Farmer, James Leonard, Jr.
FARMER, James Leonard, Jr.
(b. 12 January 1920 in Marshall, Texas; d. 9 July 1999 in Fredericksburg, Virginia), civil rights leader, union organizer, and social reformer who was a key leader in the 1960s civil rights movement and who organized the Freedom Riders.
Farmer was the middle of three children born to James Leonard, Sr., a preacher believed to be the first African American in Texas to earn a Ph.D., and Pearl Marion Houston, a teacher. Fluent in French, German, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, Farmer's father taught theology and philosophy at southern black colleges. The young Farmer reportedly could read and write by the age of four. At age fourteen Farmer received a full scholarship to Wiley College, where his father taught. Farmer earned a B.S. in chemistry at Wiley and then attended Howard University, where he studied to become a minister and where he became aware of the Indian philosopher Mohandas K. Gandhi's concept of nonviolence.
After receiving his bachelor of divinity in 1941, Farmer refused to serve in the armed forces during World War II on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector who opposed violence. He had been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation while he was in school and began working with that organization to fight segregation in Chicago, Illinois, and New York City. In 1942 he helped establish the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that believed in nonviolent protest against racism. The organization later became known as the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1943 Farmer and CORE staged one of the first successful sit-ins, at a segregated restaurant in Chicago. Nevertheless, Farmer's association with CORE was sporadic over the next decade and a half, as he drifted from the group and worked as a union organizer. He married Winnie Christie in 1945, but the two divorced a year later. In 1959 Farmer became program director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Despite his differences with some of CORE's leadership, Farmer became national director of CORE on 1 February 1961, just days after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States. He soon began organizing the successful Freedom Rides. At the time, despite rulings to the contrary by the Supreme Court, the southern states still required African Americans to sit in the back of interstate buses and to use separate facilities. Thirteen "Freedom Riders," including Farmer, left Washington, D.C., by bus on 4 May 1961. The riders were determined to disobey the "southern" rules concerning African Americans by having the black members ride in front of the bus while the white Freedom Riders rode in the back. Furthermore, they would refuse to move when asked.
The Freedom Riders split into two groups, riding different buses through Alabama. Both buses were greeted by mobs, and some riders were severely beaten. Although determined to continue, the Freedom Riders were fearful for their lives and gave up after unsuccessful negotiations with the bus companies, whose drivers were also afraid. However, student activists from Nashville, Tennessee, arranged to continue the Freedom Rides. The students also met with mob violence in Montgomery, Alabama, which forced U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to call in the National Guard. The Freedom Riders continued on into Jackson, Mississippi, where they were jailed and sentenced to sixty days in the state penitentiary. However, the Freedom Riders were virtually unstoppable by this time, as they gained more and more sympathy from both African Americans and whites. The protest is largely credited with forcing President Kennedy's administration to take a stand on civil rights. The Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel in September 1961.
Farmer went on to become one of the "Big Four" of the 1960s civil rights movement. The others were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. As one of the movement's influential leaders, Farmer was integral in organizing a massive march on Washington, D.C., to dramatize the economic plight of blacks in the United States. However, Farmer was unable to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As 250,000 African Americans from around the country came to Washington to protest, Farmer sat in a Plaquemine, Louisiana, jail for protesting for civil rights.
Farmer, who once said that anyone who claimed not to be afraid during the civil rights movement was "either a liar or without imagination," did not let his own fear keep him from the front lines of the civil rights protests. During another protest trip to Plaquemine, Farmer was nearly lynched but escaped by hiding in a hearse and traveling on back roads to New Orleans. Some of Farmer's other associates were not so fortunate, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated on 4 April 1968. However, four years earlier, three CORE workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi, while campaigning for black voter registration. Farmer had helped to recruit the activists, whose bodies were found three months after their disappearance. The brutality of their deaths and others associated with the civil rights movement helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In his 1965 book, Freedom—When?, Farmer outlined his views for nonviolent political action and proposed more active political participation and leadership by African Americans. Farmer had debated black radical leader Malcolm X several times during the early 1960s on the issue of separatism, which Farmer opposed. Nevertheless, the two eventually became friends, and Farmer greatly admired Malcolm X's message of self-pride.
Farmer is also credited with playing a vital role in influencing President Lyndon B. Johnson's push for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although he had an adversarial relationship with President Kennedy, Farmer became friends with President Johnson. Johnson listened when Farmer talked about needing more than equal opportunity to help African Americans overcome racial barriers to access jobs. Farmer proposed a program of "preferential access" for African Americans qualified for certain jobs. Johnson, always the shrewd politician, disagreed with the use of the word "preferential" and coined the term "affirmative action."
Farmer had also developed a plan to fight functional illiteracy among poor and black Americans. He presented his plan to Johnson, who subsequently asked Farmer to submit a detailed proposal. The proposal was submitted to the Office of Economic Opportunity and approved by the office's director Sargent Shriver. However, its premature announcement in a 1965 Washington Post article led to Farmer's having to face the ire of CORE officials, who did not know of the plan and were upset at being kept in the dark. The opposition of the African-American representative from New York, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., sounded the death knell for the plan.
Farmer left CORE in 1966 largely because of political infighting, which had become rampant in the civil rights movement. In fact, there had been an unsuccessful attempt to oust him during CORE's national convention in 1964. His legacy included dramatically increasing the organization's number of local branches, fostering numerous protests such as a 1964 demonstration at the New York World's Fair, and organizing voter-registration drives. Farmer was also troubled by the growing movement of young civil rights leaders to foster separatism between African Americans and whites. CORE eventually became an ineffective black nationalist group.
After leaving CORE, Farmer took posts teaching at Lincoln University and New York University and began to lecture to earn enough money to help support his young family and his ailing second wife, Lula A. Peterson, whom he had married in 1949 and who was now suffering from Hodgkin's disease. The couple had two daughters.
In 1968 Farmer lost a race for Congress to Shirley Chisholm, who became the first African-American woman to serve in that body. The following year, Farmer joined President Richard M. Nixon's administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, much to the shock of many of his civil rights colleagues. Nevertheless, Farmer believed the position provided a real opportunity to contribute within the "official" confines of government. Although he quickly became disillusioned and retired from the position in 1970, he was able to establish a fellowship program that would increase the number of women and minorities in the federal government. Farmer had pushed for this program because he found that one-fifth of the minorities working in the department had low-level jobs and that the intern program was nearly all white. Farmer also created the Office of Child Development, which raised the funding level and administrative status of the Head Start program.
Farmer went on to work for the Council on Minority Planning and Strategy, an African-American think tank, and to teach at several colleges, including teaching civil rights history at Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, beginning in 1984. Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is thought of as the core leader and spiritual motivator of the 1960s civil rights movement, Farmer's commitment to civil rights and nonviolence predated King's efforts by nearly two decades. Farmer's keen intellect sometimes led others to view him as pompous, but his commitment to the movement and his leadership ultimately proved to be invaluable. Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President William J. Clinton in 1998. By then Farmer was blind and a double amputee, largely due to complications from diabetes. He died in Mary Washington Hospital in 1999.
Farmer's autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, was published in 1985 and reprinted in 1998. A detailed biography of Farmer is Jeff Sklansky, James Farmer: Civil Rights Leader (1992). August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (1975), includes information about Farmer's role in CORE. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 10 July 1999).