JAMES FARMER Biography - Royalty, Rulers & leaders


Biography » royalty rulers leaders » james farmer


James Farmer, a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the             
last survivor of the "Big Four" who shaped the civil-rights struggle in the               
United States in the mid-1950's and 60's, died Friday, July 9, 1999 at Mary               
Washington Hospital, in Fredericksburg, Va., where he lived. He was 79. Farmer           
had been in failing health for years, losing his sight and both his legs to               
severe diabetes.                                                                         
Farmer's main colleagues in the civil rights movement were the Rev. Dr. Martin           
Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was                 
assassinated in 1968; Whitney Young of the Urban League, who died in 1971; and           
Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,           
who died in 1981.                                                                         
Although attention in recent years has focused on Dr. King's activities, Farmer           
played a towering role in the movement as a direct-action leader of the                   
organization popularly known as CORE. Claude Sitton, who covered the South for           
The New York Times during the civil rights struggle, observed: "CORE under               
Farmer often served as the razor's edge of the movement. It was to CORE that the         
four Greensboro, N.C., students turned after staging the first in the series of           
sit-ins that swept the South in 1960. It was CORE that forced the issue of               
desegregation in interstate transportation with the Freedom Rides of 1961. It             
was CORE's James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- a black and two         
whites -- who became the first fatalities of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of           
1964." The three were murdered by a gang of Klansmen and buried beneath an               
earthen dam near the town of Philadelphia. The CORE workers were investigating a         
church burning and promoting black voter registration.                                   
Farmer himself risked his life in several demonstrations. In 1963, Louisiana             
state troopers armed with guns, cattle prods and tear gas, hunted him door to             
door when he was trying to organize protests in the town of Plaquemine.                   
"I was meant to die that night," Farmer once said. "They were kicking open doors,         
beating up blacks in the streets, interrogating them with electric cattle prods."         
A funeral home director had Farmer "play dead" in the back of a hearse that               
carried him along back roads and out of town.                                             
Farmer went to jail for "disturbing the peace" in Plaquemine, and was behind             
bars on Aug. 28, 1963, the day that Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream"               
speech as the climax of the March on Washington. Farmer sent his own speech to           
the March on Washington, which was read by Floyd McKissick, an aide in CORE. "We         
will not stop," Farmer wrote, "until the dogs stop biting us in the South and             
the rats stop biting us in the North."                                                   
At one point, a friendly F.B.I. agent told Farmer that an informant had                   
infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, and had reported that the Klan had             
voted to kill Farmer the next time he set foot in Bogalusa. "Tell me," Farmer             
said to the agent, "were there any dissenting votes?"                                     
Farmer was a disciple of Mohandas Gandhi, and it was Gandhi's strategy of                 
nonviolent direct action that was to become Farmer's weapon against                       
discrimination. A fierce integrationist, he enlisted both whites and blacks as           
CORE volunteers. Some white liberals who generally approved of what Farmer was           
doing frequently advised him to be more patient with a recalcitrant society               
dominated by whites. They thought that the doctrine of nonviolence was radical           
in its use of picketing and sit-ins. Some thought it engendered bellicose                 
responses from whites that did nothing to further amicable race relations.               
