Born in Marshall, Texas, on Jan. 12, 1920, Farmer was the grandson of slaves and the son of a preacher and scholar. At an early age, he enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, where he honed his advocacy skills on the school’s intercollegiate debate team. After graduating in 1938, he enrolled in Howard University’s school of religion, where he earned a divinity degree.
Rather than pursue a career as an ordained minister, Farmer elected to move to Chicago to begin work as a community organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). From there, he crafted plans for what would become CORE, a new interracial and nondenominational grass-roots organization that would apply Ghandian techniques of nonviolent direct action to the problem of race in America. The sit-ins, boycotts, and other methods of direct action, which Farmer pioneered in Chicago in the early 1940s, came to be modeled nationally over the next two decades. At the same time, led by a growing cadre of volunteers, local chapters of Farmer’s grass-roots organization emerged in regions across the country, mobilizing and building broad support for what would become a national civil rights movement by the 1960s.
Although he stepped away from a formal role with CORE to work as a union organizer and campus recruiter, he remained involved as a volunteer and kept a watchful eye as CORE matured and grew in the 1950s. Yearning to return to the work of the civil right struggle and sensing that conditions were ripe for significant change, Farmer became CORE’s national director in 1961 and immediately set to work on plans for a bus ride through the Deep South to test legal enforcement of desegregation efforts on the interstate transportation system.
Calling it a “Freedom Ride,” Farmer and the other volunteers he had recruited set out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Although the first few days were uneventful, the Freedom Ride would soon reveal America’s race problem to a global audience. In Anniston, Ala., the Greyhound bus carrying seven Freedom Riders was greeted by an angry and violent mob. Catalyzing images of the firebombed bus and its bloodied and beaten riders inspired and cultivated public support to extinguish Jim Crow.
With the success of the Freedom Rides, Farmer became a nationally recognized figure and one of the movement’s most significant leaders. Despite his prominence and in the face of constant death threats, he continued to jeopardize his own safety by leading direct actions throughout South. At the same time, he emerged as a powerful voice against the mounting calls for separation and black nationalism, and he was the only national civil rights leader to engage Malcolm X directly in public debate. Although Farmer was scheduled to be a featured speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, he spent that day in a Louisiana prison cell. He and a group of CORE volunteers had been arrested for protesting police brutality several days earlier, and he refused bail.
After losing to Shirley Chisholm in a 1968 race for Congress from New York, Farmer worked briefly in the Nixon administration as an assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare. A popular lecturer and a prolific author who published two books–Freedom When (1965) and his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (1985)–Farmer became a beloved educator. He held posts at several universities, the longest of which was at the University of Mary Washington, where he taught civil rights history for more than a decade. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. After a long illness that claimed his sight and legs, he died July 9, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Va.