"I abhor violence," insists James Farmer, the National Director of CORE, "but I love a battle."
Although he usually restricts himself to verbal combat, Farmer sometimes leads forays into the field. In 1961, his first year as CORE chief, he directed and rode on the first Freedom Ride--thereby earning himself a month in a Mississippi jail. During August of 1963 he narrowly evaded pursuing Louisiana Klansmen by hiding in a mortuary and slipping out in the back of a hearse.
Relaixng in a Quincy House living room last week before his speech to the Young Democrats, Farmer re-called making a recent Bogalusa protest march despite numerous death threats. "As we were walking along the street, the State Police grabbed a man about twelve feet away just as he was pulling a metal pipe out of his coat. A little further along, another man was caught reaching for a revolver. Just then someone let off a fire-cracker and nearly scared us all to death."
Although CORE has stuck to its non-violent creed while pioneering sit-ins, stand-ins, and other "in" demonstrations, members in Louisiana are often protected by the Deacons, a weapon-carrying Negro group formed for defense purposes. Says Farmer: "If the law enforcement officers of the city, county, and state fail to do their jobs, then people have the constitutional right to defend themselves. We've worked very closely with the Deacons, and though they're separate, it's very comforting to have them around."
Not one to shirk danger, Farmer nevertheless pointedly stayed out of Los Angeles during the Watts riot. "No individual can stop a riot once it's gotten started," he states. "The most you can do is take the rioter's grievances and articulate them." Farmer tried doing just that during the Harlem riots in 1964, and soon found himself accused of leading the riot.
Moreover, Farmer had a personal reason for staying out of Watts: He was attempting to have a brief vacation with his family on their small Pennsylvania farm. Farmer, who works 18 hours a day and spends three fourths of the year traveling, seldom gets to see his two daughters, ages 4 and 7. "I'm a stranger to them," he says sadly. Farmer's present wife, Lula, is white. He married her in 1949 while she was a volunteer CORE worker, after his first marriage ended in divorce. Asked whether his mixed marriage presents any problems, Farmer grinned: "Malcolm X used to kid me a little about it."
Farmer was friendly with Malcolm X and respected him for his integrity if not his naivete. "Malcolm was coming closer to relevance in the civil rights movement," says Farmer. "I think he could have become a positive force."
Farmer himself has worked most of his life to become such a positive force in the Negro's struggle against injustice. The grandson of a slave and the son of the first Negro Ph.D. in Texas, Farmer punctuates his conversation with references to the self-perpetuating ill effects of poor education.
His own education began in medicine, but soon ended because he couldn't stand the sight of blood. But he's not bothered when violence breaks out, "because it's usually my own blood and I can stand that." He then trained for the ministry but refused ordination because of discrimination in the church. During the war he was race-relations secretary to a pacifist organization and afterwards a labor organizer and radio commentator. Now as CORE's chief planner and spokesman, he makes over 200 speeches a year, but never uses notes or a text. "I haven't time to prepare them," he claims. Only as he approached Burr B did he ask for the exact topic and then he spoke extemporaneously for 45 minutes to a audience which twice gave him a standing ovation.
One feels like applauding Farmer even in private conversation. He is big, broad-shouldered man with the deep, forceful voice of a Biblical prophet. He is immensely articulate, though tending to hold up a reserve of measured conviction. Often he seems preoccupied and one can guess that he's ruminating on some new plan or old problem in CORE's operation.
One of his larger concerns is finance. "After the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, people think the fight is all over. They won't contribute any more money." But he adds, "We shall overcome."
Farmer praises President Johnson's federal action on behalf of the Negro. He terms Johnson "the most forth-right President we've ever hand on civil rights, including Kennedy." But on the local level, especially in the North, Farmer finds progress in the rights fight disturbingly intangible: "In the South, you can taste the hamburger in a newly integrated restaurant or sign your name on a voter registration list." But the northern effort against de facto segregation, bad housing, job shortage and police brutality is slow and frustrating, particularly to the activists, many of whom have transferred their primary allegiance to southern-based groups like SNCC.
But CORE is growing, with more than 75,000 white and Negro members already, and Farmer is pushing the battle for recruits into gin joints, pool halls and candy stores. He further solicits support for his cause in a weekly newspaper column, and in a new book, to be serialized by Playboy magazine called Freedom When. Farmer's answer is "not very soon." That's one reason why in the Negro's long struggle for freedom, CORE is lucky to have a man in command who doesn't tire of the battle.