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Farmer, James

James Farmer

1920-1999

Civil rights leader, union organizer

As national director of the Congress of Racial Equality during the 1960s, James Farmer was one of the four most influential leaders of the civil rights movement throughout its most turbulent decade. The Big Four, as these top leaders of the civil rights movement were known, included Farmer, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Whitney Young of the Urban League, and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Farmer was a pioneer in the use of nonviolent direct action as a tactic for fighting racial discrimination, and in developing the philosophy underlying the tactics; he was on the front lines of the battle against segregation and the struggle to expand economic and educational opportunities for blacks; he helped develop the concept of affirmative action and was one of the first blacks to serve in a high-ranking government position.

Education Formed Nonviolent Principles

Farmer was born in Texas, the grandson of a slave and the son of the first black Ph.D. in the state. His father, an ordained minister, served for most of his career as campus chaplain and professor of philosophy and religion at various small black Methodist colleges. Though the campus atmosphere in which Farmer grew up was in many ways insulated from the outside world, he encountered racism at an early age, as he recalled in his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart. He remembered walking home from town with his mother on a hot day, wanting a Coke, and seeing another boy enter a drugstore to buy a soft drink. His mother explained that the other boy could have a Coke in the drugstore because he was white; James could not because he was black. Though Farmer was only three years old at the time of the incident, it stuck with him, recurring as a dream well into his adult years.

Farmer entered first grade at the age of four. He was a precocious student and at 14 was a freshman at Wiley College. His academic interests ranged from literature to philosophy, from science to theater. He majored in chemistry with the intention of being a doctor, but a minor lab accident revealed that he became ill at the sight of blood. Casting about for a new career direction, he found the answer in his growing concern with the problem of racial inequality. He decided to enter the ministry, to use that profession as a base to work for social change. "It did not occur to me," he wrote in his autobiography, "that in the civil rights struggle I would see more blood than I ever would have seen in a doctor's office or a hospital operating room."

In the fall of 1938, Farmer began studying religion at Howard University, "the black Athens." Howard was the seat of the finest black scholarship of the day, with such noted professors as Ralph Bunche in political science, Carter G. Woodson in history, and in religion, Howard Thurman, who became Farmer's mentor. Thurman introduced Farmer to the ideas of Indian spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent campaign to free India from British rule was then at its height. Thurman also helped Farmer get a part-time job with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that advocated nonviolence and social change. Farmer's other mentor, critic and historian V. F. Calverton, introduced him to the socialism of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Farmer worked for Thomas's campaign when he ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1940 on an antiwar, prolabor, antisegregation platform. At the same time he continued working to recruit for FOR's antiwar efforts. "I had already ventured onto the periphery of American politics," he wrote in Lay Bare the Heart.

As his graduation from Howard drew near, Farmer found himself increasingly ambivalent about becoming a minister. In his graduate thesis, he explored the relationship between religion and racism, in particular the ways in which Protestant theology had been used to justify slavery and segregation. At the same time, the northern and southern factions of the Methodist Church were healing their Civil War-era split by merging into one body, which was to remain segregated. He decided not to be ordained, but to continue working for FOR and to develop plans for a mass movement against racism based on Gandhian principles.

Pioneered First American Nonviolent Activism

While living in a small apartment in Chicago and working as race relations secretary of FOR, Farmer began to write his "Provisional Plan for Brotherhood Mobilization." The movement he envisioned was to have a religious, though nondenominational base. Though not to be a movement strictly of pacifists, it was to be founded on the principles of Gandhian nonviolence and use the tactics of boycotts, non-cooperation, picketing, demonstrations, and civil disobedience to achieve its goals. It would join people of all races and faiths in a disciplined, cooperative community devoted to the total dissolution of racial discrimination in America.

At a Glance …

Born January 12, 1920, in Marshall, TX; died on July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, VA; son of James Leonard (a college professor) and Pearl Marion (Houston) Farmer; married Winnie Christie, 1945 (divorced, 1946); married Lula A. Peterson, May 21, 1949 (died May, 1977); children (second marriage): Tami, Abbey. Education: Wiley College, BS, 1938; Howard University, BD, 1941.

