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James Leonard Farmer, Jr.
January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999
Civil Rights Leader


James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999) was a Black civil rights activist who was one of the "Big Four" leaders of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (along with Roy Wilkins, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney M. Young Jr.).

In 1942, Farmer and a group of students co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality, later known as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that sought to bring an end to racial segregation in America through active nonviolence. Farmer was the organization's first leader, serving as the national chairman from 1942 to 1944.

James L. Farmer, Jr. was born in 1920 in Marshall, Texas to James L. Farmer, Sr., a professor at Wiley College, a historically black college. His father was an American author, theologian, educator, and the first African-American from Texas to earn a doctorate (at Boston University).

James L. Farmer, Jr. was a child prodigy; at the age of 14, he was attending Wiley College, where he was on the debate team. His part in its winning performance was portrayed in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

During the 1950s, Farmer served as national secretary of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the youth branch of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy. SLID later became Students for a Democratic Society.

In 1961 Farmer, who was working for the NAACP, was reelected as the national director of CORE, at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining power. He immediately planned a repeat of CORE's 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, a trip of eight white and eight black men challenging segregation in transportation in the Upper South. This time, however, the group planned to journey through the Deep South. Farmer coined a new name for the trip: the Freedom Ride.

On May 4, the participants, this time including women as well as men, journeyed to the Deep South and challenged segregated bus terminals as well as seating on the vehicles. The riders were met with severe violence and garnered national media attention. Their efforts sparked a summer of similar rides by other Civil Rights leaders and thousands of ordinary citizens. Although the Freedom Rides were attacked by whites, they became recognized as an effective strategy, and the Congress of Racial Equality received nationwide attention. Farmer became a well-known civil rights leader. The Freedom Rides captured the imagination of the nation through photographs, newspaper accounts, and motion pictures. They inspired Erin Gruwell's teaching techniques and the Freedom Writers Foundation.

Growing disenchanted with emerging militancy and black nationalist sentiments in CORE, Farmer resigned as director in 1966. He took a teaching position at Lincoln University, a historically black college (HBCU), and continued to lecture. In 1968 Farmer ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican, but lost to Shirley Chisholm. His defeat was not total; the newly elected President Richard Nixon offered him the position of Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).

Farmer retired from politics in 1971 but remained active, lecturing and serving on various boards and committees. In 1975 he co-founded Fund for an Open Society. Its vision is a nation in which people live in stably integrated communities, where political and civic power is shared by people of different races and ethnicities. He led this organization until 1999.

He published his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart in 1985. He lived to see CORE move closer to its centrist roots in the 1980s and 1990s. From 1984 through 1998, Farmer taught at Mary Washington College (now The University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Farmer died in 1999 in Fredericksburg, Virginia of complications from diabetes.

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