Remembering James Farmer (1920-1999)
James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (12 January 1920-09 July 1999) died eight years ago, today. It is part of the irony of U.S. history that the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so large that, not only were the thousands of ordinary people who made up the “Civil Rights Movement” (more often called the Freedom Struggle by its participants) overlooked, but even most of the other leaders of the movement are now forgotten. The average American, especially 25 and under, has this mental picture that one day Rosa Parks sat down on a bus, the next day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C. and “Poof!” segregation disappeared. Parks and King would have been the first to decry this distortion, this historical amnesia. So, from time to time, I shall profile a figure from the movement–just as I wrote a small resource for youth ministers and Middle School teachers on the movement.
James Farmer was the grandson of slaves and the son of a Methodist minister and theology professor who, at the time he began his teaching career (1919) was one of only 45 African-Americans with earned Ph.D.s in the entire USA. Farmer was born in Wiley, Texas (his father was teaching at Wiley College at the time) in a household of deep Christian faith, a devotion to education, and an atmosphere that demanded that each person leave the world better than s/he found it. Originally intending to be a medical doctor, Farmer earned a B.A. (summa cum laude) in chemistry at Wiley College (enrolling at age 14!), before going on to earn a B.D. and Ph.D. (1941) from the Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D.C.
While at Howard, Farmer encountered the views on nonviolence espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi (several Howard faculty had traveled to India to hear Gandhi and some of Gandhi’s disciples had given lectures in the U.S. as early as 1918; while most of white America ignored Gandhi until much later, Gandhi’s views and struggles were well chronicled in the “Black Press”) and encountered the liberal Christian pacifism of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He embraced these views, joined the F.O.R. and, as America geared up to fight in World War II, applied to be considered a Conscientious Objector. The government denied his C.O. status, but because of his theology degrees, gave him a “ministerial deferment.” (This was ironic because Farmer declined to be ordained in the Methodist Church because of the segregated policies it then held! )
Farmer was hired by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to work in the area of “race relations,” and to spread the pacifist message among “Negroes.” He was based in Chicago. Working with a group of students and ministers at the University of Chicago, some white and some black, Farmer helped to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), in 1942, an organization whose purpose was to use Gandhian methods of active nonviolence to end segregation and promote racial equality throughout the U.S. Farmer and CORE sponsored the first “Freedom Ride” (then called a “Journey of Reconciliation”) to test compliance with the Supreme Court’s 1947 ruling banning segregation on interstate travel. (Yes, folks, this means that Farmer was leading nonviolent movements for racial justice while King was still in college and seminary.) Internal politics led to Farmer’s departure from CORE for a time to work with the NAACP.
In 1961, Farmer was re-elected the head of CORE and launched the Freedom Rides from there. Along with many others, Farmer was repeatedly jailed for Civil Disobedience in the Freedom Struggle. A large man, he lost so much weight during a month-long stay in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm state prison that he had to hold up his pants with both hands when finally released.
Militant in attitude, Farmer had no patience, however, with either violence or the self-segregation of Black Nationalism. His second wife, and the love of his life, was white. So, when CORE embraced Black Power in 1966 and decided to purge all white members, Farmer quit. (This was also the end of CORE as an effective political organization.) He took a teaching post at Lincoln University. Then, this life-long liberal Republican (most African-Americans were Republicans prior to the mid-’60s when the Democratic Party rejected its racist wing and the Republicans deliberately started wooing disaffected Southern whites) ran for the U.S. Congress in 1968, but he lost to another Civil Rights activist, Shirley Chisholm, who ran on the Democratic ticket. (Chisholm would later be the first woman to run for U.S. president as part of a major political party.) Nixon appointed Farmer Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, but Farmer quit in 1971 when he could no longer justify Nixon’s racial policies. (He also had major disagreements over Vietnam, but had swallowed those, hoping to work for good within the system.) He published his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart in 1985 and was one of the consultants on the PBS “Eyes on the Prize” series. U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. award to a civilian, in 1998. Farmer continued to teach on the civil rights movement at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia until his death 8 years ago this day.
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