James Farmer, the first director of CORE, was born in Marshall, Texas, on January 12th, 1920. His father was a minister and college professor and his grandfather had been a slave. Farmer became a major figure in the civil rights movement and received the ultimate accolade for his work when President Clinton awarded him the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1998.
James Farmer proved to be an outstanding student. Born in a state where education was clearly not ‘separate but equal’, he persevered in a system whereby black children had many obstacles put in their way with regards to a decent schooling. His parents cultivated in Farmer a love of education and he joined Wiley College in Texas at the age of fourteen. While here, Farmer experienced discrimination at first hand. When he went to the cinema, he had to sit in what was known as the “buzzard’s roost” – the balcony where black people had to sit.
From Wiley College, he went to Howard University’s School of Religion. He graduated from here in 1941. Farmer opposed war in general and when America declared war on Japan in December 1941, he applied for conscientious objector status. In 1942, he founded, along with other religious pacifists, CORE – the Congress for Racial Equality.
|“CORE under Farmer often served as the razor’s edge of the (civil rights) movement. It was to CORE that the four Greensboro, NC, students turned after staging the first in the series of sit-ins that swept the South in 1960. It was CORE that forced the issue of desegregation in interstate transportation with the Freedom Rides of 1961. It was CORE’s James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner who became the first fatalities of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.”Richard Severo|
Farmer decided to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and he became the organisation’s secretary for race relations. His father had hoped that he would become a Methodist minister, but Farmer was appalled that this church had a policy of segregated congregations in the South.
|“I didn’t see how I could honestly preach the Gospel of Christ in a church that practiced discrimination.”Farmer|
FOR placed a great belief in religious pacifism. But Farmer became more and more interested in the principle of non-violent resistance as preached by Mahatma Ghandi.
Farmer was one of the original founders of CORE. However, he resigned as the movement’s director in 1965 believing that it was drifting away from the principle of non-violent resistance and losing sight of its original goal – an end to discrimination. In 1965, some CORE officials called for America to pull out its troops from Vietnam. Farmer disapproved of the organisation involving itself in foreign policy – even though he did disapprove of the war – at the expense of domestic policy, and he resigned his post as a result.
He continued speaking out about civil rights issues and eventually joined Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
In 1968, Farmer failed in his attempt to get into Congress. Standing as a Republican, he lost to an African American (Shirley Chisholm) who stood for the Democrats. After this failure, Farmer worked in the administration of Richard Nixon as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Some in the civil rights cause criticised him for taking the post from a president not automatically associated with the civil rights movement. Farmer defended himself by claiming that it was better for him to be in the government that outside of it. He resigned from the position in 1970 as he believed that Washington bureaucracy was too slow to get anything effective done.
James Farmer retired from politics in 1971 and continued to teach and lecture. In 1976, he resigned from CORE as he did not approve of the organisation’s support of a Marxist faction in Angola during a civil war in that country.
Before he died, an ill Farmer was asked about death (he was suffering from severe diabetes). He said to an interviewer that if the Devil say James Farmer, the Devil would say:
|“Oh, my God, don’t let that nigger in! He’ll organise a resistance movement and try to put out my fire!”|
James Farmer died on July 9th, 1999.