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Should I Say Anything?

Dr. Ben Voth’s latest book, "James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater," examines how speaking up and following through can turn the tide of social injustices

James Farmer Jr. Milestones:

  • Born January 12, 1920 in Marshall, Texas
  • 1930s: Attended Wiley College (Methodist school) in Marshall, Texas and was active on the 1935-36 debate team
  • 1938: Received Bachelor of Science degree from Wiley College
  • 1941: Received Bachelor of Divinity degree from Howard University
  • 1942: Co-founded and led CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), which grew to 80,000 members
  • 1942: Led first non-violent sit-in against segregation at a Chicago café, resulting in café management changing its policy
  • 1961: CORE, working with other civil rights groups, led the Freedom Rides, which challenged U.S. government to honor its Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus travel
  • 1963: Helped plan the March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; event attended by 250,000 people, at the time the largest demonstration for human rights in U.S. history
  • 1964: Helped plan the Freedom Summer event in the Deep South to encourage African American voter registration. Although there were many successes, the initiative drew national attention after three young CORE activists were killed; two were white (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) and one African American (James Chaney). Their deaths galvanized public opinion against segregation and for federal solutions, including the 1964-65 Civil Rights Act.
  • 1965: Published book “Freedom - When?”
  • 1969-70: Served as assistant secretary of health, education and welfare in the White House
  • 1985: Published autobiography, “Lay Bare the Heart”
  • 1998: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • 1999: Died July 9, 1999
  • 2007: “The Great Debater” movie, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, is released; story is about the Wiley College debate program in which James Farmer Jr. and other members of the 1935-36 debate team become the first African American students to debate white college teams.

Keeping quiet supports injustice. Ben Voth says that is why he is determined to equip as many people as possible with the skills to speak out.

“Words can be used to begin or to end justice,” says Voth. “They have to be used wisely.”

Voth, associate professor of SMU Meadows Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs, director of SMU’s debate team and advisor to the George W. Bush Institute, is inspired by a quote from Elie Weisel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

“That quote is the premise of my communication classes,” says Voth. “I am teaching people to end silence. The only way injustice can proceed is if a collective group of people are willing to be silent about something that they know is wrong. Every time I’m helping one person to debate or argue or speak, I’m making it so that they could, at the right moment, speak up against something that is wrong.”

Voth has taken particular note of one man who put this philosophy and method into action: James Farmer Jr. Farmer was born nearly 100 years ago during a time when segregation in America was not only practiced, it was law. Farmer was a major leader of the American civil rights movement whose work predated, then dovetailed with, the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders. Voth’s latest book, James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater examines how Farmer’s words, work and leadership changed the American narrative on segregation and race relations.

James Farmer Jr.: “Destroy segregation”

Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in Marshall, Texas, Farmer knew first hand what it was like to be marginalized. As an African American child, he did what was expected of him: He drank from “Colored Only” water fountains; he sat at the back of the bus; he used a separate entrance at the local movie theater. One can imagine that, when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school, the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” rang hollow on young Farmer’s ears.

Farmer had the fortune of having James Farmer Sr. as his father. Farmer Sr. was an educated Methodist preacher, the first African American man in Texas to earn a Ph.D. He taught religion and philosophy at Wiley College, an all-black Methodist college in Marshall, and later in his career was dean of religion at Howard University.

Farmer Jr. attended classes at Wiley College and was active in the school’s debate team, where he learned to examine the day’s issues and present his views with cohesion and persuasion. Years later, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker starred in a movie, “The Great Debaters,” about the 1935 Wiley debate team. Washington played Wiley debate coach Melvin Tolson; Whitaker played James Farmer Sr.; and actor Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker) played James Farmer Jr.

After graduating with a bachelor of science degree from Wiley in 1938, Farmer advanced to Howard University, where he earned a divinity degree in 1941. Upon graduation, his father asked him what he would do with his education. Farmer answered in two words: “Destroy segregation.”

In 1942, he moved to Chicago and set out to do just that. He co-founded CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), a civil rights organization of both African American and white citizens that grew to 80,000 members.