Career: Fellowship of Reconciliation (pacifist organization), Chicago, IL, race relations secretary, 1941-45; Congress of Racial Equality (originally known as Committee of Racial Equality, then National Federation of Committees of Racial Equality), national chairman, 1942-44, national director, 1961-66; Upholsterers International Union of North America, organizer, 1945-47; lecturer on race and labor problems, 1948-50; League for Industrial Democracy, student field secretary, 1950-1954; State, County, and Municipal Employees Union, international representative, 1954-59; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), program director, 1959-61; Center for Community Action Education, president, 1965-66; Lincoln University, professor of social welfare, 1966-68; U.S. Government, Washington, D.C., assistant secretary for administration, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1969-1970; Council on Minority Planning and Strategy, president, 1973-76; Coalition of American Public Employees, president, 1977-82; Antioch College, visiting professor, 1983-84; Mary Washington College, distinguished professor, 1985-1998. Served on the boards of directors of organizations such as Friends of the Earth, American Civil Liberties Union, Black World Foundation, American Committee on Africa, and New Start.

Awards: American Veterans Committee Award, 1962; John Dewey Award from League for Industrial Democracy, 1962; Omega Psi Phi Award, 1962 and 1963; Black Image Awards, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1997; New York ACLU, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1998; numerous honorary doctoral degrees.

While he developed his plans, Farmer and his friends began organizing in their own Chicago neighborhood. Though Illinois had civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in many situations, a local restaurant refused to serve Farmer when he stopped in for coffee with a white friend. After a series of encounters with the restaurant management, Farmer and his friends organized the first civil rights sit-in. He described the scene in his book Freedom—When?, "About twenty-five people, all pledged to the discipline of non-violence, entered the restaurant at dinnertime and quietly seated themselves at the counter and in the booths. Several of the white people were served without question; the Negroes were told that they would be served only in the basement. After a few minutes the manager realized that none of the white people had touched their food. They explained that they did not think it polite to eat until their friends had been served." The manager became angry and reportedly called the police to have the demonstrators ejected, but the police had been informed in advance and told the manager that the law gave no grounds for them to act. Finally, the manager served the young activists and abandoned the policy of discrimination.

During 1942 this group, now calling itself the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) undertook other actions and began attracting national attention among the civil rights community. The nonviolent direct action approach was a new one: among the established civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) relied on legal action, the Urban League on behind-the-scenes negotiation. CORE's new tactics inspired such interest that in June 1943, it was constituted as a national organization, at first called the National Federation of Committees of Racial Equality, then in 1944, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer was elected its national chairman, an unpaid position since the fledgling organization had no budget. It was also, as Farmer wrote in his autobiography, "small, Northern, middle-class, elitist, idealistic, and predominantly white."

In the following years, Farmer's connection with CORE was irregular. He gave up the leadership of the organization because of the demands of his other jobs, first working for FOR in New York City, then as a labor organizer. He kept his contacts with CORE and was regarded as an elder statesman in the organization, but CORE, like the rest of the civil rights movement, was largely dormant until the mid-1950s.

The movement exploded in 1956 with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott; Farmer saw his dream of a nonviolent mass movement against racism becoming reality, though he was not leading it. Still, he was known as one of the authorities on Gandhian tactics, and in 1959 he was asked to join the staff of the NAACP to help develop direct action programs. Rivalries within the movement crippled his efforts, since the other staffers regarded him as an outsider and blocked his endeavors. Direct action had never been the NAACP's forte, and it was for that reason that when four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, began a sit-in at the local Woolworth's lunch counter, the local NAACP chairman suggested they contact CORE for help. As sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience spread across the South, CORE found itself on the front lines of the struggle.

Planned Freedom Rides

Throughout the 1950s, CORE's national directors were white; the National Action Council and the staff, most of whom were also white, decided that it was essential to have a black leader and spokesperson. Farmer was offered the job and accepted it early in 1961. Almost immediately, he and his staff began planning what remains one of the most famous and dramatic direct action campaigns in the history of the civil rights movement: the Freedom Rides.

Though discrimination in interstate transportation had been declared unconstitutional in 1946, African-Americans riding buses in the South were still forced to sit in the rear seats, and southern bus stations had segregated waiting rooms. CORE decided to send a racially mixed group on a trip through seven southern states, challenging segregation wherever they encountered it. Farmer and twelve others set out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. They passed through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia with only minor incidents; Farmer received word of his father's death and left the group just before they entered Alabama, where several riders were severely beaten and their bus was firebombed. The photograph of the burning bus made front pages around the world, and hundreds of people volunteered to join the campaign; over three hundred were quickly trained in the tactics of nonviolence and sent on buses through Alabama and Mississippi, where most of them were arrested. Farmer himself served time at Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi, and so many CORE activists were jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, that they cost the city over a million dollars. The Freedom Ride was successful: in September, at the request of U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to segregation in buses and facilities used in interstate travel.

