James Farmer: Co-Founder of CORE

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Talia Lunken

In April of 2023, an article was posted on the Nonviolence Project about the Congress of Racial Equality. This organization, also known as CORE, set the foundation for the civil rights movement. One of the figures behind this organization is James Farmer. Many do not know this name, as it is not as much of a household name unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, all leaders in the civil rights movement. However, Farmer’s impact was immeasurable for the civil rights movement.

James Farmer looking at the camera with a sign reading "END SEGREGATION ACROSS THE NATION. CORE." on it.James Farmer (pictured on the right) was born in Marshall, Texas, on January 12, 1920, to Pearl Marion Houston and James Leonard Farmer Sr.[1][2][3] His mother, Pearl, was a teacher. His father, James, was the son of an enslaved person, and he became a college professor of theology. He is believed to be the first black man in Texas to earn a doctorate.[4] At just six months old, Farmer moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi.[5] Growing up, Farmer spent most of his time on black college campuses in the South. There were not normally racial incidents happening in these areas, and his family did not speak much of the segregated world outside campus. At the age of four, James was exposed to the realities of his race for the first time. He was shopping with his mother when he asked for a soft drink. He watched a white child go into a segregated drug store, and when he got home, his mother explained why he was not able to do the same thing. When recalling this story, Farmer explains, “Until then, I had not realized that I was colored… I had lived a sheltered life on campus.”[6]

Completing high school at the young age of 14, James attended Wiley College, the college his father taught at.[7][8] In 1938, he graduated from college and enrolled in Howard University School of Divinity. Howard is where James Farmer first learned about the teachings of Gandhi, which would later inform his work in the Congress of Racial Equality. After earning his Bachelor of Divinity in 1941, Farmer declined ordination as a Methodist minister as he felt he could not preach the gospel in a segregated church. He ended up being granted conscientious objector status during World War II, and he became the Race Relations Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was a pacifist organization.[9]

In 1941, James Farmer went home to the South. At home, he went to the movie theatre and up to the “crow’s nest,” which was the area reserved for blacks only when he realized that, although he believed Jim Crow Laws were wrong, he was still supporting them with his daily actions. As a result of this realization, Farmer wrote a memorandum posing this dilemma, calling for the formation of a group of individuals to come together “to take personal nonviolent direct action to end discrimination.”[10] In the spring of 1942, the memo circulated widely among a variety of groups, from students to liberals, pacifists, socialists, and religious groups.[11]

One afternoon that spring, James Farmer went for a walk with George Houser, a white friend. They stopped on the South Side for coffee and donuts at Jack Spratt’s Coffee Shop. There, the counterman made them wait while almost no one else was in the restaurant and tried to charge them a dollar per were selling for a nickel. Ultimately, the counterman threw their money on the floor and ordered them out of the shop. Farmer, Houser, and others staged a successful sit-in at Jack Spratt’s Coffee Shop, thus being the first direct action of CORE.[12] This sit-in was the first race relations sit-in in America.[13] This incident and the memo were the motivation for CORE, at the time, the Committee on Racial Equality.[14]

In 1942, James Farmer co-founded CORE with an interracial group of University of Chicago students.[15] CORE had two guiding principles at the start that remained for the next two decades. The first being “a commitment to nonviolent direct action on the Gandhian model.”[16] The second being “an equally strong insistence upon interracial efforts to attain the goal of a fully integrated, egalitarian society.”[17] At the onset, CORE was named the Committee of Racial Equality, but later was renamed the Congress of Racial Equality.[18]

Farmer married Dolores Winifred Inez Christie on April 19, 1946. They divorced over a year later, in November 1947, after she had a miscarriage and he had an affair. In May of 1949, Farmer remarried to actress Lulu A. Peterson, a white woman who was a member of CORE. The two had twins, a son and a daughter, who both passed away after premature births.[19] They later had two daughters, Tami and Abbey.[20]

James Farmer became the first national director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1961. This was the same year he mobilized CORE to conduct interracial freedom rides.[21] Up until Farmer was appointed national director, the organization was overwhelmingly middle class, with the highest offices being filled by whites.[22] By this time, there was a membership of over 82,000 and 114 local groups making up CORE.[23] Farmer was arrested several times and even imprisoned throughout his life due to protesting. In 1961, during the Freedom Rides, a lot of violent resistance was faced. Farmer and the riders were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, while integrating a restaurant at the bus terminal, and they refused to make bond, spending 40 days in the Parchman State Penitentiary. Two years later, Farmer was imprisoned in Plaquemine, Louisiana, for protesting police brutality. This imprisonment prevented Farmer from speaking at The March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. James Farmer stepped down as the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1966.[24] Farmer regarded CORE as having an excessively pro-leftest position in Angloa’s civil war in 1975, siding with the Marxist faction, ultimately leading him to resign from CORE in 1976.[25]

Farmer had always believed that Black people should be a part of the government. This position was his motivation behind accepting the invitation to become Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1969 during Nixon’s presidency. In 1970, he ended up stepping down, “complaining that the Washington bureaucracy moved too slowly and saying that he felt he was more effective outside it.”[26]

In 1980, James Farmer wrote his autobiography, “Lay Bare the Heart,” and taught at Mary Washington College. Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor. A year later, he died at the age of 79.[27]

James Farmer was “one of the major leaders of the African American freedom struggle.”[28] It is important to take the time to learn about leaders in the civil rights movement who are not necessarily the household names we grow up learning about in history class. Farmer was pivotal in the success of the civil rights movement, as the organization he helped to found used sit-ins before they were even used in the larger civil rights movement. He helped to create the foundation for the success of the movement.

[1] Paul Seligman, James L. Farmer Jr., photograph, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[2]Farmer, James,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

[3] Richard Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79,” The New York Times, July 10, 1999.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Farmer, James.”

[6] Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79.

[7]Farmer, James L., Jr.UWM Libraries: March on Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collection.

[8]Farmer, James.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marvin Rich, “The Congress of Racial Equality and Its Strategy,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 357, no. 1 (January 1965): 113–18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79.”

[13] Rich, “The Congress of Racial Equality and Its Strategy.”

[14]Farmer, James.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Maxwell Bloomfield, “CORE: A STUDY IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, 1942-1968. By August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Pp. Vii-563. Cloth, $15.00,” Catholic University Law Review, 1974.

[17] Ibid.

[18]Farmer, James L., Jr.

[19] Jill Ogline Titus, “James Farmer (1920–1999),” Encyclopedia Virginia, December 22, 2021.

[20] Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79.”

[21]Farmer, James.”

[22] Bloomfield, “CORE: A STUDY IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, 1942-1968. By August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Pp. Vii-563. Cloth, $15.00.”

[23] Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79.”

[24]Farmer, James.”

[25] Severo, “James Farmer, Civil Rights Giant In the 50’s and 60’s, Is Dead at 79.”

[26] Ibid.

[27]Farmer, James.”

[28] Ibid.