On one tense occasion in the early 1960's, after a particularly vicious spate of         
violence, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy suggested that Farmer's followers           
postpone some of their "freedom rides" -- designed to desegregate the interstate         
bus system in the South -- so that everyone could "cool off." Farmer refused,             
saying, "We have been cooling off for 350 years."                                         
As the turbulent decade of the 1960's unfolded, some blacks who despaired that           
they would ever have an amicable relationship with the white majority and                 
regarded nonviolence as more of a weakness than a strength, on occasion would             
ask Farmer, "When are you going to fight back?" Farmer would always reply, "We           
are fighting back, we're only using new weapons."                                         
"I lived in two worlds," Farmer said late in life, recalling his role in the             
movement. "One was the volatile and explosive one of the new black Jacobins and           
the other was the sophisticated and genteel one of the white and black liberal           
establishment. As a bridge, I was called on by each side for help in contacting           
the other."                                                                               
James Farmer, the son of a minister and the grandson of a slave, came to feel             
that his generation of leaders had been all but forgotten in recent years, with           
the exception of Dr. King because of television's use of film clips replaying             
his "I Have a Dream Speech."                                                             
Farmer was appalled to learn that in one survey of blacks taken in the 1990's,           
somebody said he thought that Dr. King's claim to fame was that he had "worked           
for Al Sharpton" and that many young blacks had never heard of Roy Wilkins,               
Whitney Young and Farmer or had only the vaguest notion of what they had stood           
for. And so when President Clinton awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom           
in January,1998, Farmer said he felt "vindication, an acknowledgment at long             
Farmer was proud of his role in founding CORE and guiding it to becoming one of           
the most effective civil rights organizations of the 1960's. The motivation for           
CORE came on a bright spring afternoon in Chicago in 1942 when Farmer, then just         
a year out of theology school, was walking with a white friend, George Houser.           
The two decided to stop for coffee and doughnuts in Jack Spratt's Coffee Shop on         
the South Side.                                                                           
The counterman made them wait even though there was almost nobody in the                 
restaurant, then tried to charge them a dollar apiece for doughnuts that were             
going for a nickel. Finally he ordered them out and threw their money on the             
"We felt he had a problem about race," Farmer said later, recalling the incident         
with typical understatement. Farmer, Houser and a few others staged a successful         
sit-in demonstration at Jack Spratt's. It was the first direct action of an               
organization they formed, called at the time the Committee on Racial Equality.           
Within a year, CORE had a national membership, and within a few years a roster           
of more than 60,000 members in more than 70 chapters, coast to coast. In its             
heyday in the 1960's, it claimed a membership of 82,000 in 114 local groups.             
Farmer was equally proud of the work he did in 1961, when he organized the               
Freedom Rides in the Deep South, a perilous effort in which any black and white           
supporters were attacked and injured by white segregationists.                           
James Leonard Farmer was born on Jan. 20, 1920, in Marshall, Tex. His father was         
James Leonard Farmer Sr., the son of a slave, a minister-scholar who became a             
college professor and who delighted in teaching literature in Greek, Hebrew and           
Aramaic. He was believed to be the first black man from Texas ever to earn a             
doctorate, which he did at Boston University. Farmer's mother was the former             
Pearl Marion Houston, a teacher.                                                         
As a boy, Farmer was shielded from the worst aspects of racism. He used to say           
that as a "faculty brat" he spent most of his time on the campuses of black               
colleges in the South where racial incidents would not ordinarily happen. The             
houses he lived in were filled with books and the conversation frequently was             
about the ideas in those books, most of them about ancient cultures. They did             
not ordinarily speak of the bleak, segregated world that existed outside the             
Farmer told Gay Talese of The New York Times in 1961 that his first awareness of         
race came when he was 3 or 4 years old, living in Holly Springs, Miss., where             
his father was on the faculty of Rust College. One very hot day, young James             
went shopping with his mother and asked her to buy him a soft drink. His mother           
told him he would have to wait until they got home. He saw a white child go into         
a drug store, and it was not until he got home that his mother explained to him           
why he could not do the same thing.                                                       
"Until then, I had not realized that I was colored," Farmer said. "I had lived a         
sheltered life on campus. My mother fell across the bed and cried." Farmer said           
it did not make him bitter, but, over the years, he became "determined to do             
something about it."                                                                     
His determination was strengthened between 1934 and 1938, when he was an                 
undergraduate at Wiley College in Marshall, Tex. He would go to movies in                 
Marshall, and was made to sit in the "buzzard's roost," the balcony set aside             
for black people. During the same period, he got a job as a caddy, but found             
himself segregated even in the caddy yard.                                               
Years later, when he looked back at his youth in the South, he sometimes                 
remembered the times when black children and white children played peacefully             
together. The real separation between the races came at puberty, he recalled,             
when white parents reinforced in their children that they were white and that             
blacks were something else. He recalled that when he was in his teens, the               
friends he had known as a little boy "would only look away" when they saw him in         
the street.                                                                               
Farmer considered both medicine and the ministry as vocations during his                 
undergraduate days. He discovered that he could not stand the sight of blood and         
so in 1938, after he completed his baccalaureate work at Wiley, he enrolled in           
Howard University's School of Religion. It was at Howard that he was introduced           
to the philosophy of Gandhi.                                                             
With his commanding frame, booming bass-baritone voice and decisive way of               
speaking, everyone thought he would be a fine preacher. But to the dismay of his         
father, Farmer decided against becoming a Methodist minister because, in those           
days, the Methodist church in the South was segregated. "I didn't see how I               
could honestly preach the Gospel of Christ in a church that practiced                     
discrimination," he said. He was quick to assure his father that his turning             
away from Methodism did not represent any lessening of his belief in Jesus.               
