James L. Farmer

File:James L Farmer Jr.jpg

James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999) was a civil rights activist and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in theUnited States.

In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality, which later became the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that sought to bring an end to racial segregation in the United States through nonviolence. Farmer was the organization’s first leader, serving as the national chairman from 1942 to 1944. He was an honorary vice chairman in the Democratic Socialists of America.

Early life

Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas, to James L. Farmer, Sr. and Pearl Houston. His father was a professor at Wiley College, a historically black college, and a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology at Boston University. His mother, a homemaker, was a graduate of Florida’s Bethune Cookman Institute and a former teacher. [2]

When Farmer was a young boy, about three or four, he had wanted a coke when out on the town with his mom. His mother had adamantly told him no, that he had to wait until they got home. Farmer, not understanding, wanted to get one right then. He watched another young boy go inside and buy a coke. Sadly, his mother had to inform him that the reason the other boy could buy the coke was because the other boy was white, and Farmer was colored. This defining, unjust moment was the first, but not the last, experience that Farmer had with segregation. [3]

At 10, Farmer’s Uncle Fred, Aunt Helen, and cousin Muriel had come down to visit from New York. They had no trouble getting a bedroom on the train down, but were worried about getting one on the way back. Farmer went to the train station with his dad. While convincing the manager to give his uncle a bedroom on the train, Farmer witnessed his dad lie to get what he wanted. His father being 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” (Farmer 1985, 65). Still, Farmer was very upset that his father had to lie to get the bedroom on the train. This event was when Farmer began to dedicate his life to the end of segregation. [4]

Farmer was a child prodigy; at the age of 14, he enrolled at Wiley College, where he was the captain of the debate team. While there, a professor of English, Melvin Tolson, became his mentor. [5] His part in its winning performance was portrayed by Denzel Whitaker in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

At 21, Farmer was invited to the White House to talk with president Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt had signed the invitation. Before the talk with the president, Mrs. Roosevelt talked to the group. Farmer found 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 asked, “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?” (Farmer 1985, p 69). The president tactfully avoided the question. Mrs. Roosevelt then exclaimed, “Just a minute, you did not answer the question!” (Farmer 1985, p 70). Although Roosevelt still did not answer the question as Farmer phrased it, Farmer was placated knowing that he had got the question out there. Civil rights LAD.[6]

Farmer earned a Bachelor of Science at Wiley College in 1938, and a Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University School of Religion in 1941.

Inspired by Howard Thurman, a professor of theology at Howard University, Farmer became interested in Gandhi-style pacifism. [7]

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. They met in Chicago and fell in love with each other. Winnie found herself with child not long after they were married. Then she found a note from a girl in one of Farmer’s coat pockets. The note was the beginning of the end of their marriage. When Winnie miscarried, they divorced not soon afterwards. Lula, who Farmer married a few years later, wrote the note. Lula was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, and the two were told not to have children. When Lula was still alive many years later, they looked for a second opinion. They were then given the green light to try to have children. After an unfortunate miscarriage, they finally had a little girl, Tami Lynn Farmer, born on February 14, 1959.

The Formation of CORE

Farmer talked to A. J. Muste, the 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. Farmer spent months writing the memorandum making sure it was perfect. A. J. Muste wrote him back asking him about money to fund it and how they would get members. Finally, Farmer was asked to propose his idea in front of the FOR National Council. In the end, FOR chose not to sponsor the group, but gave Farmer permission to start the group in Chicago. When Farmer got back to Chicago, the group began setting up the organization. The name decided upon was CORE, the Committee of Racial Equality. [9] The name was changed about a year later to the Congress of Racial Equality. [10]

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. Afterwards, CORE did tests at Jack Spratt and found that their policy had changed. [11]

The White City Roller Skating Rink only allowed white patrons to enter, when a black person would come to the window an excuse was given for why they could not enter. White CORE members were allowed to enter the rink, but black members were refused because of a “private party”. The CORE group, having proved that the rink was lying, decided to sue them. The court case continued to be delayed because of the defendants. When they finally could fight in court, a state lawyer came in to take over the prosecution. The lawyer sabotaged an easily won case, and the judge reluctantly had to rule in favor of the rink. Even though the case was a setback for CORE, the group was making a name for itself. 

