James L. Farmer, This Life Should Not Go Thankless

James L. Farmer, This Life Should Not Go Thankless

This Life Should Not Go Thankless

By Courtland Milloy

Sunday, June 29, 1997; Page B01

The Washington Post

"If I kicked the bucket tomorrow, and I hope it won't happen," James L.
Farmer was saying, "I would like for it to be known that I founded the
Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, organized the Freedom Rides in 1961 and
attempted to bring Gandhian techniques of nonviolence to the struggle for
racial equality in this country."

Farmer, who is 77, blind and a double leg amputee, was speaking by telephone
from his home in Fredericksburg, Va., answering a question about how he'd
like to be remembered. I wanted to tell him that he need not worry about his
legacy. For as soon as he was dead, we'd all be recollecting his great
accomplishments -- just as we're doing now with Betty Shabazz, who died last
week of injuries suffered in a fire.

In fact, the praise being bestowed on Shabazz is a lot like the admiration
we heap on our sports stars -- except that we give them their flowers while
they are alive. We sure know how to treat entertainers, don't we? We fete
them, beg them for autographs and obey their commands. If a basketball
player says, "Buy my brand of shoes" (even though they are made in some
foreign sweatshop for $2 and then hyped up to $120), we buy the shoes.

But we have no idea how to treat our real heroes -- our civil rights
leaders, teachers and community activists -- many of whom die in isolation
and poverty. When they say to us, "There can be no progress without
struggle," we don't listen. If they say, "Education is the key to freedom,"
we don't believe it.

Until they are dead. And then we pour our hearts out, honoring the memory of
wise and caring people.

Of course, this is an age-old phenomenon. Prophets, we are told, are never
honored in their home towns, and visionaries are never appreciated in their
lifetimes. But sometimes the visionary is more phenomenal than the
phenomenon, managing not only to live long enough but to continue working so
hard that he or she just can't be ignored.

James Farmer is such a person.

Born in Marshall, Tex., in 1920, Farmer grew up to become one of the
so-called Big Four civil rights leaders, with Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins and
Martin Luther King Jr. He is the only one still alive, which is all the more
remarkable because he was nearly lynched in Plaquemines Parish, La., during
a protest over racial segregation and police brutality in 1963.

During the Freedom Rides, when black and white college students set out to
desegregate everything from restaurants to interstate buses, Farmer and his
followers repeatedly were beaten, cursed and spat on.

I became disturbed just listening to him recount some of his experiences. He
spoke dramatically, with a clear recollection of what had been said -- for
instance, the lynch mob of newly deputized white Louisiana state troopers
who, having tear-gassed a black church, were saying things such as, "Come on
out, niggers, we know you're in there."

And I wondered if Farmer harbored any resentments.

"I think I would be angrier if I had not been in the thick of it, had I been
watching, say, from the sidelines," Farmer replied. "What I was able to do,
as a result of being in the middle of the struggle, was to look at my
adversaries and say, `There, but for the grace of God, go I.' Had my
background been the same as theirs, I might have had thoughts similar to
theirs, if not exactly the same."

Farmer graduated in 1941 from what was then called the School of Theology at
Howard University. He later went to work for a pacifist organization in
Chicago called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. After a dispute with that
group over the use of civil disobedience, he founded CORE. One evening,
after a CORE meeting, Farmer and a white friend stopped by Jack Spratt's
coffee shop in Chicago. Farmer was told he could not be served.

The next day, Farmer returned with 20 friends. The whites in the group were
served; the blacks were not. But no one would eat until everybody was
served. The result was that they ended up sitting there all day. They
returned the next day, and the next, tying up every seat in the restaurant
until Jack Spratt finally gave up and served everybody.

At 22 (he had entered Wiley College as a 14-year-old freshman), Farmer had
led the nation's first nonviolent sit-in -- 15 years before the historic
Montgomery bus boycotts.

Last April, several members of Congress, along with some civil rights
leaders and historians, petitioned the White House to honor Farmer with the
Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Supporters include
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), both of
whom were troops in the nonviolent struggle to integrate the South.

Of course, there is no telling when, if ever, the White House will act on
behalf of a grateful nation. But the rest of us need not wait. A simple
expression of gratitude, via telephone call or letter to Mary Washington
College in Fredericksburg, where Farmer teaches history, would be better
than waiting for him to die and then saying all sorts of nice things that he
can no longer hear.

As Lewis noted: "James Farmer has never sought the limelight. In the course
of history and fate, he has never been given his due. We owe it to ourselves
and to the unborn generations to stop and pay tribute to this great man."

We owe it to Farmer, too.

@CAPTION: JAMES L. FARMER © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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