The late James Farmer rose to prominence as one of the more visible civil rights leaders of his time. On this day in 1998, Farmer was honored by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Martin Luther King Day, just three days after his birthday.
Farmer was born January 12, 1920 in Marshall, Texas to educator parents. Farmer’s father was a professor at Wiley College, an HBCU. Despite the middle-class life he was provided, Farmer was not shielded from racism, experiencing that harsh reality when he was just a boy.
A child prodigy, Farmer entered Wiley at the age of 14, and excelled as a member of the debate team. Upon leaving Wiley in 1938 and earning a degree from Howard University’s School of Divinity in 1941, the teachings of Gandhi influenced his thinking much like it did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Farmer helped co-found the Congress of Racial Equality, better known as CORE, in the early ’40’s but was involved sporadically in its inception. However, in 1961 while working for the NAACP, Farmer was elected CORE’s National Director, which thrust him into the limelight alongside King and others in the burgeoning civil rights movement. The first of the Freedom Rides, a term Farmer coined, also took place that year in a bid to end segregation on buses across state lines.
Because he was a political moderate, he didn’t immediately align the fight for racial equality for Black citizens with other left-wing campaigns of the time, which differed from King’s approach. As a result, Farmer stepped down from CORE and entered politics, running unsuccessfully against Shirley Chisholm for a U.S. Congress seat in New York in the late ’60’s.
Farmer left Washington in frustration but remained politically active and co-founded the Fund for an Open Society and leading the group until 1999. In the latter part of his career, he taught at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Farmer passed in July 1999 after suffering from complications from diabetes.
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