Group photo
L to R: James Farmer Jr., CORE; A. Philip Randolph, labor organizer; Roy Wilkins, NAACP; Whitney Young, National Urban League; and Martin Luther King Jr, SCLC. From the book James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater, with permission from James and Lula P. Farmer Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Before Martin Luther King Jr: Farmer staged first nonviolent sit-in against segregation in 1942

Voth explains in his book how Farmer used his speaking skills, his sense of inclusivity and his determination to roll back Jim Crow laws long before civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. entered the national stage.  Farmer’s words and actions not only sowed the seeds to end U.S. segregation, says Voth, they helped pave the way for King and others to fight against discrimination.

“Farmer was a major American Civil Rights hero,” says Voth. “He staged the first nonviolent sit-in in Chicago in 1942, when King was only 13 years old. In 1961, he worked with several other civil rights groups and led the Freedom Rides, which challenged the U.S. government to honor its Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus travel. In 1964 he helped coordinate and design the Freedom Summer voter registrations in the South. In 1963 he helped plan the milestone March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

The March on Washington was attended by 250,000 people, the largest demonstration for human rights in U.S. history at the time. In addition to King and Farmer, several other notable civil rights leaders were on the program, including Mrs. Medgar Evers, and singers Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. Farmer was scheduled to be speaker #8 that day (King was #16) but could not attend, as he was sitting in a Louisiana jail cell, having been arrested for civil disobedience against segregation.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, Martin Luther King III, acknowledged Farmer’s leadership in civil rights history during a 1998 presentation when then-President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Many think that Martin Luther King Jr. was the originator of the use of [Mahatma] Gandhian techniques in this country,” said King III. “But it was James Farmer, in 1942, homing in on the Gandhi-inspired tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action.

“... My father ... was no doubt influenced by the sit-ins and direct-action protests led by James Farmer that began in the early ’40s.”

By using public discourse, action, collaboration and leadership, Farmer helped end segregation laws in the U.S. Voth says the work of James Farmer is an exemplary example of the value and power of strong argumentation and public discourse. Voth’s goal as a professor is to educate and train people to have their own voice in order to “change the world from what it is, to what it should be.”

“All the classes I teach have a human rights angle to them.”

“Equipping people to have a voice means tremendous things can happen in this world,” he says. “Because of this, I spend my days and time at SMU making sure people can communicate effectively. To make sure they can end the silence on the critical questions of the day, and bring the worst things people can do, to an end. All the classes I teach have a human rights angle to them.

“There is a practical aspect to them, but there is a deeper view as well, a social justice end to what is learned in the classroom.”

From day one, his classes grab students’ attention by examining events that happened in 1791, in the 1960s and in 2017.

“We start out by listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,’” says Voth, noting that it was delivered during the historic 1963 March on Washington.

“Then we walk out of the classroom to the front of the Umphrey Lee building, where we study the large etching of the First Amendment on the wall. There I give an impassioned statement about the Amendment and the five freedoms articulated in that text.” If those five freedoms – freedom of religion, speech and press; peaceable assembly; and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances – didn’t exist, says Voth, King would not have been able to give his history-changing speech. “There is a circumstance of contested freedom in the United States that let him, in 1963, articulate that. That’s important. And here in 2017, you have to decide for yourself whether you are brave enough to speak up in a political controversy.”

Social media and its influence on discourse in 2017

Voth has seen students hesitate to speak out, given how today’s social media has demonstrated its power to ostracize individuals. He encourages his students to talk about social media in class.

“When I take the class out to see and talk about the First Amendment, and to discuss the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we then walk out into the campus of 2017. We talk about whether it is too hard now to stand up for your beliefs. We’ve all seen examples of individuals who, especially when taken out of context, are made pariahs by social media posts, trolling and bullying. Maybe we are in a unique time. Then I ask the class, do you think it was harder for King, to stand up against segregation in 1963?

“I don’t think it is fair for us to say, oh, it’s harder now. Yes, social media is very pernicious, in that you can simultaneously engage and be attacked. But it’s not fair to say it is harder than it’s ever been.

“Is our current president the most persecuted politician ever? Well, no. Yes, he may feel persecuted, but not persecuted worse than, say, Nelson Mandela.

“Students need to grapple with the fact that we live in a unique time. But there were lynchings and a whole other set of injustices in every era.”

In 2011, Voth did an editorial for The Dallas Morning News answering the question, “Is this era the worst ever?” Voth answered by saying no.

“It used to be that politicians and citizens dueled to solve an argument – pistols at dawn. People died. That was insane.

“Social media is both good and bad, but it’s not the end of the First Amendment.”

Read more about Dr. Ben Voth, the SMU Meadows Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs and the book “James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater.”

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