After World War II started, Farmer, a conscientious objector, served as race             
relations secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist                     
organization. He subsequently also worked as an organizer in the South for the           
Upholsterer's International Union and later for the State, County and Municipal           
Employees Union.                                                                         
In the late 1940's, before giving CORE his full attention, he was also a program         
director for the N.A.A.C.P. and wrote radio and television scripts as well as             
magazine articles on race relations for Crisis, Fellowship, World Frontier and           
the Hadassah News.                                                                       
During the 1950's, he worked assiduously to bring an end to segregation in               
Southern schools. He planned and organized CORE projects, including a Pilgrimage         
of Prayer in 1959 to protest the closing of public schools in Richmond, Va., to           
avoid complying with the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in             
the public schools.                                                                       
Throughout the 1960's, CORE's black volunteers, under Farmer's personal                   
direction, stood peacefully in lines all over the South, insisting on the right           
to enter theaters, coffee shops, swimming pools, bowling alleys and other                 
segregated public places from which they had always been barred.                         
Farmer did not become the $11,500-a-year salaried national director of CORE               
until February 1961, just before he initiated his first Freedom Ride. His father,         
by then retired and living in Washington, died just as Farmer was getting this           
effort started.                                                                           
CORE and another civil rights group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, held a             
Freedom Ride in 1947. A year earlier, the United States Supreme Court had ruled           
that segregated seating of interstate bus passengers was unconstitutional, but           
the ruling was virtually ignored in the South. An integrated group was sent to           
call attention to that injustice.Some were arrested and served on a chain gang           
in North Carolina.                                                                       
In 1961, CORE decided to try again. Its bus riders were assaulted when using             
restrooms and lunchrooms in terminals in Virginia and the Carolinas.                     
In Alabama, their bus was firebombed in the town of Anniston and the riders               
stoned. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the riders and one of them, William Barbee,         
was paralyzed for life. They were savagely beaten again in Montgomery.                   
Everyone expected more violence when a small band of young blacks and whites             
from CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee boarded buses for             
the last leg of the Freedom Ride, from Montgomery to Jackson, Miss. Dr. King, on         
probation for his arrest during sit-ins in Atlanta, decided not to go and was             
criticized for his decision. When a follower asked Farmer if he was going,               
Farmer climbed aboard the bus though quaking with fear. But the journey was               
completed without further violence because of a deal worked out between Attorney         
General Kennedy and James O. Eastland, the segregationist Senator from                   
Mississippi. But Farmer was arrested in Jackson for disturbing the peace and             
spent 40 days in Mississippi jails.                                                       
If the Freedom Rides stiffened opposition to desegregation in some quarters in           
the South, the courage of Farmer's CORE volunteers captured the imagination of           
blacks throughout the country, who decided to join the civil rights struggle. It         
also aroused the conscience of many whites both in America and abroad.                   
"In the end, it was a success," Farmer said of the Freedom Rides, "because Bobby         
Kennedy had the Interstate Commerce Commission issue an order, with teeth in it,         
that he could enforce, banning segregation in interstate travel. That was my             
proudest achievement."                                                                   
Subsequently, Farmer turned his attention to the lack of employment                       
opportunities for blacks. He sought no quotas because he said he was convinced           
that if blacks were giving an fair chance they would do just fine, but he made           
it clear that he wanted to see some black faces at construction sites,                   
especially those financed with public money. He ordered sit-ins in the early             
1960's at the New York offices of Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Gov. Nelson A.               
