James Farmer


JAMES FARMER bills himself as "the first black man in history to lose to a black woman for Congress." The man who founded CORE 26 years ago is more than that. His biography would practically write the story of the civil rights movement. His loss to Mrs. Shirley Chisholm in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant district came at the will of the Democratic machine which has a stranglehold on the ghetto. The election does not detract from his prestige and left no personal bitterness--only a few campaign anecdotes and a contempt for machine politics.

His current ideological dilemna reflects the black dilemna too: the simultaneous desire for racial integration and black separatism. He may embrace much of the militant line on black power, but Farmer still hopes for acceptance of the black man in the white man's world. "The agenda, though," he says, "has changed so greatly from ten years ago." Farmer is trying to catch up, but the new militancy has led many a former integrationist into a theoretical muddle. He finds himself considerably to the right of Roy Innis, his successor at CORE, and other young separatists like Stokely Carmichael for whom he feels vaguely responsible.

The first generation of civil rights leaders is passing into middle age. Farmer, 48, has retained much of his fire and most of his hair. He speaks deeply and slowly, in tones that Everett Dirksen might envy, confident of his audience, very much at ease with them. He is a man used to power. He likes to share a story, and there is in him a politician's love for the trivia of American history.

His almost military bearing contrasts with a career as a conscientious objector that goes back to World War II. "I could not fight against the master race theory of Hitler while we had it here at home." He got a deferment for theological studies, though he made clear his intentions to stay out of the ministry ("My draft board just didn't want to cause anyone any trouble").

His pacifist stand prompted him to seek nonviolent means of direct political action for the Negro's civil rights. He began to read Gandhi. Distressed by the lack of progress in integration, he and his friends decided to form a nonviolent organization that would preach civil disobedience. That was the beginning of CORE and also the beginning of the sit-ins. "The Movement really began in the early 'forties. Up until that time, all blacks participated in segregation at least passively. It was important that we should not lend ourselves to the evil we condemned."


Not everyone in CORE shared Farmer's pacifist views. "Nonviolence was chosen for several reasons. Primarily we were impressed by the fact that the black community had no guns. So we saw ourselves as organizing 'war without violence' -- that's Gandhi's phrase." The first sit-ins took place in Chicago, not a friendly town for demonstrators. "In the early 'forties, public accommodations was not just a Mississippi or Alabama problem--it was a national problem. In Chicago we had to force our way into restaurants. The owners might call in hoods to take care of us, or the police would arrive and use clubs."

"Of course," he adds ruefully, "there was no TV. We got no radio coverage and no headlines at all." More discouraging than media coverage was the response of other blacks. "They did not have any interest in direct action, civil disobedience, and certainly not nonviolence. Not until 1956, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, did nonviolence capture the imagination of the press and the world, thanks especially to Dr. King's charismatic leadership."

AFTER 1956 the focus went to the South and there came a fresh wave of sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and a decade of brushes with lynching and murder--all this possibly the heyday of CORE, nonviolence, and James Farmer. In those simpler days, before urban riots and black power, the Northern whites were all liberals and the Southern whites were all sheriffs. "One Mississippi officer I met," he recalls, "just couldn't bring himself to call me Mister Farmer. He tried, but he just couldn't. All that he could come out with was Mmmmm Farmer, Mmmmm Farmer."

"But when the civil rights movement went North, we lost a lot of our liberal friends. The money stopped coming in to the Movement. Stopped? Well, I should say, was greatly curtailed. Another cut in our funds came in 1964 after the civil rights bill had been passed. At that point, many people said 'Hallelujah! The ball game's over. The black man is equal. He can buy a hot dog at a lunch counter.'"

But for all Farmer's efforts in the last decade, racial tensions have increased. He is more skeptical now about some of the legislative advances made in civil rights. "The victories we won four or five years ago were victories in the South. They were also victories for the black middle class, and they are not the majority of blacks. The right to eat at a lunch counter means very little to someone living in Harlem. For him there has been no improvement in the last ten years. For him segregation has increased in schools and residential areas. He feels like a man running up a down escalator."

Though he is to the left of the NAACP and others, Farmer regards the militants warily. He has watched them take over the civil rights movement (or at least the headlines), take over CORE, and more or less discard his philosophy of nonviolence. "There was so much repression, so much violence against us in the South that many young fellows became disgusted. For example, Stokely Carmichael was in jail with me and was a nonviolent them. A year later, there was Rap Brown--he was a nonviolent too."

One cannot say for sure what Farmer thinks of the militants. He accepts black power, but black power is open to many interpretations--even Richard Nixon has one. Farmer is trying to find a middle ground and would like to think that no split exists within the Movement. "Roy [Innis] and I have some differences but more points of agreement. His program is for proportional representation of the black community in Congress and for two separate nations, white and black. I believe the black ethnic entity can fit in with other ethnic entities. I have no confidence we can eliminate racism, but we can checkmate it."

Basically, Innis is more prepared to cut all ties with whites than Farmer. Farmer began his civil rights work with whites, married a white woman, has influence with Congress and the Administration, and generally likes whites. The new popularity of black separatism has put him into a bind. He no longer thinks of integration as a feasible goal, but for personal and public reasons he would never accept segregation and repudiate the work of 26 years of his life.

FARMER constantly uses the phrase "black community" in conversation. Though not a separatist he believes strongly in what he calls "ethnic entities." To Farmer the "black community" always acts in the singular, not the plural. It stands united against white America; on that much he agrees with Innis. However, the whites are not united in the same way against black America. Here he parts company with Innis and sees a chance for the "black community" to wield great power in a pluralist society.

James Farmer looks on black power as part of the "American experience," not as any extremist quirk. "The Irish went through the same thing. There would be signs, 'Men wanted, N.I.N.A.'--no Irish need apply. The Irish riots of the 1860s, especially one in New York, would make the riots of the last five years look like child's play." He describes how New York vigilantes organized the first American police force, how the police were to rough up Irishmen, and how the Irish struck back by joining the force. He laughs and pauses. "You know, they used to draw together and sing 'It's an Honor to Be an Irishman.' And why not? It's an honor to be born so long as it's not a dishonor to be born something. 'Black Is Beautiful' does not mean the same thing as 'It's an Honor to Be an Irishman.' No difference, just more extreme because our problem is a little more extreme." Even when he talks of black power, he does not have much heart for separatism.