James Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas on 12th January, 1920. An outstanding student, he obtained degrees from Wiley College (1938) and Howard University (1941).
Farmer and several Christian pacifists founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. The organization's purpose was to apply direct challenges to American racism by using Gandhian tactics of non-violence. Farmer's religious beliefs resulted in him refusing to serve in the armed forces during the Second World War.
In 1947 Farmer participated in CORE's campaign of sit-ins which successfully ended two Chicago restaurants' discriminatory service practices against blacks. Articulate and charismatic, Farmer became CORE National Director in 1961. In this position he helped organize student sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the Deep South.
In 1966 Farmer resigned from Congress on Racial Equality in order to direct a national adult literacy project. A supporter of the Republican Party, Farmer failed in his attempt to win a seat in Congress in 1968. Shortly afterwards, the new president, Richard Nixon, appointed him Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
After leaving Nixon's administration in 1971, Farmer worked for the African American think tank, Council on Minority Planning and Strategy. In his final years Farmer completed his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (1985). James Farmer, who was awarded the Congressional Medal for Freedom in 1998, died on 9th July, 1999.
(1) James Farmer was the director of the Congress of Racial Equality and was the main organizer of the Freedom Rides. In Plaquemine, Louisiana, Farmer was surrounded by a white mob who claimed they intended to lynch him.
I was certain I was going to die. What kind of death would it be? Would they mutilate me first? What does it feel like to die? Then I grew panicky about the insurance. Had I paid the last installment? My wife and little girls - how would it be for them? Well, damn it, if I had to die, at least let the organization wring some use out of my death. I hoped the newspapers were out there. Plenty of them. With plenty of cameras.
(2) James Farmer, speech at Central State College, Wilberforce, Ohio, on 26th October, 1964.
The American Revolution was fought for a very simple reason - to establish the principle of liberty in our land. That revolution - that phase of it - was essentially successful. The principle was established but the principle did not include all Americans.
For many people it did not mean liberty. It did not, for example, apply to women in the early days of America. Women did not have the rights which were guaranteed to other Americans. They did not have even the right of suffrage, and they had to struggle to achieve that right. They struggled under the banner of the suffragettes and significantly, my friends, they used techniques which are quite similar to those which for the past several years have dominated the civil-rights movement.
This principle established in the eighteenth century in the first stage of the American Revolution did not include workers. Working men and women of our country got half the freedoms which had been proclaimed. They had no voice concerning their wages or hours or establishing their working conditions. That was not freedom. They then had to struggle for their freedom, for their own inclusion in the American compact of liberty. They fought hard with the same weapons - the demonstration, the march, the picket line, the boycott. They established the principle of their inclusion; they won the right to collective bargaining and the right for union recognition.
For many years like a great slumbering giant, Negroes accepted the status quo. For a long time, we thought so little of ourselves that we accepted segregation and discrimination, with all of its degradation.
The fight for freedom is combined with the fight for equality, and we must realize that this is the fight for America - not just black America but all America. In the words of the great rabbi who wrote, 2,000 years ago, "Hither, if I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"