James Leonard Farmer, Jr.
January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999
James Farmer, Jr. was born in Marshall, Texas the grandson of a slave. Both of Farmer’s parents had careers in education but his mother, Pearl, gave up teaching when she got married. His father James, Sr. was a Methodist minister and at the time a professor at Wiley College, a private historically black college.
During Farmer’s childhood, the family moved to different cities in the South as the elder Farmer relocated for work. With two teaching professionals for parents and at times living on college campuses, Farmer was immersed in learning. He was an intelligent child and diligent student which led to him skipping multiple grades.
At 14, Farmer returned home to Marshall where he enrolled at Wiley College. With guidance from Melvin B. Tolson, the debate teams’ coach, he became a valuable addition to the team and gained oratory skills that would serve him well later in life. (The formation and story of the debate team were depicted in the 2007 film, The Great Debaters.)
Farmer completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Wiley and then divinity studies at Howard University School of Theology. At Howard, Farmer found another mentor, Howard Thurman, who introduced him to the teachings of Gandhi and his philosophy. By the time America entered WWII in the 1940s, Farmer was a young man and eligible to serve but refused on the grounds of being a pacifist.
He put aside his medical aspirations because he could not handle the sight of blood. To his father’s disappointment, Farmer also put aside joining the Methodist ministry given the Southern church’s participation in segregation. Instead, he set out on the path to becoming an activist. During much of the 1940s and 1950s, he worked within pacifist and union groups as an organizer.
Farmer first became aware of racism when he was a preschooler and his mother had to explain why they could not go into a store to purchase a beverage like he had seen a White child do. His mother’s anguish at having to explain why they couldn’t enter the store stuck with him. His parents and growing up in predominantly Black communities would shield him for a time from the full brunt of racism. But later as a young man in college, he would experience segregation and the division from childhood friends due to their different races. Those experiences nourished a spark within him to do something to change segregation.
The Congress on Racial Equality was co-founded by Farmer and other activists in Chicago in 1942 but it didn’t receive his full attention until several years later. Later renamed Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) the group worked across racial groups but was primarily White and Northern-based. CORE was dedicated to addressing racial issues through the use of non-violent tactics. In its infancy, the group organized what was likely one of the first, if not the first, civil rights sit-ins at a Chicago coffee shop in protest of its refusal to serve Black customers.
By 1961, CORE’s membership and the Civil Rights Movement had expanded and Farmer was hired as the organization’s national director. That year would also mark the launch of the Freedom Rides, a campaign where interracial groups of activists braved the threat of violence and arrest as they rode through the South on buses. CORE had previously deployed this tactic following the Supreme Court ruling that deemed segregated interstate travel unconstitutional. Yet, the practice had remained stubbornly in place for over a decade.
The 1961 Freedom Riders campaign garnered a lot of media attention as it moved through the South, particularly in Alabama. Those who wanted to maintain the racist status quo firebombed a bus in Anniston and violently assaulted the activists in Birmingham and Montgomery. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called on Farmer to halt the campaign in hopes that it would allow the violent response to dissipate.
Farmer’s father died while the Freedom Rides were taking place and he left the campaign at one point to attend the funeral. When the protesters were viciously attacked in his absence, Farmer considered the request to pause the campaign but the protestors insisted on continuing. Farmer recognized that Black people had been living under this brutality and terrorism for generations and couldn’t pause or patiently wait for change.
When Farmer rejoined the campaign after his father’s funeral, he and the other protesters were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and jailed for 40 days at Parchman State Penitentiary. This wouldn’t be the last or most significant instance of him being detained. In August 1963, Farmer was arrested in Plaquemine, Louisiana while protesting police brutality. His detainment resulted in Farmer not being able to attend the March on Washington. Instead, he had to be smuggled out of town in a hearse for his protection as multiple threats had been made on his life.
As the Civil Rights Movement began to change in the mid-1960s, Farmer found himself and his focus on integration at odds with the other leaders of CORE. He resigned from his position in 1965 but maintained ties with CORE until a complete break in 1976. After leaving his position at CORE Farmer worked in government and education. Believing it important for Black people to participate in government, he accepted positions within the Johnson and Nixon administrations but both proved to be disappointing. Farmer came to regard bureaucracy within the government as making it more effective to push change from outside the system than from within.
Farmer wrote two books during his life, Freedom When? (1965) and Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (1985). He received many honors and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, Farmer suffered complications from diabetes which cost him his vision and legs.
On July 9, 1999, James Farmer, Jr. died following a heart attack and was survived by his two daughters. He’d been married twice in the 1940s, the first ended in divorce and the second with his wife’s death in 1977. Farmer and his second wife, a White woman who was a member of CORE, had a total of four children but two died in infancy.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “James Farmer.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. October 27, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/james-farmer.
- “Farmer, James.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. April 5, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/farmer-james.
- “James L. Farmer Biography.” n.d. Core-Online.org. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Accessed November 27, 2021. http://www.core-online.org/History/james_farmer_bio.htm.
- Sutherland, Claudia. 2007. “James Farmer, Jr. (1920-1999).” Blackpast.org. February 21, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/farmer-james-1920-1999/.
- Titus, Jill Ogline. 2021. “Farmer, James (1920–1999).” Encyclopedia Virginia. February 12, 2021. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/farmer-james-1920-1999/.
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