Thursday, October 08, 2009


by Cleo Brown

James L. Farmer Jr. was a great man. Born on January 12, 1920 in Marshall, Texas to James L. Farmer Sr. and to Pearl Marion Houston Farmer, his birthday was less than four days before Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday.

While Dr. King was alive, the fact that both King and Farmer were both Southern, were both Civil Rights Activist, were both JR.’s having been preceded by fathers with an “SR.” after their names denoting an enormous strength of character during a turbulent time for people of color, and both had similar birthdays although Dr. Farmer would concede that he was the elder-statesman of the two having preceded Dr. King by several years, was a cause of great consternation to James L. Farmer who insisted that people be able to tell the difference between himself and Dr. King.

Compounding, however, these external characteristics about the two men were internal intellectual and professional similarities which made Southerners spit upon mention of either name saying, “You seen one coon [nigger] you seen ‘em all.” Upon Dr. King’s death, however, James L. Farmer Jr. realized how strongly he had come to depend upon Martin Luther King who, unlike Farmer, was excellent at gaining access to and approval from The Press for what they both referred to as “The Cause.”

James Farmer’s Father had been the first African-American to be awarded his Doctorate in the state of Texas. Having secured a teaching post at the predominantly Black Wiley College in Marshall Texas in 1919, he was only one of twenty-five African Americans to have a Ph.D. in the Nation. The son of slaves, he instilled with-in his son a deep belief and a fierce pride within himself; not as a black man but as a man regardless of the color of his skin. Other schools at which James L. Farmer Sr. taught were Rust College, Samuel Huston College, The Gammon Theological Seminary, and The Howard University School of Theology. He and his son were also characters in The Denzel Washington film entitled The Great Debaters which is about the first black debating team to unseat The Harvard Debate Team as The National Champions. James Farmer Jr.’s mother was also a teacher.

James Farmer Jr. is, perhaps, most well-known as the founder of The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) whose tactics were the backbone of The Civil Rights Movement. Having been influenced by the passive, non-violent resistance techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi of India, Farmer imparted the principles of non-violent resistance to his disciples drilling into them the error of using aggression in The Civil Rights Movement. Non-violent, passive resistance depends upon one’s ability to remain calm and non-violent when confronted by racist oppression no matter how cruel and violent the oppressor(s) become. Just as the people of India at Gandhi’s instigation, consequently, had forced the world to pay attention to their plight subsequently gaining their independence from the British, African-Americans, in situation after situation, forced the world to take notice of the racial situation in The United States through the tactics and the methods used by CORE and The Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) lead by King. The Sit-Ins at lunch counters throughout the south, The Freedom Rides, and the Voter Registration Drives were all undertaken by CORE along with The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whom CORE depended upon for manpower as they depended upon the SCLC for The Press.

In addition to the use of passive, non-violent resistance, James L. Farmer was an integrationist throughout a period of time in our Nation’s History when to advocate Integration could get him lynched. Farmer believed, however, in ‘societal’ or public and professional integration. He believed that integration in business, particularly institutions owned and managed by Government should, out of necessity to preserve and to promote the integrity of The United States both internally and abroad, service all people in The United States including people of color. On the other hand, however, Farmer believed that in one’s personal life the Black Community needed to turn inward. Ironically, therefore, he married Lulu Peterson, a Caucasian member of CORE whom he met in 1949 when she was a graduate student at Northwestern University. Farmer’s reasoning in doing so had been that Lulu Peterson’s own family and friends had disowned her because of her association with CORE. To marry her, therefore, making her an honorary member of The African-American Community was the honorable thing to do. The couple had two daughters together named Tami and Abbey yet the marriage ended in Divorce. Lulu Peterson died in 1977.

James L. Farmer belonged to many Civil Rights Organizations whose goal it was to integrate the society in The United States on many levels: The N.A.A.C.P., S.C.L.C., CORE, and Students for a Democratic Society which eventually became known as SNCC. Along with Martin Luther King Jr., of the SCLC, Whitney Young of The Urban League, and Roy Wilkins of The NAACP the group comprised The Big Four who were staunch proponents and leaders of The Civil Rights Movement. CORE, under Farmer’s leadership, worked towards integration in education, theaters, coffee shops, recreation, voting, and the professions. And, although the thought of segregation in hospital facilities which depended upon the humanity of its employees to function broke his heart, Farmer was not inclined to desegregate the hospitals so firmly entrenched did he believe the racism to be embedded there. He was the proudest of his success in desegregating, along with the intervention of Robert F. Kennedy, Interstate travel through the use of Non-violent resistance on Freedom Rides. Initially, he and Dr. King had been advised not to participate in these Rides for Freedom because of the assumed violence to be used against the bus riders by those opposed to integration particularly in the south. Because of the extreme violence used, however, by anti-integrationist including throwing lit cigarette butts, flaming torches, and bombs

