AT THE University of
Mary Washington we
are preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. James Farmer, a pioneer of the 20th century civil rights movement.
We will highlight his imprint through a university-wide commemoration called Farmer Legacy 2020: A Centennial Celebration and Commitment to Action. We will examine the historical context of Farmer’s life and the ways in which UMW currently acts on principles important to him, including civic engagement, access, and inclusion.
We will also look forward, asking ourselves: “What would Farmer fight for?” A celebration alone would imply that the ideals of activists such as Farmer have been realized, that progress is complete. As it turns out, social justice activism is alive and flourishing among college students, whose intellectual curiosity and determination to shake up the status quo indeed uphold Dr. Farmer’s legacy.
James Farmer was born on Jan. 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas, into a family of educators. As a boy, he “swelled with rebellion” when he personally witnessed the injustices of Jim Crow, igniting his lifelong civil rights activism.
In 1942, 22-year-old Farmer co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality, which organized several protests of segregated facilities in the 1940s and 1950s. Under his leadership, CORE led the 1961 Freedom Rides into several southern states, including Virginia, to test Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation in interstate transportation and bus terminals.
In the 1980s, Farmer moved to Spotsylvania County and served as a distinguished history professor at Mary Washington College from 1985 until 1998, one year before he died.
Farmer was an intellectual who graduated from college at age 18, and throughout his life sought new knowledge to shape and strengthen his activism. Drawing from various ideologies, including Christianity, Gandhian philosophy, and mysticism, Farmer became a champion of nonviolent direct action in his quest to dismantle segregation.
In 1961, under Farmer’s leadership, the Freedom Riders spent days preparing for their journey. An attorney described federal and state laws; a sociologist discussed the customs of southern life and segregation; and a seasoned activist told them, point blank, that they should prepare for physical assault and even death.
Through hours of role playing called “sociodramas,” they practiced how to react nonviolently to violent provocation.
On May 4, 1961, the 13 Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., on two buses and made it through Virginia and North Carolina with little incident. In South Carolina, Albert Bigelow and John Lewis (now a U.S. congressman) were attacked upon entering a segregated waiting room.
When the two buses arrived at various towns and cities in Alabama, they were met with such extreme violence that federal forces eventually intervened to protect them.
The Riders’ confrontation of segregation, for which they had planned and studied, nearly cost them their lives. It also built up public support for the legal demise of Jim Crow encompassed in the federal Civil Rights Act, passed three years later in 1964.
As we prepare for Farmer Legacy 2020, we are struck by the similarities between the philosophical scaffolding of Farmer’s activism and the intellectual curiosity of today’s young activists. Over the next year, we will celebrate what Dr. Farmer accomplished and challenge ourselves to carry his mantle.
Campus activism continues to increase across the United States as college populations diversify and more students find their voice. Students are calling for stronger gun regulations, better responses to sexual misconduct, and more faculty and staff of color, among other concerns.
Like Dr. Farmer, student activists are informed by various disciplines, including history, philosophy, and sociology. The 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)—involving thousands of college students— revealed that compared with their peers, activist college students disproportionately seek out opinions from people with different backgrounds and gain knowledge through the study of several fields (i.e., the liberal arts).
In listening to Dr. Farmer’s resonant voice on archived tapes, we can imagine his entreaty to today’s students: As you press for social change, absorb the wisdom of your mentors; read all that you can; and seek many different perspectives and friends from all backgrounds.
Indeed, at this very moment, 46 UMW students and dozens of staff, faculty, and community members are likely deep in discussion as they travel in two buses along the path of the 1961 Freedom Rides on UMW’s Fall Break Social Justice Trip, organized and led by the James Farmer Multicultural Center and the Office of Equity and Access. The two buses are stopping at sites along the way, such as the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, the Anniston bus bombing site, and the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
When the riders return to Fredericksburg next Tuesday, they will share their experiences with family members, friends, classmates, and professors. They will reflect on what they learned and discuss how that knowledge transformed their perspectives. While their ideas for change will be planted in Dr. Farmer’s legacy, they will also be ready to answer the question: “What would Farmer fight for today?”