Underrated in life, Farmer leaves a courageous legacy

July 14, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

I FLIP the book open to its very first page and gaze at the handwriting on it.

"To Gregory, my best -- James Farmer."

The book is Farmer's "Lay Bare The Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement." It was published in 1985. Four or five years later, Farmer was in Baltimore to speak at the Gilman School. I weaseled out of work that day to listen the man who might have been the most underrated and unheralded of America's civil rights leaders and to get him to autograph my copy of his book.

I don't ordinarily ask for autographs and don't usually have authors sign books. But this Farmer guy, I figured, was something special, perhaps the greatest -- certainly the most courageous -- civil rights leader of his era.

He died Friday of complications from the diabetes that had taken his sight and both legs. Farmer got an adequate page six obituary in The Sun, but not the one he should have received, given his role on the civil rights movement.

"He had a great impact here [in Maryland,]" said Dr. Chester Wickwire, the retired Johns Hopkins University chaplain who was a major civil rights figure locally. "I think he had a greater impact at certain levels than [Martin Luther] King did."

Farmer, in fact, was in the civil rights business while King was still a schoolboy in Atlanta. He organized the first civil rights sit-in at an all-white Chicago restaurant in 1942. That same year, Farmer and others founded the Committee of Racial Equality. Later the name was changed to the Congress of Racial Equality. The organization preceded by more than a decade King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was involved in far more civil rights activity.

Whenever and wherever civil rights workers went into action, more often than not it was CORE members leading the way. The Freedom Rides of the early 1960s -- in which blacks and whites boarded buses and traveled into the heart of Dixie with the blacks sitting in front and whites sitting in the rear to protest segregation in interstate travel -- were led by CORE. The three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi's Neshoba County in 1964 -- Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney -- were CORE members who were arrested while investigating a church burning.

In Maryland, Wickwire said, CORE was just as active -- desegregating restaurants on the Eastern Shore, conducting Freedom Rides along U.S. 40 and leading the way to the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.

"CORE was out every year on All Nations' Day to see that the place opened up," Wickwire recalled of the organization's activities just before the mass 1963 demonstrations that finally led the amusement park's owners to admit blacks.

According to Wickwire, Farmer visited Baltimore frequently during the civil rights era. He spoke here in 1961 and at an open housing meeting in 1965 at the Prince Hall Masons building.

"He spoke about the seeds of violence in slum housing and the need for freedom of choice [in housing,]" Wickwire said. "He spent more time here than other leaders did, but didn't get the same kind of acclaim."

A. Robert Kaufman, probably Baltimore's only mayoral candidate who was an original member of the local CORE chapter that started here in the early 1950s, remembers one of Farmer's visits. Kaufman remembers he wasn't too impressed with Farmer.

"I was being redbaited by CORE people at the time," claimed Kaufman, a lifelong Trotskyist. "[Farmer] was here for a CORE conference. They had a march from the conference site -- a church on upper Broadway near Gay -- to City Hall. I was told by the police that there were people in the march who objected to who I was."

Police yanked Kaufman from the march and questioned him. Later Kaufman was standing in front of the church talking with three other men about the lack of freedom in the United States. A cop came up and said they were holding an illegal meeting and arrested Kaufman when he kept right on talking. Kaufman said he protested to Farmer, who expressed little interest in his plight.

"I don't have much respect for Farmer for that reason," Kaufman said. "There was a lot of redbaiting going on in the movement at that time."

Kaufman's view is most definitely in the minority. As Wickwire noted, Farmer helped bring about changes in the nation and the state that we take for granted today. We would all do well to pause and reflect on the greatness of the man we have just lost.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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