Dr. Farmer decided to join the peaceful demonstrators - one of whom had been Stokley Carmichael - on the busses. James L. Farmer Jr., by this time, was such a commanding presence that the violent anti-integrationist agitators ceased in their tactics permitting the bus to proceed on its way to Washington D.C. Attempts to gain for African-American people their right to vote the following year were not as successful in squashing violence when three CORE volunteers named James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered trying to investigate a church burning. Coming on the heels of the assassination of John F. Kennedy less than one year earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson used both tragedies to sign into legislation important Civil Rights Acts which made it illegal to discriminate against African-Americans in the exercise of their voting rights.

Farmer, himself, did spend time in jail. On the day on which Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” Farmer was in the midst of spending a twenty day sentence in Plaquemine, Louisiana for “disturbing the peace.” Hunted by The Louisiana State Troopers who were armed with “guns, cattle prods, and tear gas” Farmer learned that these State Troopers as well as the majority of a group of men from Bogalusa, Louisiana who had voted to assassinate him were all Democrats. With this information in mind as well as the knowledge that The Republican Party had been The Party of Abraham Lincoln James L. Farmer Jr. also encountered enormous philosophical differences between himself and The Presidential Administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson which were responsible for his withdrawal from The Democratic Party (His Father’s Party). In 1968, therefore, he ran for Congress as A Liberal Candidate backed by Republicans against The Democrat Candidate named Shirley Chisholm whom he lost to. He also supported the election and the re-election of other Republican-backed candidates although he supported the election of The Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey for President. Richard M. Nixon, consequently, appointed Farmer to become the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Farmer retired from politics, however, in 1971 saying that he had little taste for a profession in which one was required to promote oneself as a prostitute.

Although he was no longer active in politics; and although he had resigned his directorship in CORE as early as 1966 due to Core’s stance against The Vietnam War, following in his father’s footsteps James Farmer continued hid own tradition of working as an academic on the College Campuses of the United States. For James L. Farmer who had been taught and tutored by his well educated parents had been recognized as a child prodigy by the age of ten. When he was a young man of fourteen, Farmer’s brilliance was recognized by Melvin B. Tolson of Wiley College where Farmer excelled as student and as a member of the debate team. He received his Baccalaureate Degree before he turned twenty years old. Later in life, he was to continue his education as a graduate student of Theology in Howard University’s School of Religion. By his own admission, however, Farmer dropped out of Howard to pursue a career as a Civil Right’s Activist because, “I didn’t see how I could honestly preach the gospel of Christ in a church that practiced discrimination.” Despite his failure to secure a Doctorate, Farmer began teaching at the all-black Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania in 1967. From 1985 to 1998 he taught Politics, Civil Rights Tactics and Intervention, and a History of Race-Relations all rolled into one in History 200: An introduction to The Civil Rights Movement at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Severely afflicted with Diabetes to the extent that he had lost his sight and both of his legs to the disease , James L. Farmer Jr. died of complications due to Diabetes on July 9th, 1999. He was seventy-nine years old and the last of The Big Four from The Civil Rights Era to die having been preceded by Dr. King in 1968, Whitney Young in 1971, and Roy Wilkins in 1981. Prior to his death he had been awarded an honorary Doctorate from Morehouse University, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom from President William Jefferson Clinton in 1998.

About The Author: Cleo E. Brown has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis in Davis, California. She also has a B.A. Minor Degree in Political-Science and has completed course work towards a Ph.D. in Education from The University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. She is a Free Lance Writer and a Senior Editor at HHR.

NOTE: Farmer's marriage to Lula Peterson did not end in divorce. It ended when she died of the complications of Hogikins disease in 1977. source - "Lay Bare the Heart."


Gail K Beil said...

I've known Farmer, Jr. since 1982. As to his politics, he always said that no party should take for granted the black vote. (His father, by the way, was a"Lincoln "Republican) I would suggest that you take another look at "Lay Bare the Heart," for Farmer's views on political party affiliation.

Gail said...

Farmer's marriage to Lula Peterson did not end in divorce. It ended when she died of the complications of Hogikins disease in 1977. source - "Lay Bare the Heart." Please correct the error.