James L. Farmer Jr. Advocates Revolutionary Freedoms for African-Americans

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James Farmer speaking outside Hotel Theresa, New York City, 1965. Photographed by Stanley Wolfson, New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer


"America is being forced to face itself," James Farmer proclaims in this 1963 Overseas Press Club appearance, before discussing the upcoming march on Washington and the historical roots of the civil rights struggle.

While advocating nonviolence, Farmer -- the founder of CORE (first named the Committee, but soon changed to the Congress of Racial Equality), described here as the "Marines of the integration program" -- does not approve of neutrality or apathy. "This is the time for Americans to make up their minds," he warns. During the question period he responds with clarity and eloquence to queries concerning Black Muslims, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the relationship of blacks to Africa, and a variety of other issues.

Farmer sees the civil rights movement as a continuation of the American revolution, a bid to extend the rights given to the original (white, male) colonists to all citizens. There are, he claims, no "innocent bystanders" in this conflict. A true integrationist, he blames himself and other blacks just as much as whites for allowing these inequities to continue. Posing the question, "Why now?" he suggests a confluence of forces, notably the return of black soldiers who had fought in World War II, the emergence of independent African countries, and the growing frustrations of black youths. He emphasizes specific legislative reforms CORE and other organizations would like to see enacted and describes many of the beatings and mistreatment both black and white Freedom Riders have faced in the south. The question-and-answer segment provides a fascinating snapshot of a movement in many ways just about to reach its height, with the march and King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. It also foreshadows the movement's subsequent splintering as Farmer contrasts his stance with that of Malcolm X and makes a strong argument for busing, arguing that "integration is in itself an important educational value."

Farmer was considered one of the "Big Four" leaders of the civil rights movement. Along with King, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Whitney Young, of the Urban League; and Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Farmer helped transform the black community from near-apartheid status in the 1940s to a potent political and social force in the 1960s. This was an often bloody and hate-filled journey, which makes Farmer's strict adherence to  Gandhi's principles of nonviolence even more impressive.

Farmer was born in 1920. His father was a professor and minister (thought to be the first black man from Texas to ever earn a Ph.D.), and his mother a former teacher. The boy was quickly recognized as having extraordinary intellectual gifts. He attended college at the age of 14 and was captain of the debating team. (In the film The Great Debaters, he is portrayed by Denzel Whitaker.) He considered going into medicine or following his father into the ministry, but, unable to stand the sight of blood or tolerate the segregation of the Methodist church, he instead devoted himself to social activism. A 1942 incident in a Chicago diner, where he and his friend were denied service, led to his founding CORE. This early civil rights organization was both stoutly integrationist (in this talk he claims half its members are white) and resolutely nonviolent. Its principles were put to the test in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Attempting to gain enforcement of Supreme Court decisions ruling that segregated seating and terminals on interstate bus routes were unconstitutional, CORE members, as the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography recounts:

…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.

The irony of Farmer being vilified and incarcerated is that he was a political moderate and felt increasingly out of step with the direction the civil rights movement would take in the years immediately following this talk. He did not believe, as King did, in linking equality for the African-American with more general left-wing causes like protesting the war in Vietnam. In 1969, he shocked many followers by accepting an appointment from the Nixon administration to be assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Although he left the post a year later, he is quoted in the James Farmer Project website defending his actions:

For years, I had considered it a mistake for blacks to be "in the bag" for either party. The party that had them would consider them "safe" and would court those who were unsafe. The party that did not have them would ignore them, for they were beyond reach, and would concentrate on votes that were attainable.

For the rest of his life he taught and wrote. Severe health problems also limited his ability to take an active role in later developments of the civil rights struggle. He published his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, in 1985. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Summing up his unique position in those tumultuous years, Farmer is quoted in his New York Times obituary as saying:

"I lived in two worlds. One was the volatile and explosive one of the new black Jacobins and the other was the sophisticated and genteel one of the white and black liberal establishment. As a bridge, I was called on by each side for help in contacting the other.''

Farmer died in 1999, at the age of 79.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.