James L. Farmer, Jr. Home

1604 New York Ave Austin

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On New York Ave. an easy-to-miss plaque marks the site of an important chapter in the life of a Civil Rights hero. James L. Farmer is not the most famous leader from the movement of the 1960s, but he was one of the most influential, an architect of the nonviolent resistance that ultimately dismantled segregation. As one of the original Freedom Riders, he routinely put his life on the line for the cause.

Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas and spent a brief but formative part of his life here in Austin. In 1925, when he was five, his family moved here from Holly Springs as his father, a minister and college professor, began a new job at Samuel Huston College (now part of Huston-Tillotson University.) Farmer recalled the house in his autobiography:

“It was in a black section of Austin, of course, and the streets were unpaved and there was no sewage system. There was running water, though— a faucet in the kitchen sink and one outside the house. There was a portable porcelain washbasin for hands and face and a tin tub for bathing. There was a wood and coal-burning cook stove in the kitchen and a heater in the house burning the same fuel.” - James L. Farmer, “Lay Bare the Heart,” 1985.

Farmer only lived here until he was 10 but his experiences as the son of a black college professor in a segregated city strengthened his determination to confront racism. In particular he would remember a time when relatives visited from New York by train. They took a sleeper car to Austin, but worried they would be denied one on the ride home. In order to arrange for a sleeper car, Farmer’s father had to lie (claiming one was a doctor) and promise they would board at night so they would not be seen by white passengers.

“I was deeply troubled by my father’s accommodation to a system that made him less than a man. I despised that within him that would not fight, perhaps because I saw the same survival instinct in myself. But I swore that when I grew up, scared or not, I’d never kowtow to meanness.” - James L. Farmer, “Lay Bare the Heart,” 1985.

Farmer earned a Bachelor of Science at Wiley College and a Bachelor of Divinity at Howard University. At Howard, he studied with Howard Thurman, a theology professor and pacifist influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman and his wife, historian and writer Sue Bailey Thurman, were the first African Americans to meet with Gandhi, who told them "It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Martin Luther King, Jr. would later study with Thurman at Boston University.

Inspired in part by Thurman, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago, dedicated to ending segregation through non-violence. In the 1940s, this group piloted the tactics that would be central to the movement of the 1960s, staging sit-ins in segregated businesses.

The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1940s that segregation on interstate transit was unconstitutional, but interstate bus lines in the South remained segregated throughout the 1950s. Working with the NAACP, Farmer helped to plan the first Freedom Ride. A mixed-race and mixed-gender group of volunteers would ride commercial buses from Washington, DC to New Orleans, challenging segregated seating rules along the way. They expected to encounter extreme violence with no protection from local law enforcement, and trained intensively to respond with nonviolence.

In 1961, during this terrifying journey, Farmer got the news that his father had passed away. He left the ride before it reached Alabama, where the remaining participants were severely beaten and the bus was firebombed. A second ride was organized, which Farmer joined, and the participants were severely beaten in Mobile, Alabama as the sheriff looked on. That summer, many more Freedom Rides were organized, attracting activists including college students from throughout the country. During this time three activists Farmer recruited to CORE were murdered. The rides drew national attention to the violence underlying segregation, prompting the Kennedy administration to take a more active role in desegregating transit. Three years later, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation.

Farmer remained at the center of the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s. He later taught at Lincoln University and briefly served as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He also founded the Fund for an Open Society in 1975 and led the organization until his death in 1999.

Cover image: Bob Ward

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