in at a luncheonette in the Howard neighborhood. They had become acquainted with CORE through Fellowship of Reconciliation Campus Travelers Rustin and Farmer.

The group at Howard included Ruth Powell, Marianne Musgrave, Patricia Roberts, & Juanita Morrow Nelson, and they were represented by Pauli Murray, who was then in Howard Law School.  Fisher became an organizer of department store workers in Chicago. During World War II, wages were frozen by government order, but inflation was rampant despite a freeze on prices. Working conditions for department store employees were onerous: women were not allowed to sit at work, they had no regular breaks, wages were low, and the stores were understaffed. Better pay for women was available in the industry for those who were free to take advantage of the opportunity.

Harold Gibbons of the Teamsters brought Fisher to St. Louis, one of the most progressive labor leaders in America at the time. Gibbons had hired Ernest Calloway, an African American organizer, who would work in the segregated mid-South for the Teamsters. He hired Fisher on the recommendation of Calloway, who had been impressed by her work in Chicago. During her years in St. Louis, Fisher organized that city's chapter of CORE, which produced many of the organization's national leaders. St. Louis CORE kept the national organization going in the late 1940s and the 1950s. They refined many of the techniques promoted by the Chicago group.  St. Louis CORE became a leading exponent of nonviolent direct action as applied to race relations.   

During the last ten years of her life, Fisher was active with the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. She was Co-Chairman with Cyprian Belle Concord of the Social Action Committee created by the Concord Baptist Church.  Fisher lived most of her adult life in New York, St. Louis, and Chicago. She participated in many civil-rights nonviolent direct-action activities and labor union anti-discrimination efforts in those cities. She was long associated with the labor movement and served as an official with several unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, Retail Wholesale and Department Stores Union, CIO; the Government and Civic Organizing Committee in Chicago; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers in New York, and others. She had also been active with the Housing Conference of Chicago. She also served on the executive board of Brooklyn NAACP and the National Board of the Workers Defense League. Elise Bernice Fisher died on May 2, 1966. She is buried at The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y.    



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