James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), originally founded in 1942 as the Committee of Racial Equality, was the brainchild of an interracial group of students in Chicago. Among them was James L. Farmer, Jr., a native of Marshall, Texas. Born in 1920, Farmer would skip several grades before entering college at age 14 at Wiley College where his father taught Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. While there Farmer was on Wiley’s legendary debate team (featured in Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters”). Farmer initially intended to become a Methodist minister, but he later left the Methodist church because it remained segregated in the south.
Farmer was an important advocate of bringing Mohandas Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent direct action into the civil rights movement and CORE played a vital role in leading non-violent resistance like boycotts. Farmer a friend were among the first to use sit-ins to pressure local businesses. The lessons of these early non-violent protests would become the heart of early CORE efforts and would be the model for sit-ins across the nation. In 1961 Farmer directed the “Freedom Rides” that helped interstate bus service in the South. While advocating peaceful tactics, Farmer was far from politically passive. In the 1960s when Attorney General Robert Kennedy advised CORE to cool down and not press ahead with efforts to integrate Farmer refused, saying, “We have been cooling off for 350 years.”
Farmer was one of the most important leaders in the civil right movement but less visible than Martin Luther King. Farmer was in jail for “disturbing the peace” in Plaquemine, Louisiana the day that Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as the climax of the March on Washington. While he was not able to attend, Farmer speech was read by Floyd McKissick, an aide in CORE. His speech proclaimed, “We will not stop until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.”
By the late 1960s, Farmer, saw CORE drift away from its pacifist roots, Farmer was upset by CORE’s leftist positions, including siding with the Marxists in the civil war in Angola. Farmer left the organization he had helped found and had led. Although he endorsed Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968, he ran for the US House against Shirley Chisholm. Although he ran as a member of the Liberal party he was endorsed by the Republican party that saw him as their best chance to unseat Chisholm. He was defeated in the election, but he noted in his autobiography that it won him the unique distinction of being the first black man in US history to be defeated by a black woman in a congressional election. Despite not being a member of the Republican party Farmer was asked in 1969 to become Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the administration of President Richard Nixon. He remained in office only until 1970 leaving over frustration with disagreements with the President and the resistance of the bureaucracy.
While sometimes overlooked by some, he felt somewhat vindicated when President Clinton honored him on January 15, 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clinton proclaimed, “Our Nation proudly salutes James Farmer for his extraordinary work to combat discrimination and bring racial harmony and healing to our land.”


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