James L. Farmer, Jr.

James Leonard Farmer Jr. (January 12, 1920 - July 9, 1999) was a one of the "big three" leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in Marshall, Texas, Farmer was an excellent student who skipped several grades in elementary school. At fourteen he attended Wiley College where his father taught. Farmer graduated in 1938, and then attended to Howard University's School of Religion. He graduated from Howard in 1941. When World War II began the pacifist Farmer refused to serve, especially in a segregated army. He opposed war in general, and more specifically objected to serving in the segregated armed forces. Farmer was deferred from the draft because he held a divinity degree. Farmer decided to fight the Methodist Church's policy of segregation rather than become an ordained minister.

In 1942 Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE, a pacifist organization dedicated to achieving racial harmony and equality through non-violence.

In 1961 Farmer, who had taken a hiatus from leading the group, returned as its national director and sought to repeat the 1947 journey - coining a new name for it: the Freedom Ride. On May 4, participants journeyed to the deep South, this time including women as well as men, and tested segregated bus terminals as well seating on the vehicles. The riders were met with severe violence and garnered national attention, sparking a summer of similar rides by other Civil Rights leaders and thousands of ordinary citizens.

Though by the mid 1960s Farmer was growing disenfranchised with emerging militancy and black nationalist sentiments in CORE and in 1966 resigned.

He took a teaching position at Lincoln University and continued to lecture. In 1968 Farmer ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican, but lost to Shirley Chisholm. However his defeat was not total, the recently elected President, Richard Nixon, offered him the position of Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Farmer retired from politics in 1971, but remained active lecturing and serving on various boards and committees. He published his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, in 1985. Farmer lived to see CORE move closer to its centrist roots the 1980s and 1990s. President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.


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

There is much discussion by Farmer and Houser on the founding of CORE in several issues of Fellowship magazine of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1992 (Spring, Summer and Winter issues) and a conference in October that year, "Erasing the Color Line in the North," on CORE and the origins of the Civil Rights Movement at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, attended by both Houser and Farmer. Academics and the participants themselves agreed the founders of CORE were Jim Farmer, George Houser and Berniece Fisher. The conference has been preserved on videotape.

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