As co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), James Farmer was one of the major leaders of the African American freedom struggle. In a 1997 interview, Farmer said: “I don’t see any future for the nation without integration. Our lives are intertwined, our work is intertwined, our education is intertwined” (Smith, “Civil Rights Leader”). Farmer credited Martin Luther King and the Montgomery bus boycott with educating the public on nonviolent tactics: “No longer did we have to explain nonviolence to people. Thanks to Martin Luther King, it was a household word” (Farmer, 188).
Farmer was born on 12 January 1920, in Marshall, Texas, where his father taught theology at all-black Wiley College. When Farmer was six months old, his family moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Throughout his life, Farmer recounted the story of his mother having to explain why she couldn’t buy him a soft drink at a drugstore, an experience he said inspired him at an early age to fight injustice. After graduating from Wiley College in 1938, he enrolled in the Howard University School of Divinity, where he first encountered the teachings of the Indian independence leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Upon earning his BD in 1941, he declined ordination as a Methodist minister because “I did not feel I could preach the gospel in a segregated church” (Shepard, “A Life on the Front Lines”). Farmer was granted conscientious objector status during World War II and became race relations secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization.
A year later, in 1942, Farmer co-founded CORE with an interracial group of University of Chicago students. In the 1940s CORE pioneered the strategies of nonviolent direct action, including the tactics of sit-ins, jail-ins, and Freedom Rides later used in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. After a brief stint at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the late 1950s, Farmer became the first national director of CORE in 1961. That same year, Farmer mobilized CORE to conduct interracial Freedom Rides designed to test the Supreme Court ruling on interstate bus transportation in the South. The group had organized a similar test in 1947, called the “Journey of Reconciliation,” which ended in the riders’ arrests.
The 1961 freedom riders faced violent resistance along their journey. Upon reaching Montgomery, Alabama, Farmer encountered a rioting mob that threatened to break into Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church where freedom riders and other protesters were meeting with King, who was present to offer support. When King tried to mobilize help, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked Farmer to agree to a cooling-off period and to suspend the integrated rides. Farmer replied: “Please tell the attorney general that we have been cooling for 350 years. If we cool off any more, we will be in a deep freeze. The Freedom Ride will go on” (Farmer, 206). With the protection of U.S. marshals and the Alabama National Guard, the riders continued their journey. Arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in the act of integrating a restaurant at the bus terminal, Farmer and the riders refused to make bond and spent 40 days at the Parchman State Penitentiary. Two years later, Farmer’s imprisonment in Plaquemine, Louisiana, for protesting police brutality prevented him from speaking at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event co-sponsored by CORE.
As the influence of black nationalism took hold of CORE, Farmer stepped down as National Director in 1966, and cut all ties to the organization 10 years later. After being defeated by Democratic candidate Shirley Chisholm in the 1968 congressional race for New York’s 12th district, he served in Richard Nixon’s administration in what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where he was charged with increasing the role of minorities in the agency.
In 1980 Farmer moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he wrote his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (1985) and taught at Mary Washington College. President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1998. He died the following year at age 79.
Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 1985.
Scott Shepard, “A Life on the Front Lines: Ending Racism Has Been an Epic Battle for James Farmer,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6 April 1997.
J. Y. Smith, “Civil Rights Leader James Farmer Dies,” Washington Post, 10 July 1999.