Rockefeller. He also organized picketing at White Castle hamburger stands in New         
York City, accusing the chain of refusing to hire black workers. "We are not             
pressing toward the brink of violence, but for the peak of freedom," he said.             
Farmer kept CORE focused on integration. When, in 1965, CORE officials called             
for a pullout of American troops from Vietnam, Farmer insisted that the                   
organization reverse itself. He did not approve of the war, but thought that             
CORE should not express itself on American foreign policy.                               
He resigned his CORE director's job the same year to head what he hoped would be         
an intensive literacy project financed by the Administration of Lyndon B.                 
Johnson. The project failed to materialize, and there was an open break between           
Farmer and R. Sargent Shriver, the director of the Federal antipoverty agency,           
the Office of Economic Opportunity.                                                       
Farmer did several things in the late 1960's. He taught at Lincoln University, a         
black institution in Oxford, Pa., about 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia,               
advised the State of New Jersey on problems of illiteracy, and, in 1968, ran for         
Congress. A Liberal candidate, backed by Republicans, in Brooklyn's 12th                 
Congressional District, he lost to the Democrat, Shirley Chisholm. Also in 1968,         
he supported the re-election of Senator Jacob K. Javits, a liberal Republican,           
who was jeered at a campaign rally in Bedford-Stuyvesant. "Jake Javits may be             
white on the outside but he's black on the inside," Farmer said, calming the             
crowd. That same year he backed Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his run for         
the Presidency.                                                                           
It had always been Farmer's position that blacks, no matter how they felt,               
should be a part of government, and so he readily accepted an invitation from             
President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to become an Assistant Secretary in the               
Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Farmer was immediately attacked by           
some militant civil rights advocates, who wanted nothing to do with Nixon. But           
Roger Wilkins and Whitney Young refrained from criticizing Farmer because they           
agreed with him that blacks needed such involvement if they were ever to have             
anything to say about shaping national policy on race.                                   
At first, Farmer defended Nixon's racial policies, but in 1970 he quit his post           
complaining that the Washington bureaucracy moved too slowly and saying that he           
felt he was more effective outside it. Somewhat later, he complained that Nixon           
had virtually no contact with blacks and instead relied on Leonard Garment, a             
white aide, to explain black problems to him.                                             
In 1975, Farmer broke with CORE over what he regarded as CORE's excessively pro-leftist   
position that sided with the Marxist faction in the civil war in Angola. He               
resigned from the group he had founded the next year. In 1978, he lent his name           
to a lawsuit that attempted to unseat CORE's director, Roy Innis.                         
In the mid-1980's, Farmer worked hard on his memoir, "Lay Bare the Heart," which         
was published in 1985. Claude Sitton, reviewing the book approvingly for The New         
York Times, said that Farmer, "more than any other civil rights leader, fought           
against (racism) and attempted to hold the movement true to its purpose."                 
Among Farmer's other writings was "Freedom -- When?" a book published in 1966.           
Before his health failed he taught for several years at Mary Washington College           
in Fredericksburg.                                                                       
Farmer's brief first marriage ended in divorce. He married Lula A. Peterson,             
whom he met in 1949 when she was a graduate student in economics at Northwestern         
University and a white member of the CORE chapter in Evanston, Ill. She died in           
1977. They had two daughters, Tami and Abbey.                                             
In his last years, Farmer lived alone in a remote house near Fredericksburg,             
confined to a wheelchair and often in need of an oxygen tent. When visitors came,         
he would joke about the times he had come close to death. Asked by a friend if           
he had ever seen a tunnel. Farmer acknowledged that he had, but instead of               
seeing St. Peter at the end of it, he saw the Devil. "And he said, 'Oh, my God,           
don't let this nigger in! He'll organize a resistance movement and try to put             
out my fire.'