James Farmer and the Roots of a Black Activist-Intellectual

Whitney Young, James Farmer, and Lee White at White House Civil Rights meeting

James Farmer conceptualized and developed a nonviolent direct-action philosophy that could be applied in the United States. He drew inspiration from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) and the Indian Independence Movement. As a Pacificist and a Norman Thomas socialist, Farmer would reimagine nonviolent direct-action in the United States to address Jim Crow. Thirteen years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. Nonviolent- direct action became CORE’s guiding philosophy and praxis. After eighty years since CORE’s founding, it is appropriate to revisit Farmer’s autobiography Lay Bare the Heart and by extension his experiences in segregated Black communities to assess the shaping of his intellect and commitment to racial justice which made him a Black activist- intellectual defined as “having a commitment to knowledge in the service of community, society and humanity.” The following quotes are taken from Farmer’s autobiography. 

Farmer was born January 12, 1920, in Texas, to Dr. James Farmer, Sr. who was also a Methodist preacher, and Mrs. Pearl Farmer, a graduate from Bethune-Cookman Institute and teacher. They would move to Mississippi six-months later when his father took a position at Rust College in Holly Springs. Farmer recalls, “My memories of life within the campus community are of almost no negatives, only positives- being praised as a paragon, a repository of all virtues and gifts.” The popular narrative of the Black experience in Mississippi, the South in general, is one of extreme racism and poverty, and yet Farmer was raised in and around a Historically Black College to educated parents and a nurturing community sheltering him from the cruelties of Jim Crow. Periodically, when visiting the white part of town, he would be exposed to the realities of racism. Nevertheless, he was reaffirmed and encouraged by a family and community with high expectations of him. 

In spring of 1925, the Farmer’s moved to Austin, Texas where Dr. Farmer would teach at Samuel Huston College now Huston-Tillotson University. Young Farmer received high academic marks in grade school often without studying. And yet, by 1927, Farmer was becoming more race conscious, aware of the separate Black and white worlds. He recalls, “No longer did I live on a self-contained black college campus, but it was still an all-black world contiguous to a mysterious white one. There were thousands, tens of thousands, of shadowy figures out there. If we were ‘invisible men,’ they, too, were invisible-to us.” Farmer does not feel like his childhood was lacking or deprived by race and racism. As a child, Farmer saw, “The two separate worlds intertwined somehow, yet they seemed not to touch.” Farmer, then, is aware of the separation between Black and white communities in his youth, but as he reflects, he does not feel hampered by segregation. In fact, the segregated Black community was a cultural incubator nurturing and encouraging his moral and intellectual development. His intelligence, moral compass, self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence were able to grow unconstrained by racism. Farmer’s intellectual and cultural development shapes how he assesses three very memorable interactions with white people revealing his early commitment to racial justice. 

First, in 1927, Farmer took a job on Saturdays with friends at a country club as a caddy. One day, while sitting on benches separating Black and white caddy’s, a white kid setting next to Farmer repeatedly elbowed him in the ribs. Farmer, not wanting to fight, because he had never won a fight, sat there taking the blows until Farmer’s friend, Nelson, told Farmer to switch seats with him after he figured out what was going on. When the white kid elbowed Nelson, Nelson responded in kind nearly knocking the kid off the bench. The white kid challenged Nelson and the group of Black and white kids met in a nearby vacant area. Farmer was afraid to fight if the one-on- one fight became a big rumble. Once the wrestling began and Nelson tossed the white boy to the ground, the white boy responded by pulling out a switch blade. Farmer recalled that instance, “With adrenaline pumping hard, even I, who had never won a fight… felt ready for a do-or-die effort.” The other white boys took the knife away, then, embarrassed, the white kid that made the challenge walked away from the fight. This experience revealed to Farmer that not all white kids and their families lived in fancy houses. These were “ragtag boys.” They were not invincible. Furthermore, Farmer, a boy who could not fight and would later become a Pacifist, was ready and willing to do battle when the situation was necessary.   

Second, Dr. Farmer and family were driving home one late Sunday afternoon when a pig darted into the road, Dr. Farmer tried to avoid hitting the pig to no avail. Dr. Farmer continued driving knowing that stopping in that rural area would not be safe for him and his family. A few miles down the road, they pulled over to bask in the sun and share the pre-packed family meal. Two white men drove up, got out their truck, one carrying a shotgun, and bellowed “Hey” resulting in Dr. Farmer leaping to attention and walking to the men with young Farmer avoiding his mothers’ grasp and walking behind his father. Demanding to be paid for the dead pig, Dr. Farmer offered to endorse his salary check to the white man considering that he did not have any money on him. The white man dropped the check on the ground and directed Dr. Farmer to “pick it up, n****r.” Young Farmer remembers silently screaming, “Don’t do it, daddy. Don’t pick it up. He dropped it. Let him pick it up.” Dr. Farmer picked it up, filling young Farmer with anger and shame as he walked back to his mother. Farmer remembers thinking, “I’ll never do that when I grow up. They’ll have to kill me.” Witness to this exchange, young Farmer lost some respect for his father. He also observed the racial contract. He witnessed how the realities of racism reduced his highly accomplished father to a racial submissive in the presence of less sophisticated white men.  

Lastly, when Farmer was ten years old, he went with his father into town to make arrangements for his Uncle Fred and family to take the train back to New York after their visit in Austin. They had no problem getting a Pullman reservation with a bedroom going from the American North to South but expected problems getting such accommodations going from the American South back North. Believing he could get the desired accommodations, Dr. Farmer set out to the railroad station to address the matter. Young Farmer accompanied his father to the railroad station dressed in their Sunday best. Dr. Farmer introduced himself as the registrar for Samuel Huston College, and that he had a guest, Mr. Frederick Jones from New York City who needed to rush back to New York with his family for an important meeting. Implying that the railroad would not want Jones, a newspaper editor for a Black newspaper, to bring negative press and attention, Dr. Farmer succeeded in securing the desired accommodations by telling lies. Farmer recalls his father explaining to him on the ride home, “‘Junior,’ he said, ‘I had to tell that lie about your Uncle Fred. That was the only way we could get the reservation. The Lord will forgive me.’” 

This event and explanation unsettled Farmer. He explains, “I was deeply troubled by my father’s accommodation to a system that made him less than a man. I despised that within him that would not fight, perhaps because I saw the same survival instinct in myself. But I swore that when I grew up, scared or not, I’d never kowtow to meanness.” Farmer had seen enough of the world, and his father’s accommodation to it, to motivate him into a life pursuing racial justice. Central to this pursuit, was not compromising his humanity and integrity in the face of racism. To give into racial injustice is to be less than human, and Farmer’s childhood experiences embedded in him a strong commitment to ending Jim Crow; the de jure and de facto laws that made his father and every other Black person forced to compromise (to varying degrees) their humanity. 

James Farmer was a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement. It was Farmer’s cultural grounding and intellect that was nurtured by his family and Black community that provided him the confidence in himself and his abilities to pursue racial justice. In addition, witnessing Jim Crow’s effect on his father, and by extension the Black community, set the foundation for Farmer’s life work. He asserts, “In the precious child, two warring natures had emerged. One gentle, even timid; the other hotly rebellious. One repelled by violence that everywhere abounded, the other impelled to rebel against twin conformities.” Essentially, at the heart of CORE’s founding is a Black intellectual-activists quest to liberate all Black people from the shameful accommodating existence that racism created. 

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history, the social sciences, and critical thinking. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.

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