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James Leonard Farmer, Jr.
James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999) was a civil rights activist and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement "who pushed for nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation, and served alongside Martin Luther King Jr." He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the United States.
In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality in Chicago with George Houser and Bernice Fisher. It was later called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and was dedicated to ending racial segregation in the United States through nonviolence. Farmer served as the national chairman from 1942 to 1944. He was an honorary vice chairman in the Democratic Socialists of America.
By the 1960s, Farmer was known as "one of the Big Four civil rights leaders in the 1960s, together with King, NAACP chief Roy Wilkins and Urban League head Whitney Young.
James L. Farmer, Jr. was born in Marshall, Texas, to James L. Farmer, Sr. and Pearl Houston, who were both educated. His father was a professor at Wiley College, a historically black college, and a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. His mother, a homemaker, was a graduate of Florida's Bethune-Cookman Institute and a former teacher.
When Farmer was a young boy, about three or four, he wanted a Coca-Cola when he was out in town with his mother. His mother had adamantly told him no, that he had to wait until they got home. Farmer wanted to get one right then and enviously watched another young boy go inside and buy a Coke. His mother told him the other boy could buy the Coke at that store because he was white, but Farmer was a person of color and not allowed there. This defining, unjust moment was the first, but not the last, experience that Farmer remembered of segregation.
At 10, Farmer's Uncle Fred, Aunt Helen, and cousin Muriel came down to visit from New York. They had no trouble getting a sleeping compartment on the train down, but were worried about getting one on the way back. Farmer went to the train station with his dad. While his father convinced the manager to give his uncle a room in the sleeping car on the train, Farmer realized his dad was lying. He was shocked as his father was a minister, Farmer was shocked to hear the lies. On the way back, his father told him, "I had to tell that lie about your Uncle Fred. That was the only way we could get the reservation. The Lord will forgive me". Still, Farmer was very upset that his father had to lie to get the bedroom on the train. This was when Farmer began to dedicate his life to the end of segregation.
Farmer was a child prodigy; as a freshman in 1934 at the age of 14, he enrolled at Wiley College, a historically black college where his father was teaching in Texas. He was elected as part of the debate team. Melvin B. Tolson, a professor of English, became his mentor.
At the age of 21, Farmer was invited to the White House to talk with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt signed the invitation. Before the talk with the president, Mrs. Roosevelt talked to the group. Farmer took a liking to her immediately, and the two of them monopolized the conversation. When the group went in to talk to President Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt followed and sat in the back. After the formalities were done, the young people were allowed to ask questions. Farmer said, "On your opening remarks you described Britain and France as champions of freedom. In light of their colonial policies in Africa, which give the lie to the principle, how can they be considered defenders?" The president tactfully avoided the question. Mrs. Roosevelt exclaimed, "Just a minute, you did not answer the question!". Although Roosevelt still did not answer the question as Farmer phrased it, Farmer was placated knowing that he had got the question out there.
Farmer earned a Bachelor of Science at Wiley College in 1938, and a Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University School of Religion in 1941. At Wiley, Farmer became anguished over segregation, recalling particular occasions of racism he had witnessed or suffered in his younger days. During the Second World War, Farmer had official status as a conscientious objector.
Inspired by Howard Thurman, a professor of theology at Howard University, Farmer became interested in Gandhi-style pacifism. Martin Luther King, Jr. also studied this later and adopted many of its principles. Farmer started to think about how to stop racist practices in America while working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which he joined after college.
During the 1950s, Farmer served as national secretary of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the youth branch of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy. SLID later became Students for a Democratic Society.
Farmer married Winnie Christie in 1945. Winnie became pregnant soon after they were married. Then she found a note from a girl in one of Farmer's coat pockets. This was a catalyst for the end of their marriage. She miscarried and the couple divorced not long afterwards.
A few years later Farmer married Lula, with whom he had become involved. As she was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, the two were told not to have children. The hormones of pregnancy were thought to exacerbate cancer. Years later they sought a second opinion. At that time, Lula was encouraged to try to have children. She had one miscarriage but then successfully had a daughter, Tami Lynn Farmer, born on February 14, 1959. A second daughter, Abbey Farmer, was born in 1962.
I talked to A. J. Muste, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), about an idea to combat racial inequality. Muste found the idea promising but wanted to see it in writing. I spent months writing the memorandum making sure it was perfect. A. J. Muste wrote me back asking me about money to fund it and how they would get members. Finally, I was asked to propose my idea in front of the FOR National Council. In the end, FOR chose not to sponsor the group, but they gave me permission to start the group in Chicago. When Farmer got back to Chicago, the group began setting up the organization. The name they picked was CORE, the Committee of Racial Equality. The name was changed about a year later to the Congress of Racial Equality.
In an interview with Robert Penn Warren in 1964 for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Farmer described the founding principles of CORE as follows:
1. that it involves the people themselves rather than experts,
2. that it rejects segregation, and
3. that it does so through nonviolent direct action.
Jack Spratt was a local diner in Chicago that would not serve colored people. CORE decided to do a large-scale sit in where they would occupy all available seats. Twenty-eight persons entered Jack Spratt in groups, with at least one black person in each group. No one who was served would eat until the black people were served, or they gave their plate to the black person nearest them. The other customers, already in the diner, did the same. The manager told them that they would serve the colored customers in the basement, but the group declined. Then it was proposed that all the colored people sit in the back corner and get served there, again the group declined. Finally the establishment called the police. When the police entered, they refused to kick the CORE group out. Having no other options, all patrons were served. Afterward, CORE did tests at Jack Spratt and found that their policy had changed.
The White City Roller Skating Rink allowed only white patrons. Its staff made excuses to blacks as to why they could not enter. For example, white CORE members were allowed to enter the rink, but black members were refused because of "a private party". Having documented that the rink was lying about the circumstances, CORE decided to sue them. When the case went to trial, a state lawyer conducted the prosecution, rather than the county. The judge ruled in favor of the rink. Although the outcome of the case was a setback for CORE, the group was making a name for itself.
As the Director of CORE, Farmer was considered one of the "Big Six" of the Civil Rights Movement who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. (The press also used the term "Big Four", ignoring John Lewis and Dorothy Height.) Growing disenchanted with emerging militancy and black nationalist sentiments in CORE, Farmer resigned as director in 1966. By that time Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, authorizing federal enforcement of registration and elections.
Farmer took a teaching position at Lincoln University, a historically black college (HBCU) near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He also lectured around the country. In 1968 Farmer ran for U.S. Congress as a Liberal Party candidate backed by the Republican Party, but lost to Shirley Chisholm.
In 1969 the newly elected Republican President Richard Nixon offered Farmer the position of Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). The next year, frustrated by the Washington bureaucracy, Farmer resigned from the position.