The Freedom Ride carried the civil rights struggle to a new level of intensity, and, Farmer wrote, "helped clarify the role of creative conflict and tension in non-violent struggle. We learned through brute experience what every student of social change knows as a matter of principle: that no such entrenched order as our national system of segregation ever gives way without conflict." CORE, along with other action groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were at the heart of that conflict. As an Urban League official quoted by Farmer in his autobiography had remarked, "The Urban League is the State Department of civil rights; the NAACP is the War Department; and CORE is the marines." In that role, CORE took casualties: three young CORE workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and many others were assaulted throughout the South. Farmer received numerous death threats and was once trapped inside a funeral home in Plaquemine, Louisiana, by a mob that included many state troopers and was clearly intent on killing him. He escaped by being smuggled out in the back of a hearse.

Farmer was in jail in Plaquemine at the time of the 1963 march on Washington; he refused to pull rank and be bailed out while other CORE workers remained in jail. Instead, he sent an oft-quoted letter, which was first read at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28. "We are fighting not only for our rights and our freedom," he wrote, "we are fighting not only to make our nation safe for the democracy it preaches, we are fighting also to give our whole world a fighting chance for survival….

2Some of us may die…but our war is for life, not for death and we will not stop our demands for freedom now…. We will not stop until the heavy weight of centuries of oppression is removed from our backs and like proud men everywhere we can stand tall together again."

Struggled as Movement Splintered

As the struggle intensified, so did conflict within the movement. The major division was between CORE's traditional, liberal wing of the movement and the growing black-nationalist tendency, represented by Malcolm X, advocating the unification of people of African heritage. Though Farmer never subscribed to the separatist doctrine of the nationalist philosophy, he had a closer relationship with Malcolm X than did other civil rights leaders and admitted he was influenced by Malcolm's ideas, especially the "message of self-pride and self love." In Freedom—When? Farmer wrote, "We learned that America couldn't simply be colorblind. It would have to become color-blind and it would only become color-blind when we gave up our color. The white man, who presumably has no color, would only have to give up his prejudices. We would have to give up our identities…. And all this we were asked to do, and asked ourselves to do, at the very moment when the movement was teaching us to love ourselves."

There was also conflict between the various civil rights organizations and their leaders, as they found themselves competing for money, members, and media attention. "Civil rights generalship," Farmer wrote in Freedom—When?, "was one-fourth leadership, one-fourth showmanship, one-fourth one-upsmanship, and one-fourth partnership." By 1965, he lamented, "The sweet smell of our victories was being dissolved in the bitter taste of internal snipings and power plays." Farmer faced opposition within CORE as well as differences with other organizations. He also had seen the deterioration of his relationship with U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, which had once been close. Farmer decided to resign from CORE to head a new, federally funded literacy program that had been his brainchild, but the president blocked funding for the program to punish Farmer for his opposition to the Vietnam War. In early 1966, Farmer found himself unemployed and largely disconnected from the movement he had helped to start.

Farmer taught social welfare courses at Lincoln University for the next two years, then decided to enter politics. The Liberal Party of New York nominated him in the newly established twelfth district in Brooklyn. Farmer also sought to enter the Democratic primary, since New York law permits candidates to be nominated by more then one party, but the Democrats turned him down. Ironically, he was then endorsed by the Republicans, who hoped he would at least make a decent showing against the Democratic nominee, Shirley Chisholm. Farmer lost by a five-to-two margin, giving him, as he noted in his autobiography, "a most unique distinction: I was the first black man in U.S. history to be defeated by a black woman in a congressional race."

Though Farmer had run on the Republican ticket, he was not a Republican and had endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election. It came as a surprise, therefore, when he was offered a high-ranking job under President Richard Nixon's administration. After some hesitation, Farmer accepted the post of assistant secretary for administration in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). In that position he implemented affirmative action hiring and promotion policies at HEW and strengthened the Head Start program, rescuing it from sabotage attempts by southern politicians. However, he found moral leadership lacking in the administration—and found himself opposed to many of its policies. In 1970 he resigned.