Freedom Rides

In 1961 Farmer, who was working for the NAACP, was reelected as the national director of CORE, at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining power. Despite the Irene MorganSupreme Court decision and the Boynton decision, interstate buses were still segregated. Gordon Carey proposed the idea of a second Journey of Reconciliation. Farmer jumped at the idea. This time, however, the group planned to journey through the Deep South. Farmer coined a new name for the trip: the Freedom Ride.

The plan was for a mixed race and gender group to test segregation on interstate buses. The group would spend time in Washington D.C. for intensive training. They would embark on May 4, 1961 half by Greyhound and half by Trailways. They would go through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finish in New Orleans on May 17. For overnight stops there were planned rallies and support from the black community. There were usually talks at local churches or colleges.

On May 4, the participants journeyed to the Deep South and challenged segregated bus terminals as well as seating on the vehicles. The trip down through Georgia went smoothly enough. The states knew about the trip and either took down the “Colored” and “White Only” signs, or didn’t enforce the segregation laws. Before the group made it to Alabama, the most dangerous part of the Freedom Ride, Farmer had to return home after the death of his father. The other riders were severely beaten and abused in Alabama and were forced to fly to New Orleans instead of finishing the ride as planned. Diane Nash and members of the SNCC quickly sent in students to restart the Freedom Ride where the first had left off. Farmer later rejoined in Montgomery, Alabama, but only after Doris Castle persuaded him to get on the bus at the last minute. The Riders were met with severe violence and garnered national media attention. Their efforts sparked a summer of similar rides by other Civil Rights leaders and thousands of ordinary citizens. In Jackson, Farmer and the other riders were immediately jailed. There was no violence in Jackson. The riders followed the jail no bail philosophy and after being in county and town jails the riders were sent to Parchman State Penitentiary. [13]Although the Freedom Rides were attacked by whites, they became recognized as an effective strategy, and the Congress of Racial Equality received nationwide attention. Farmer became a well-known civil rights leader. The Freedom Rides captured the imagination of the nation through photographs, newspaper accounts, and motion pictures. They inspired Erin Gruwell’s teaching techniques and the Freedom Writers Foundation.

Later career

In 1963, Louisiana state troopers hunted him door to door for trying to organize protests. A funeral home director had Farmer play dead in the back of a hearse that carried him along back roads and out of town. He was arrested in August 1963 for disturbing the peace. [14]

Farmer was considered one of the “big four” of the Civil Rights Movement. [15]

Growing disenchanted with emerging militancy and black nationalist sentiments in CORE, Farmer resigned as director in 1966. He took a teaching position at Lincoln University, ahistorically black college (HBCU), and continued to lecture. In 1968 Farmer ran for U.S. Congress as a Liberal Party candidate backed by the Republican Party, but lost to Shirley Chisholm. His defeat was not total; in 1969 the newly elected President Richard Nixon offered him 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.[16]

Farmer retired from politics in 1971 but remained active, lecturing and serving on various boards and committees. In 1975 he co-founded Fund for an Open Society. Its vision is a nation in which people live in stably integrated communities, where political and civic power is shared by people of different races and ethnicities. He led this organization until 1999.

He published his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart in 1985. From 1984 through 1998, Farmer taught at Mary Washington College (now The University of Mary Washington) inFredericksburg, Virginia, where a bust of him now stands on campus and the multicultural center is named after him. They also named a program after him that encouraged minority students to enroll and enter college. It is the James Farmer Scholars program. In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Farmer died in 1999 in Fredericksburg, Virginia of complications from diabetes.


  • Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. James Farmer, Penguin-Plume, 1986 ISBN 0-452-25803-0

Several issues of Fellowship magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1992 (Spring, Summer and Winter issues) contained discussions by Farmer and George Houser about the founding of CORE. A conference at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 1992, “Erasing the Color Line in the North”, explored CORE and the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. Both Houser and Farmer attended. Academics and the participants unanimously agreed that the founders of CORE were Jim Farmer, George Houser and Bernice Fisher. The conference has been preserved on videotape available from Bluffton College.

Lay Bare the Heart was not the first book Farmer wrote. He also wrote and tried to publish Religion and Racism. The publisher, Harper Brothers, rejected the book. The editor highly praised the book, but the profit and loss team at Harper Brothers rejected it.

Farmer wrote and published Freedom-When in 1965.



Originalpeople Owner

Ro Ho

I'm the owner and creator of this website! I appreciate each and every one of you for joining, viewing, and shopping on my website! If you have any questions, fell free to ask!

Leave a Reply

We are on vacation so items ordered between April 11th and April 18th will be shipped on the 19th!!!