James Leonard Farmer, Jr., civil rights leader and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was born on January 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas, to James Leonard Farmer, Sr., and Pearl Marion Houston Farmer. His father was a professor of religion at Wiley College. When James Jr. was six months old the family moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi, where his father taught at Rust College. In 1925 the family moved to Austin, Texas, where James Sr. joined the faculty at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson College). After a move to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1930, the Farmer family moved back to Marshall, Texas, in 1933. He graduated at age fourteen from Pemberton High in Marshall and, with a four-year scholarship, entered Wiley College that same year. There, under the guidance of Melvin B. Tolson, he became a member of the 1935 debate team that defeated the national champions from the University of Southern California. Tolson, Farmer, and the success of the Wiley debate team were the subjects of a 2007 film, The Great Debaters, which starred Denzel Washington.
After his 1938 graduation from Wiley, Farmer entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., and intended to become a minister in the Methodist Church. Under the wing of Professor Howard Thurman, Farmer was introduced to the concept of nonviolent protest pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi. He graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1941. Farmer intended to enter the Methodist ministry, but in 1941, the year he would have been ordained, the Methodist Church North and South reunited and isolated its African American members into a segregated jurisdiction. Rejecting the pulpit, Farmer chose instead to lead the fight against Jim Crow laws.
Farmer went to work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in Chicago and in 1942 led other members of FOR to form what he called the Committee of Racial Equality. The name was soon changed to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and its initial activities were sit-ins in the restaurants of Chicago. During the following decade he was employed by the NAACP as its program director (1959–60), and he worked with several labor unions seeking to end racial segregation. In 1961 he became the executive director of CORE. Convinced that mere victory in court cases would not provide equality, he decided to employ the confrontational but nonviolent tactics he had learned under Tolson and Thurman to challenge segregation in the bus stations of the South.
After a brief first marriage to Winnie Christie in 1945, Farmer married Lula Peterson in 1949. His wife played an important, though volunteer, role as comptroller of CORE until her death in 1977. The couple had two daughters, Tami and Abbey.
In May 1961, with twelve other black and white members of CORE, Farmer set out from Washington, D.C., on two buses headed for New Orleans. The Freedom Rides had begun. The death of his father when the Freedom Riders reached Atlanta sent Farmer back to Washington, D.C. In his absence one of the buses was torched in Anniston, Alabama, and freedom riders on the other were brutally beaten when the bus rolled into Montgomery, Alabama. Farmer rejoined the freedom rides a week later and was jailed in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison for thirty-nine days, the first of many times he clashed with local law enforcement officers in the South. He was incarcerated in Plaquemine, Louisiana, in 1963, for example, and was unable to attend Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, D.C. In 1964 the murder of three CORE workers—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—during the “Freedom Summer” effort to register voters in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, galvanized the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the national press. Farmer wrote of his CORE experiences in Freedom, When? (1965).
Unhappy with the militant direction CORE was taking, Farmer resigned his position as director in 1966. He taught classes at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and at New York University. He ran unsuccessfully against Shirley Chisholm for the United States Congress in 1968. Saying that no political party should count on the vote of black America, he ran as a Republican. He was rewarded for the effort by President Richard Nixon with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in April 1969. Less than two years after his appointment Farmer resigned, saying that he was frustrated by the Nixon administration’s lack of support for civil rights issues and by government bureaucracy. He accepted a position with the Coalition of American Public Employees (CAPE) and remained there for five years when his health began deteriorating. He lost his sight and both legs to the ravages of diabetes. In 1984 he joined the faculty of Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he remained until his retirement in 1998. His autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, was published in 1985.
Farmer received numerous honorary doctorates and awards, including the Omega Psi Phi Award (1961 and 1963), American Humanist Award (1976), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York American Civil Liberties Union (1998). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton in 1998. James Farmer, Jr., died on July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.