Recorded Own Legacy

Farmer shifted his career toward teaching. He lectured, taught, and worked in various capacities on minority, labor, and senior citizens issues in various colleges and universities. Though as a teacher he was not as prominent as he had been in the 1960s, he continued to work for social justice. His 15-year tenure teaching history and American Studies at the Mary Washington College brought him the honor of retiring as a distinguished professor in 1998.

Farmer's legacy, however, remained his civil rights work. His 1985 autobiography Lay Bare the Heart detailed his struggles and was published to many enthusiastic reviews, including one in the New Yorker that called it "powerful, passionate, and candid," and noted: "Legitimately proud of the achievements of the civil rights movement, Mr. Farmer never exaggerates—and very likely underestimates—his own importance in it."

Lay Bare the Heart sums up Farmer's own contribution to the civil rights movement: "Like all who have fought to cleanse this nation, I have helped to pave the roads on which America's black children walk toward new vistas that I shared in shaping…. If I am one of their fathers, I am also one of the children of the many fathers and mothers who went before them…. Life was tenuous in movement days, but the grasping at liberty, and the reaching toward happiness ennobled life for this nation." Farmer's own contributions to the nation were honored in 1998 by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Saying "Humanity makes progress through decades of sweat and toil by dedicated individuals who give freely of themselves and who inspire others to do the same," Clinton bestowed the country's highest honor on Farmer and 15 others.

Farmer died on July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, after many years of declining health. He had lost his sight and both legs to diabetes. Obituaries hailed his achievements, but Farmer himself had already detailed how he wanted to be remembered to Washington Post reporter Courtland Milloy in 1997: "I would like for it to be known that I founded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, organized the Freedom Rides in 1961 and attempted to bring Gandhian techniques of nonviolence to the struggle for racial equality in this country." And so he will be.

Selected writings

Books

Freedom—When?, Random House, 1965.

Lay Bare the Heart, Arbor House, 1985.

Sources

Books

The Afro-American Encyclopedia, Educational Book Publishers, 1974.

Farmer, James, Freedom—When?, Random House, 1965.

Farmer, James, Lay Bare the Heart, Arbor House, 1985.

Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, editors, The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African American, 5th edition, Gale, 1989.

Periodicals

Ebony, April 1985.

Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), July 13, 1999, p. A10.

Jet, November 10, 1997, p. 36.

New Yorker, February 25, 1985.

New York Times, March 17, 1961; July 10, 1999, p. A9.

Today's Education, September-October 1982.

Washington Post, January 16, 1998, p. B3; June 29, 1997, p. B1; July 14, 1999, p. A22.

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Farmer, James 1920–

James Farmer 1920

Civil rights leader, union organizer

At a Glance

Began to Plan Antisegregation Movement

On the Front Lines of the Struggle

Internal Organizational Conflict

Selected Writings

Sources

As national director of the Congress of Racial Equality during the 1960s, James Farmer was one of the most influential leaders of the civil rights movement throughout its most turbulent decade. He was a pioneer in the use of nonviolent direct action as a tactic for fighting racial discrimination, and in developing the philosophy underlying the tactics; he was on the front lines of the battle against segregation and the struggle to expand economic and educational opportunities for blacks; he helped develop the concept of affirmative action and was one of the first blacks to serve in a high-ranking government position.

Farmer was born in Texas, the grandson of a slave and the son of the first black Ph.D. in the state. His father, an ordained minister, served for most of his career as campus chaplain and professor of philosophy and religion at various small black Methodist colleges. Though the campus atmosphere in which Farmer grew up was in many ways insulated from the outside world, he encountered racism at an early age, as he recalled in his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart. He remembered walking home from town with his mother on a hot day, wanting a Coke, and seeing another boy enter a drugstore to buy a soft drink. His mother explained that the other boy could have a Coke in the drugstore because he was white; James could not because he was black. Though Farmer was only three years old at the time of the incident, it stuck with him, recurring as a dream well into his adult years.

Farmer entered first grade at the age of four. He was a precocious student and at fourteen was a freshman at Wiley College. His academic interests ranged from literature to philosophy, from science to theater. He majored in chemistry with the intention of being a doctor, but a minor lab accident revealed that he became ill at the sight of blood. Casting about for a new career direction, he found the answer in his growing concern with the problem of racial inequality. He decided to enter the ministry, to use that profession as a base to work for social change. It did not occur to me, he wrote in his autobiography, that in the civil rights struggle I would see more blood than I ever would have seen in a doctors office or a hospital operating room.

