James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (January 12, 1920 – July 9, 1999) was a civil rights activist and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was the initiator and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the United States.
In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality, which later became the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that sought to bring an end to racial segregation in the United States through nonviolence. Farmer was the organization’s first leader, serving as the national chairman from 1942 to 1944. He was an honorary vice chairman in the Democratic Socialists of America.
Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas, to James L. Farmer, Sr. and Pearl Houston. His father was a professor at Wiley College, a historically black college, and a Methodist minister with a Ph.D. in theology at Boston University. His mother, a homemaker, was a graduate of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman Institute and a former teacher.
When Farmer was a young boy, about three or four he wanted a Coca-Cola when out on the town with his mom. His mother had adamantly told him no, that he had to wait until they got home. Farmer, not understanding, wanted to get one right then. He watched another young boy go inside and buy a Coke. Sadly, his mother had to inform him that the reason the other boy could buy the Coke was because the other boy was white, and Farmer was colored. This defining, unjust moment was the first, but not the last, experience that Farmer had with segregation.
At 10, Farmer’s Uncle Fred, Aunt Helen, and cousin Muriel came down to visit from New York. They had no trouble getting a bedroom on the train down, but were worried about getting one on the way back. Farmer went to the train station with his dad. While convincing the manager to give his uncle a bedroom on the train, Farmer witnessed his dad lie to get what he wanted. His father being a minister, Farmer was shocked to hear the lies. On the way back, his father told him, “I had to tell that lie about your Uncle Fred. That was the only way we could get the reservation. The Lord will forgive me”. Still, Farmer was very upset that his father had to lie to get the bedroom on the train. This was when Farmer began to dedicate his life to the end of segregation.