Biography

James Farmer

James Farmer

Freedom Rider New York, NY

Co-founder and National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), James "Jim" Farmer was the architect of the original CORE Freedom Ride of 1961. He saw the significance of desegregating interstate travel and the potential of repeating CORE's 1947 Journey of Reconciliation as a movement tactic. He endorsed a new name, "Freedom Ride," to win media attention and better communicate the mission and goals of the trip.

A child prodigy who earned early fame as a debater, Farmer grew up in Marshall, Texas, where his father, James L. Farmer, Sr. was a professor at the historically black Wiley College. Farmer devoted his career to civil rights and social justice causes, working for the NAACP and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), CORE's parent organization, prior to his February 1961 election as director of CORE.

Farmer's signature initiative was the Freedom Rides, initiated just three months after he took office. At that time, CORE was less well known than the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Farmer envisioned the ride as a way to vault CORE and its philosophy of nonviolent direct action to prominence on the national stage, with attendant opportunities for policy-making and fundraising.

Farmer took part in the ride, but returned to Washington, D.C. from Atlanta, GA on the morning of May 14 for his father's funeral. He was haunted by guilt as a result, especially since he was spared from some of the Rides' worst violence - the May 14 Anniston, AL Greyhound bus burning and the Birmingham, AL Trailways Bus Station Riot.

Farmer later recalled his emotions upon learning of his father's death in Atlanta. "There was, of course, the incomparable sorrow and pain," he said. "But frankly, there was also a sense of reprieve, for which I hated myself. Like everyone else, I was afraid of what lay in store for us in Alabama, and now that I was to be spared participation in it, I was relieved, which embarrassed me to tears."

On May 21, Farmer flew to rejoin the riders in Montgomery, AL. Upon arriving in Jackson, MS, three days later, Farmer was jailed for "breach of peace" and other charges and later was transferred to Mississippi's notorious Parchman State Prison Farm.

Historians acknowledge Farmer's central visionary role in bringing the Freedom Rides to fruition.

In 1966, Farmer eventually left CORE and the Civil Rights Movement, citing its growing acceptance of racial separation as his reason. He served in the Nixon Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and co-founded the Fund for an Open Society in 1975. President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

James Farmer died from complications of diabetes in 1999.

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