In the fall of 1938, Farmer began studying religion at Howard University, the black Athens. Howard was the seat of the finest black scholarship of the day, with such

At a Glance

Born January 12, 1920, in Marshall, TX; son of James Leonard (a college professor) and Pearl Marion (Houston) Farmer; married Winnie Christie, 1945 (divorced, 1946); married Lula A. Peterson, May 21, 1949 (died May, 1977); children (second marriage): Tami, Abbey. Education: Wiley College, B.S., 1938; Howard University, B.D., 1941.

Fellowship of Reconcilation (pacifistorganization), Chicago, IL, race relations secretary, 1941-45; Congress of Racial Equality (originally known as Committee of Racial Equality, then National Federation of Committees of Racial Equality), national chairman, 1942-44, national director, 1961-66; Upholsterers International Union of North America, organizer, 1945-47; lecturer on race and labor problems, 1948-50; League for Industrial Democracy, student field secretary, 1950-1954; State, County, and Municipal Employees Union, international representative, 1954-59; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), program director, 1959-61; Center for Community Action Education, president, 1965-66; Lincoln University, professor of social welfare, 1966-68; U.S. Government, Washington, DC, assistant secretary for administration, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1969-1970; Council on Minority Planning and Strategy, president, 1973-76; Coalition of American Public Employees, president, 1977-82; Antioch College, visiting professor, 1983-84; Washington College, distinguished visiting professor, 1985. Served on the boards of directors of organizations such as Friends of the Earth, American Civil Liberties Union, Black World Foundation, American Committee on Africa, and New Start.

Awards: American Veterans Committee Award, 1962; John Dewey Award from League for Industrial Democracy, 1962; Omega Psi Phi Award, 1962 and 1963; numerous honorary doctoral degrees.

noted professors as Ralph Bunche in political science, Carter G. Woodson in history, and in religion, Howard Thurman, who became Farmers mentor. Thurman introduced Farmer to the ideas of Indian spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent campaign to free India from British rule was then at its height. Thurman also helped Farmer get a part-time job with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization advocating nonviolence and social change. Farmers other mentor, critic and historian V. F. Calverton, introduced him to the socialism of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Farmer worked for Thomass campaign when he ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1940 on an antiwar, prolabor, antisegregation platform. At the same time he continued working to recruit for FORs antiwar efforts. I had already ventured onto the periphery of American politics, he wrote in Lay Bare the Heart.

Began to Plan Antisegregation Movement

As his graduation from Howard drew near, Farmer found himself increasingly ambivalent about becoming a minister. In his graduate thesis, he explored the relationship between religion and racism, in particular the ways in which Protestant theology had been used to justify slavery and segregation. At the same time, the northern and southern factions of the Methodist Church were healing their Civil War-era split by merging into one body, which was to remain segregated. He decided not to be ordained, but to continue working for FOR and to develop plans for a mass movement against racism based on Gandhian principles.

While living in a small apartment in Chicago and working as race relations secretary of FOR, Farmer began to write his Provisional Plan for Brotherhood Mobilization. The movement he envisioned was to have a religious, though nondenominational base. Though not to be a movement strictly of pacifists, it was to be founded on the principles of Gandhian nonviolence and use the tactics of boycotts, noncooperation, picketing, demonstrations, and civil disobedience to achieve its goals. It would join people of all races and faiths in a disciplined, cooperative community devoted to the total dissolution of racial discrimination in America.

While he developed his plans, Farmer and his friends began organizing in their own Chicago neighborhood. Though Illinois had civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in many situations, a local restaurant refused to serve Farmer when he stopped in for coffee with a white friend. After a series of encounters with the restaurant management, Farmer and his friends organized the first civil rights sit-in. He described the scene in his book FreedomWhen?, About twenty-five people, all pledged to the discipline of non-violence, entered the restaurant at dinnertime and quietly seated themselves at the counter and in the booths. Several of the white people were served without question; the Negroes were told that they would be served only in the basement. After a few minutes the manager realized that none of the white people had touched their food. They explained that they did not think it polite to eat until their friends had been served. The manager became angry and reportedly called the police to have the demonstrators ejected, but the police had been informed in advance and told the manager that the law gave no grounds for them to act. Finally, the manager served the young activists and abandoned the policy of discrimination.

