A Black civil rights activist, James Farmer (born 1920) helped organize the 1960s "freedom rides" which led to the desegregation of interstate buses and bus terminals. He also played a major role in the activities of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
James Farmer along with a group of University of Chicago students founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago in 1942. The purpose of this interracial group was to work for an end to racial segregation using non-violent tactics similar to those developed by Mahatma Gandhi. Farmer was the first leader of CORE but became inactive after several years. In the 1960s when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum Farmer was reelected as the director of CORE. He also was one of the group of civil rights leaders who planned the March on Washington in 1963.
Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas, in 1920. His father held a doctorate in theology from Boston University and his mother a teaching certificate from Bethune-Cookman Institute. Farmer entered Wiley College in Texas at 14 years of age with the idea of becoming a doctor. However, after he received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry he decided that he would enter the ministry. When his father joined the faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Farmer entered the School of Religion there. He graduated in 1941 but refused to work in a segregated church. He accepted a job with a pacifist group based in New York called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and was assigned to work in Chicago. From his Chicago base he visited other areas in the midwest speaking about pacifism and racial equality.
As a consequence of this work and his study and observation of the Gandhi movement he addressed several proposals to FOR leaders suggesting the formation of a committee dedicated to racial equality. It was first called the Committee of Racial Equality and, finally, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer served as national chairman of CORE from 1942 to 1944 and again in 1950. He was elected national director in 1961 and served in that position until 1966. Even during the years that Farmer was not leading CORE he remained interested in the organization's work. During the period from about 1945 to 1959 Farmer worked as a labor union organizer. For the next two years, 1960-1961, he worked as a program director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Farmer was working for the NAACP when he was called back to CORE to lead the 1961 "freedom ride." Several Supreme Court rulings led to CORE's decision to sponsor freedom rides. In 1946 the Supreme Court had ruled that racially segregated seating on interstate buses was unconstitutional, and in 1960 it declared that segregation in terminals used by interstate passengers was also unconstitutional. Yet the southern states continued to force blacks to sit in the back of the bus and to use segregated facilities. The 13 CORE freedom riders decided to travel by bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans with white members sitting in the back and black riders in the front. All of the riders were instructed to refuse to move when they were asked. They also decided that at the bus terminals the white riders would use the "for colored" facilities and the black the "for white."
The riders left from Washington, D.C., and made their historic trip without violence until they arrived in Alabama. In that state the freedom riders were attacked and beaten. Finally, the bus was burned by hostile whites. Youths who were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteered to act as replacements or reinforcements for the original 13 CORE riders. Although hundreds of riders spent weeks in Alabama prisons, new recruits continued to come forward. The conditions in the jails were almost primitive and the guards usually hostile. Although many riders continued to be attacked in other southern states, the idea of freedom rides caught on. CORE received nationwide attention, and James Farmer became well-known as a civil rights leader. The freedom ride, along with sit-ins at lunch counters and the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., captured the imagination of the nation and exposed to the world through photographs, newspaper accounts, and motion pictures the brutal retaliation of many southern whites against the actions of the demonstrators. Concerned whites and blacks decided that it was time for racial discrimination and segregation to come to an end.
Farmer began to meet regularly with a group of black leaders that came to be known as the "big six" of civil rights. The group included Farmer; King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women; John Lewis (or sometimes James Forman) from SNCC; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Whitney Young of the National Urban League. This group of leaders met regularly and sometimes invited other civil rights leaders to attend. When A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader, asked to make a presentation before the group, he proposed that the group revise his idea of a massive march on Washington, D.C., a plan that he originally had formulated in 1941. The purpose of the march was to dramatize the need for jobs, freedom, and civil rights legislation. The group agreed to support the march. When it took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, over 250,000 blacks and whites participated. However, Farmer was in jail and could not attend.
Farmer continued to lead CORE, which grew quickly during the early 1960s. Numerous sit-ins and boycotts occurred and thousands of people, many of them students, were involved. When Farmer resigned as the leader of CORE in 1966 he continued to be active in a number of areas. He taught at several universities and in 1968 he ran unsuccessfully against Shirley Chisholm for the New York 12th district seat in the House of Representatives. In 1969 President Nixon appointed him assistant secretary for administration of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In that position, he initiated affirmative action and hiring practices at the HEW. Unhappy with the Nixon administration, Farmer resigned the following year to resume teaching.
Over the years Farmer taught and lectured at numerous institutions, and in the mid 1980s began teaching at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, eventually joining their staff as a history professor. In 1996 he had over 250 students on his roster, more than any other history teacher at the liberal arts college. He remains a vital and active presence, despite a battle with diabetes that has left him blind in one eye, and without the use of his left leg.
Further Reading on James Farmer
Farmer wrote numerous articles, as well as two books entitled Freedom, When? (1965) and Lay Bare the Heart; An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (1985). August Meier wrote CORE; A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (1973), which includes important information about Farmer's role in the organization.