James Farmer, the once and future Freedom Rider
Philadelphia — James Farmer once escaped an angry mob of Louisiana troopers by hiding in a hearse. Waiters in a segregated restaurant once poured hot soup over his head, rather than serve him. In the early 1960s, he was marked for assassination by the Ku Klux Klan. He has been doused with ammonia, tear-gased, and arrested on numerous occasions. He still has a wonderful laugh.
Founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Mr. Farmer was at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement for 30 years. Martin Luther King Jr. stirred the masses; James Farmer was an innovator of protest technique.
He pioneered the use of sit-ins to fight segregation in public places. He organized the famous Freedom Ride to integrate intercity bus lines in the South.
Today, he is quietly writing his memoirs in retirement. A new generation of black leaders has risen to prominence. But Andrew Young would not be mayor of Atlanta, Harold Washington could not have been elected mayor of Chicago, if people such as James Farmer had not gone before them, leading the way.
James Farmer's voice easily fills the small room. He is teaching a seminar on the civil rights movement, at Antioch University's branch in Philadelphia, and this particular night some two dozen students and a video camera have come to listen. There is no syllabus; Farmer, as one who was there, simply talks.
''After the Freedom Rides (of 1961) we started a new campaign, called Freedom Highways, that nobody has ever heard of. It was an attempt to do on the highways what we'd done for bus travel. We wanted to integrate eating establishments and hotels. We picked the main chains, Howard Johnson and Holiday Inn.
''We did open up some places. We had some fun, too. At one point, we had 3, 000 students in jail in Greensboro (N.C.). And the chairman of our student chapter there was a fellow named . . . Jesse Jackson.''
Farmer pauses, then laughs his rich, resonant, shake-like-a-bowl-of-jelly laugh.
It was, in Farmer's words, a time of ''blood and thunder.'' He and his colleagues in the protests of the 1960s never knew what violence might be lurking in their path.
And Farmer fears that the lessons of that struggle are already being forgotten, as the rule of Jim Crow fades into history. Several years ago, at a California college, Farmer says, he met a young black who couldn't quite place the name ''Martin Luther King.''
''I am astonished how many young people don't know what happened during the civil rights movement of the '60s,'' he says. ''We who were active on the front lines have not taught them what went on.''
Farmer himself, a gifted storyteller, does what he can to correct the problem. With his bass-section voice, preacher's sense of drama (trained as a minister, he was never ordained), and genial air, he ''makes history come alive, '' says one college student who has often heard him lecture.
This ability to capture a crowd has always been one of his chief strengths. Longtime colleagues say Farmer was not exactly an administrative genius. But he played a key role, they say, in setting tactics and training the troops.
''I don't know anyone,'' says Bayard Rustin, one fellow civil rights pioneer, ''who was able to articulate the doctrine of nonviolence as well as Jim.''
The story Farmer tells most often is the one about the march in Plaquemine, La., in 1963, which was broken up by police with cattle prods and tear gas. The troopers started searching for Farmer, door to door, threatening his life. He was forced to flee in a hearse.
But the class has already heard that story, and tonight he is telling of another march in another Louisiana town, Bogalusa. The FBI had received information that the Klan planned to assassinate Farmer that day, and state police, 10 feet apart, flanked the line of march. Armed helicopters flew overhead. Sharpshooters were stationed in windows.
''We came parallel to a group of young whites lounging against a car,'' says Farmer. ''One of the troopers yelled, 'Look out, get him!,' leaped on one of the whites, and took out of his hand a metal pipe with a bolt on the end of it. At the next intersection, another trooper yelled, pounced on another fellow, and took out of his hand a pearl-handled revolver he had just drawn. Then some fool set off a firecracker.''
After a few anxious moments in which Farmer was sure he was under attack, the march proceeded, without further incident - though the plane he left Louisiana on that night was emptied before takeoff by a bomb threat.
''Those things didn't happen only to me,'' he tells the students. ''They happened to everybody.''
Farmer first joined the ranks of civil rights leaders in 1942, when he was fresh out of Howard University and living in Chicago. That year, with a small group of friends, he helped found CORE - an organization dedicated to fighting segregation through Gandhian nonviolence.
At its peak in the early '60s, CORE had some 180,000 members and was instrumental in organizing sit-ins and marches across the country. But after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the movement suddenly had no direction, says Farmer, like an athlete who doesn't know what to do when the Olympics are over. CORE's members begin to drift away.
Farmer resigned in 1966 to run a losing race for Congress, against Shirley Chisholm. Over the protests of many black leaders, he accepted a job in the Nixon administration as assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Policy disagreements caused him to quit after 22 months in office.
By 1976 he had cut all ties, formal and informal, with CORE. Younger, more militant leaders were in control. The era of the civil rights old guard was over.
''The issues that confront blacks today are not, strictly speaking, civil rights issues,'' says Farmer. ''They are questions of how to close gaps between blacks and whites - the income gap, the education gap, the housing gap.''
Possible solutions, such as affirmative-action quotas, often divide good people, he points out. Unlike the old days, there are few clear-cut cases of right vs. wrong.
''How do you deal with such complicated issues? I don't claim to have the answer.''
After class a young black student comes shyly forward to grasp Farmer's hand. ''I never understood the movement before,'' he says. Farmer's chuckle warms the room; he seems pleased by the compliment.
Other students, from years past, still remember his words. John Lewis, now an Atlanta city councilman, was 21 when he went on the Freedom Ride, the trip to integrate Southern buses that was organized by Farmer. After one firebombing and numerous mob attacks, the Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, Miss. Some were imprisoned 40 days.
''At night, in jail, during weak moments, he would sing,'' recalls Mr. Lewis. ''He is a big man, you know, and his voice would practically rattle the cell doors. I remember in particular one old labor song that went like this: 'Which side are you on, boy, which side are you on? I'll be a freedom rider, till I'm dead and gone. A freedom rider.' ''