During 1942 this group, now calling itself the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) undertook other actions and began attracting national attention among the civil rights community. The nonviolent direct action approach was a new one: among the established civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) relied on legal action, the Urban League on behind-the-scenes negotiation. COREs new tactics inspired such interest that in June 1943, it was constituted as a national organization, at first called the National Federation of Committees of Racial Equality, then in 1944, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer was elected its national chairman, an unpaid position since the fledgling organization had no budget. It was also, as Farmer wrote in his autobiography, small, Northern, middle-class, elitist, idealistic, and predominantly white.

In the following years, Farmers connection with CORE was irregular. He gave up the leadership of the organization because of the demands of his other jobs, first working for FOR in New York City, then as a labor organizer. He kept his contacts with CORE and was regarded as an elder statesman in the organization, but CORE, like the rest of the civil rights movement, was largely dormant until the mid-1950s.

On the Front Lines of the Struggle

The movement exploded in 1956 with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott; Farmer saw his dream of a nonviolent mass movement against racism becoming reality, though he was not leading it. Still, he was known as one of the authorities on Gandhian tactics, and in 1959 he was asked to join the staff of the NAACP to help develop direct action programs. Rivalries within the movement crippled his efforts, since the other staffers regarded him as an outsider and blocked his endeavors. Direct action had never been the NAACPs forte, and it was for that reason that when four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, began a sit-in at the local Woolworths lunch counter, the local NAACP chairman suggested they contact CORE for help. As sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience spread across the South, CORE found itself on the front lines of the struggle.

Throughout the 1950s, COREs national directors were white; the National Action Council and the staff, most of whom were also white, decided that it was essential to have a black leader and spokesperson. Farmer was offered the job and accepted it early in 1961. Almost immediately, he and his staff began planning what remains one of the most famous and dramatic direct action campaigns in the history of the civil rights movement: the Freedom Rides.

Though discrimination in interstate transportation had been declared unconstitutional in 1946, African-Americans riding buses in the South were still forced to sit in the rear seats, and southern bus stations had segregated waiting rooms. CORE decided to send a racially mixed group on a trip through seven southern states, challenging segregation wherever they encountered it. Farmer and twelve others set out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. They passed through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia with only minor incidents; Farmer received word of his fathers death and left the group just before they entered Alabama, where several riders were severely beaten and their bus was firebombed. The photograph of the burning bus made front pages around the world, and hundreds of people volunteered to join the campaign; over three hundred were quickly trained in the tactics of nonviolence and sent on buses through Alabama and Mississippi, where most of them were arrested. Farmer himself served time at Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi, and so many CORE activists were jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, that they cost the city over a million dollars. The Freedom Ride was successful: in September, at the request of U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered an end to segregation in buses and facilities used in interstate travel.

The Freedom Ride carried the civil rights struggle to a new level of intensity, and, Farmer wrote, helped clarify the role of creative conflict and tension in non-violent struggle. We learned through brute experience what every student of social change knows as a matter of principle: that no such entrenched order as our national system of segregation ever gives way without conflict. CORE, along with other action groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were at the heart of that conflict. As an Urban League official quoted by Farmer in his autobiography had remarked, The Urban League is the State Department of civil rights; the NAACP is the War Department; and CORE is the marines. In that role, CORE took casualties: three young CORE workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Cahney were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and many others were assaulted throughout the South. Farmer received numerous death threats and was once trapped inside a funeral home in Plaquemine, Louisiana, by a mob that included many state troopers and was clearly intent on killing him. He escaped by being smuggled out in the back of a hearse.

Farmer was in jail in Plaquemine at the time of the 1963 march on Washington; he refused to pull rank and be bailed out while other CORE workers remained in jail. Instead, he sent an often quoted letter, which was first read at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28. We are fighting not only for our rights and our freedom, he wrote, we are fighting not only to make our nation safe for the democracy it preaches, we are fighting also to give our whole world a fighting chance for survival. Some of us may die but our war is for life, not for death and we will not stop our demands for freedom now. We will not stop until the heavy weight of centuries of oppression is removed from our backs and like proud men everywhere we can stand tall together again.

Internal Organizational Conflict

As the struggle intensified, so did conflict within the movement. The major division was between COREs traditional, liberal wing of the movement and the growing black nationalist tendency, represented by Malcolm X, advocating the unification of people of African heritage. Though Farmer never subscribed to the separatist doctrine of the nationalist philosophy, he had a closer relationship with Malcolm X than did other civil rights leaders and admitted he was influenced by Malcolms ideas, especially the message of self-pride and self love. In FreedomWhen? Farmer wrote, We learned that America couldnt simply be color-blind. It would have to become color-blind and it would only become color-blind when we gave up our color. The White man, who presumably has no color, would only have to give up his prejudices. We would have to give up our identities. And all this we were asked to do, and asked ourselves to do, at the very moment when the movement was teaching us to love ourselves.

