Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Peacemaker Profiles # 5 James Farmer

James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (1920-1999)  was born in Marshall, TX (USA), the son of a Methodist minister, living and working in the Jim Crow South during the very worst days of segregation.  He was raised to value education, religious faith, and working for social justice.  An outstanding student, he graduated from Wiley College with a B.A. in philosophy in 1938 (at the age of 18!), earning a full scholarship to Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D.C.  There he earned a Master of Sacred Theology (MST) in 1940.

Farmer became a thoroughgoing Christian pacifist while at Howard and, having been introduced to the work of Gandhi in India (still ongoing at the time), Farmer determined to use Gandhian methods to forge a mass movement for Black liberation in the USA. (Through the Black Press, African Americans followed Gandhi and the Indian struggle far more closely than did their white contemporaries.) As a Christian pacifist, Farmer refused to serve in World War II and applied for exemption from the draft as a Conscientious Objector–something seldom granted to African Americans in those days.  When his application was rejected, he prepared to serve time in prison rather than violate his conscience by taking up arms, but he was unexpectedly given a clergy exemption from the draft–on the basis of his divinity school degree, even though he was never ordained. (Farmer refused to follow his father into the Methodist ministry because the Methodist Church–South–now part of the United Methodist Church–was segregated.)

Upon graduation from divinity school, Farmer joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a religiously-based grassroots organization working for peace and justice since 1914.  At the FOR, Farmer was assigned to work on racial justice issues in Chicago.  Together with other FOR members, Farmer’s work in Chicago led to the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942 as an instrument to help forge a Gandhian mass movement of nonviolent direct action to end segregation.  CORE, with Farmer as the first national director, was to be dedicated to nonviolent methods, but, as a vehicle for mass action, would be open to non-pacifists who agreed to abide by nonviolent discipline–whereas all who joined the F.O.R. were expected to be committed to religiously-rooted pacifism. 

After using Gandhian methods to integrate several Chicago restaurants and other facilities, Farmer conceived of a “Journey of Reconciliation,” whites and blacks riding Trailways and Greyhound buses together through the upper-South in order to test compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional.  The Journey of Reconciliation, co-sponsored by CORE and the FOR, happened in 1947 and was a partial success–setting the pattern for the later Freedom Rides on 1960-1962, also initiated by Farmer and CORE.

During the 1960s, Farmer, as head of CORE, was considered one of the “Big Four” civil rights leaders, along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of The National Urban League, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  The charismatic and brilliant Farmer was a major strategist in the Freedom Movement until CORE began to leave its nonviolent philosophy in the later ’60s. (It returned to its nonviolent roots in the 1980s and continues in that path, today.) Farmer resigned from CORE in 1965 when it began to reject white members as it embraced the new separatist militant philosophy of Black Nationalism that was so strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Farmer pointed out that his own wife was white and declared that he no interest in being part of a Black Nationalist organization.

Previously, when CORE had spoken out against the Vietnam War, Farmer had insisted that the organization reverse itself.  He remained a committed pacifist and opposed the war as an individual, but believed that CORE, as an organization, should stay focused on the struggle for racial justice and reconciliation. 

After leaving CORE, Farmer taught at Lincoln University from 1966 to1968.  A lifelong member of the (now extinct?) progressive wing of the Republican party, Farmer ran for the U.S. Congress from Pennsylvania in 1968, losing to Shirley Chisholm, an African-American Democrat (and, later, presidential candidate).  After his loss to Chisholm, President Richard Nixon (R) appointed Farmer as Asst. Sec. of Health, Education, and Welfare in charge of anti-poverty programs. Farmer resigned from this post in 1971, when he could no longer defend Nixon’s racial policies.  Farmer continued to teach and lecture widely and to work for social change.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the U.S. government.  Farmer was the author of Freedom When? (1966) and his autobiographical memoir, Lay Bare the Heart (1985).


January 25, 2011 - Posted by | blog series, heroes, human rights, nonviolence, peacemakers


  1. Thanks for this, Michael. I think Farmer is a fascinating character. I just ordered his autobiography, thanks to your essay. I think the role of Farmer and Bayard Rustin is crucial. They were the links between the principled nonviolence tradition and the civil rights movement. There is no MLK without Farmer and Rustin.

    Have you or do you plan to write about James Lawson?

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | January 26, 2011 | Reply

    • I plan on writing about both Rustin and Lawson on this blog. I wrote a guide to the major leaders and organizations of the Freedom Movement that is published by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 26, 2011 | Reply

  2. Is that guide available on-line? Or, how would one find a hard copy?

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | January 26, 2011 | Reply

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Michael! I’m particulary intrigued by the often overlooked pre-Rosa Parks stories of the Civil rights movement in which Farmer clearly played an important role.

    Comment by haitianministries | January 30, 2011 | Reply

    • Yes, had his timing been slightly better, it might’ve been Farmer who was the household name and MLK, Jr. who was the civil rights leader trivia question.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 31, 2011 | Reply

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