FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - The body is weak, but the voice is strong, the ideas even stronger, as James Farmer, the last of the "Big Four" civil rights leaders of the 1960s, talks about battles - past, present and future.
His voice is steady and determined, like the wheels of the Freedom Ride buses he organized and led into the Deep South in 1961 - an act that fundamentally altered the balance of forces in the civil rights struggle by pushing the federal government off the fence and into an alliance with the movement.
But at 77, blind and having lost one leg to diabetes, Farmer is keenly aware that he, too, will not get to the Promised Land of racial harmony in America.
Perception 'too simple'
"We killed Jim Crow - buried it forever," Farmer said in an interview. "Never again will you see 'White Only' and 'Colored Only' signs. But we came to realize that while we destroyed segregation, racism was still here - alive and well, in fact. We expected things to be substantially better by now. But our perception of the race problem was too simple."
And that is where Farmer is hopeful, believing that only TC sustained effort at educating today's children will move the country toward eliminating racism once and for all.
That education, of course, must include lessons of the past. Lessons to be learned from Farmer and his co-leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Whitney Young of the National Urban League.
But it also includes the thousands of unsung volunteers who marched against segregation.
And during a recent interview in his room at Mary Washington Hospital here, many of them seemed to come alive again as Farmer reminisced about the hopes and fears of those who forced America to make good on its promises.
He's been doing the same thing for the last 12 years at Mary Washington College, a state school of about 3,800 students, where he teaches a course titled "The History of the Civil Rights Movement."
Director of CORE
No one today can speak with the authority of Farmer on the subject. King, Wilkins and Young, the other members of the movement's "Big Four," are all dead.
Only Farmer, who was director of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), during the height of the movement, is still around to tell what it was like at the vanguard.
"The first question my students ask is how well did I know Dr. King and how closely did we work together," Farmer said. "The sum total of their knowledge of the civil rights movement is there was a man named Martin Luther King who had a dream, made a speech and was killed. We try to broaden that knowledge to the many aspects of the movement and the different personalities who were involved in it."
Farmer matter-of-factly expressed the opinion that history had given short shrift to his own role in the movement.
"It's understandable. Dr. King was a highly charismatic leader, an orator, and he was assassinated, which always makes a difference. Look at how Malcom X's fame grew and spread after his assassination. Of course, it happened with Dr. King, too," Farmer said.
Nearly lost in history, in fact, is that it was Farmer who adapted the nonviolent protests of India's Mohandas K. Gandhi to the civil rights movement, organizing restaurant sit-ins in Chicago in 1942. That was nearly two decades before the famous Woolworth lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., that sparked a wave of student protests in the Deep South in 1960.
It also was Farmer who helped organize desegregated bus trips into the Upper South in 1947 to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier that year that declared segregation in interstate bus travel unconstitutional.
"This all received very little publicity," he said.
But the news coverage of the Freedom Ride in 1961 - the grainy television images of white Southerners beating the bus riders unconscious, the haunting newspaper photographs of burned-out bus hulks - stunned not only the nation, but its political leaders.
At one point in the bloody conflict, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked King to prevail upon Farmer to call off the Freedom Ride to allow a cooling-off period.
"My reply was that we couldn't have a cooling-off period, that we had been in a cooling-off period for 350 years and that if we cooled off any more, we would be in a deep freeze," Farmer said. "So the Freedom Ride would have to go on."
And they did, with Kennedy working around the clock to make sure the riders would not be murdered. Never again would the federal government sit on the sidelines in the struggle.
The Freedom Ride
The Freedom Ride of blacks and whites, which began in Washington, D.C., ended in Jackson, Miss., where Farmer and the other freedom riders were arrested and eventually jailed in the notoriously harsh Parchman Prison.