There was also conflict between the various civil rights organizations and their leaders, as they found themselves competing for money, members, and media attention. Civil rights generalship, Farmer wrote in Freedom When?, was one-fourth leadership, one-fourth showmanship, one-fourth one-upsmanship, and one-fourth partnership. By 1965, he lamented, The sweet smell of our victories was being dissolved in the bitter taste of internal snipings and power plays. Farmer faced opposition within CORE as well as differences with other organizations. He also had seen the deterioration of his relationship with U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, which had once been close. Farmer decided to resign from CORE to head a new, federally-funded literacy program which had been his brainchild, but the president blocked funding for the program to punish Farmer for his opposition to the Vietnam war. In early 1966, Farmer found himself unemployed and largely disconnected from the movement he had helped to start.

Farmer taught social welfare courses at Lincoln University for the next two years, then decided to enter politics. The Liberal Party of New York nominated him in the newly established twelfth district in Brooklyn. Farmer also sought to enter the Democratic primary, since New York law permits candidates to be nominated by more then one party, but the Democrats turned him down. Ironically, he was then endorsed by the Republicans, who hoped he would at least make a decent showing against the Democratic nominee, Shirley Chisholm. Farmer lost by a five-to-two margin, giving him, as he noted in his autobiography, a most unique distinction: I was the first black man in U.S. history to be defeated by a black woman in a congressional race.

Though Farmer had run on the Republican ticket, he was not a Republican and had endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election. It came as a surprise, therefore, when he was offered a high-ranking job under President Richard Nixons administration. After some hesitation, Farmer accepted the post of assistant secretary for administration in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). In that position he implemented affirmative action hiring and promotion policies at HEW and strengthened the Head Start program, rescuing it from sabotage attempts by southern politicians. However, he found moral leadership lacking in the administrationand found himself opposed to many of its policies. In 1970 he resigned.

Since that time Farmer has lectured, taught, and worked in various capacities on minority, labor, and senior citizens issues, though never assuming as prominent a role as he had in the 1960s. His 1985 autobiography Lay Bare the Heart was published to many enthusiastic reviews, including one in the New Yorker that called it powerful, passionate, and candid, and noted: Legitimately proud of the achievements of the civil rights movement, Mr. Farmer never exaggeratesand very likely underestimateshis own importance in it.

Lay Bare the Heart sums up Farmers own contribution to the civil rights movement: Like all who have fought to cleanse this nation, I have helped to pave the roads on which Americas black children walk toward new vistas that I shared in shaping. If I am one of their fathers, I am also one of the children of the many fathers and mothers who went before them. Life was tenuous in movement days, but the grasping at liberty, and the reaching toward happiness ennobled life for this nation. Looking to the future, Farmer noted: The tired among us must recharge our batteries. We have not finished the job of making our country whole. The late eighties and nineties must see a rebuilding of Americas black folka renaissance. Centuries of prejudice and poverty have wreaked havoc with folk of color. A new people in a renewed nation must face the new century.

Selected Writings

Freedom When?, Random House, 1965.

Lay Bare the Heart, Arbor House, 1985.

Sources

Books

The Afro-American Encyclopedia, Educational Book Publishers, 1974.

Farmer, James, Freedom When?, Random House, 1965.

Farmer, James, Lay Bare the Heart, Arbor House, 1985.

Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, editors, The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African American, 5th edition, Gale, 1989.

Periodicals

Ebony, April 1985.

New Yorker, February 25, 1985.

New York Times, March 17, 1961.

Todays Education, September-October 1982.

Tim Connor

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James Farmer

James Farmer

A Black civil rights activist, James Farmer (born 1920) helped organize the 1960s "freedom rides" which led to the desegregation of interstate buses and bus terminals. He also played a major role in the activities of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

James Farmer along with a group of University of Chicago students founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago in 1942. The purpose of this interracial group was to work for an end to racial segregation using non-violent tactics similar to those developed by Mahatma Gandhi. Farmer was the first leader of CORE but became inactive after several years. In the 1960s when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum Farmer was reelected as the director of CORE. He also was one of the group of civil rights leaders who planned the March on Washington in 1963.

Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas, in 1920. His father held a doctorate in theology from Boston University and his mother a teaching certificate from Bethune-Cookman Institute. Farmer entered Wiley College in Texas at 14 years of age with the idea of becoming a doctor. However, after he received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry he decided that he would enter the ministry. When his father joined the faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Farmer entered the School of Religion there. He graduated in 1941 but refused to work in a segregated church. He accepted a job with a pacifist group based in New York called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and was assigned to work in Chicago. From his Chicago base he visited other areas in the midwest speaking about pacifism and racial equality.

As a consequence of this work and his study and observation of the Gandhi movement he addressed several proposals to FOR leaders suggesting the formation of a committee dedicated to racial equality. It was first called the Committee of Racial Equality and, finally, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer served as national chairman of CORE from 1942 to 1944 and again in 1950. He was elected national director in 1961 and served in that position until 1966. Even during the years that Farmer was not leading CORE he remained interested in the organization's work. During the period from about 1945 to 1959 Farmer worked as a labor union organizer. For the next two years, 1960-1961, he worked as a program director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Farmer was working for the NAACP when he was called back to CORE to lead the 1961 "freedom ride." Several Supreme Court rulings led to CORE's decision to sponsor freedom rides. In 1946 the Supreme Court had ruled that racially segregated seating on interstate buses was unconstitutional, and in 1960 it declared that segregation in terminals used by interstate passengers was also unconstitutional. Yet the southern states continued to force blacks to sit in the back of the bus and to use segregated facilities. The 13 CORE freedom riders decided to travel by bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans with white members sitting in the back and black riders in the front. All of the riders were instructed to refuse to move when they were asked. They also decided that at the bus terminals the white riders would use the "for colored" facilities and the black the "for white."

The riders left from Washington, D.C., and made their historic trip without violence until they arrived in Alabama. In that state the freedom riders were attacked and beaten. Finally, the bus was burned by hostile whites. Youths who were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteered to act as replacements or reinforcements for the original 13 CORE riders. Although hundreds of riders spent weeks in Alabama prisons, new recruits continued to come forward. The conditions in the jails were almost primitive and the guards usually hostile. Although many riders continued to be attacked in other southern states, the idea of freedom rides caught on. CORE received nationwide attention, and James Farmer became well-known as a civil rights leader. The freedom ride, along with sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., captured the imagination of the nation and exposed to the world through photographs, newspaper accounts, and motion pictures the brutal retaliation of many southern whites against the actions of the demonstrators. Concerned whites and blacks decided that it was time for racial discrimination and segregation to come to an end.

Farmer began to meet regularly with a group of black leaders that came to be known as the "big six" of civil rights. The group included Farmer; King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women; John Lewis (or sometimes James Forman) from SNCC; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. This group of leaders met regularly and sometimes invited other civil rights leaders to attend. When A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader, asked to make a presentation before the group, he proposed that the group revise his idea of a massive march on Washington, D.C., a plan that he originally had formulated in 1941. The purpose of the march was to dramatize the need for jobs, freedom, and civil rights legislation. The group agreed to support the march. When it took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, over 250,000 blacks and whites participated. However, Farmer was in jail and could not attend.

Farmer continued to lead CORE, which grew quickly during the early 1960s. Numerous sit-ins and boycotts occurred and thousands of people, many of them students, were involved. When Farmer resigned as the leader of CORE in 1966 he continued to be active in a number of areas. He taught at several universities and in 1968 he ran unsuccessfully against Shirley Chisholm for the New York 12th district seat in the House of Representatives. In 1969 President Nixon appointed him assistant secretary for administration of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In that position, he initiated affirmative action and hiring practices at the HEW. Unhappy with the Nixon administration, Farmer resigned the following year to resume teaching.

Over the years Farmer taught and lectured at numerous institutions, and in the mid 1980s began teaching at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, eventually joining their staff as a history professor. In 1996 he had over 250 students on his roster, more than any other history teacher at the liberal arts college. He remains a vital and active presence, despite a battle with diabetes that has left him blind in one eye, and without the use of his left leg.

Further Reading

Farmer wrote numerous articles, as well as two books entitled Freedom, When? (1965) and Lay Bare the Heart; An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (1985). August Meier wrote CORE; A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (1973), which includes important information about Farmer's role in the organization. □

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