Early civil rights leader James Farmer, 79, dies

Founder of CORE espoused nonviolence adopted by movement


James S. Farmer, a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the last survivor of the "Big Four" who shaped the civil rights struggle in the United States in the mid-1950s and '60s, died yesterday at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., where he lived. He was 79.

Mr. Farmer had been in failing health for years, losing his sight and his legs to severe diabetes.

"He was an authentic activist willing to challenge obscene laws and unfair customs through nonviolent direct action," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"He challenged injustice at its root. He was willing to take to the streets and stimulate and precipitate. He was a catalyst."

Mr. Farmer's main colleagues in the civil rights movement were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was assassinated in 1968; Whitney Young of the Urban League, who died in 1971; and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who died in 1981.

Although attention in recent years has focused on Dr. King, Mr. Farmer played a towering role in the movement as a direct-action leader of the organization popularly known as CORE.

Claude Sitton, who covered the South for the New York Times during the civil rights struggle, observed: "CORE under Mr. Farmer often served as the razor's edge of the movement. It was to CORE that the four Greensboro, N.C., students turned after staging the first in the series of sit-ins that swept the South in 1960.

"It was CORE that forced the issue of desegregation in interstate transportation with the Freedom Rides of 1961. It was CORE's James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- a black and two whites -- who became the first fatalities of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964."

The three were murdered by Klansmen while they were investigating a church burning and promoting black voter registration.

Mr. Farmer risked his life in several demonstrations. In 1963, Louisiana state troopers armed with guns, cattle prods and tear gas hunted him door to door when he was trying to organize protests in the town of Plaquemine.

"I was meant to die that night," Mr. Farmer once said. "They were kicking open doors, beating up blacks in the streets, interrogating them with electric cattle prods." A funeral home director had Mr. Farmer "play dead" in the back of a hearse that carried him along back roads and out of town.

Mr. Farmer went to jail for "disturbing the peace" in Plaquemine and was behind bars Aug. 28, 1963, the day Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech as the climax of the March on Washington.

Mr. Farmer was a disciple of Mohandas Gandhi, and it was Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent direct action that was to become his weapon against discrimination. A fierce integrationist, he enlisted whites and blacks as CORE volunteers.

Some white liberals who generally approved of what Mr. Farmer was doing frequently advised him to be more patient with a recalcitrant society dominated by whites. They thought that the doctrine of nonviolence was radical in its use of picketing and sit-ins. Some thought it engendered bellicose responses from whites that did nothing to further amicable race relations.

On one tense occasion in the early 1960s, after a particularly vicious spate of violence, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy suggested that Mr. Farmer's followers postpone some of their "freedom rides" -- designed to desegregate the interstate bus system in the South -- so that everyone could "cool off."

Mr. Farmer refused, saying, "We have been cooling off for 350 years."

As the turbulent decade of the 1960s unfolded, some blacks who despaired that they would ever have an amicable relationship with the white majority and regarded nonviolence as more of a weakness than a strength, on occasion would ask Mr. Farmer, "When are you going to fight back?"

He would always reply, "We are fighting back, we're only using new weapons."

"I lived in two worlds," he said late in life, recalling his role in the movement. "One was the volatile and explosive one of the new black Jacobins and the other was the sophisticated and genteel one of the white and black liberal establishment. As a bridge, I was called on by each side for help in contacting the other."

Mr. Farmer, the son of a minister and the grandson of a slave, came to feel that his generation of leaders had been all but forgotten in recent years. He was appalled to learn that in one survey of blacks taken in the 1990s, somebody said he thought that Dr. King's claim to fame was that he had "worked for Al Sharpton" and that many young blacks had never heard of Mr. Wilkins, Whitney Young and Mr. Farmer, or had only the vaguest notion of what they had stood for.

So when President Clinton awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 1998, Mr. Farmer said he felt "vindication, an acknowledgment at long last."

Mr. Farmer's wife, Lula, died in 1976 of Hodgkin's disease, leaving him to raise their two young daughters. He never remarried.

He is survived by the daughters, Tami Farmer Gonzales, who also lives near Fredericksburg, and Abbey Farmer Levin of Potomac; and a granddaughter.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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