Civil Rights Leader
* * * * * *
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
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
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
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."
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 last."
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,
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 floor.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.'
Written by RICHARD SEVERO, published in the New
York Times, July 10, 1999
* * * * * * *