On MLK Day, remember a Texan who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King

Ben Voth, director of Debate at SMU, writes about James Farmer Jr., known as “The Great Debater.”

By Ben Voth

Ben Voth
Ben Voth

As we join Americans nationwide to celebrate the birth of civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there’s a Texan we should not forget whose birthday just passed.

James Farmer Jr., known as “The Great Debater,” was born Jan. 12, 1920, in the East Texas town of Marshall. After graduating from the historically black Wiley College and completing a seminary degree at Howard University in 1941, Farmer was asked by his father what he wanted to do with his education. Farmer responded with two words: “Destroy Segregation!”

What ensued from Farmer’s public arguments were the foundational moves to what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement. More than a decade before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, Farmer confronted a restaurant on the south side of Chicago that refused to serve blacks. Utilizing nonviolent sit-in techniques that would become signature to the organization he helped found, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), Farmer and his colleagues desegregated the Jack Spratt diner in 1942. The tactic was used many more times in Chicago. It would spread throughout the nation to become the dominant activist technique that transformed, and ultimately destroyed, Jim Crow practices in the South.

In May of 1961, Farmer organized advocacy against segregation in interstate busing. Black and white “Freedom Riders” boarded buses in Washington, D.C., seated in a desegregated fashion. They hoped to ride through the South to their destination in New Orleans. By the time those buses reached Aniston, Ala., segregationists firebombed the buses and beat the riders, including one young freedom rider named John Lewis, later to become a long-serving congressman. The cause was nearly defeated at that point until college students such as Diane Nash in Nashville came to the aid of the Freedom Riders. She and others continued the cause that was drawing intense national media scrutiny regarding the violent segregation in the South. By November, the Kennedy administration issued new federal rules requiring desegregation for interstate busing.

Farmer was slated to speak at the 1963 “March on Washington,” which he and other civil-rights activists organized. But Farmer was not there. Jailed for civil disobedience in Louisiana, he refused to be singled out for bail provided by national leadership. He chose to stay in jail with other protesters. A letter was read on Farmer’s behalf, and at the end of that day, King’s now-eternal dream speech set soaring the idea of racial equality in America.

In that same era, Farmer regularly debated and ultimately won over his most intense debate rival: Malcolm X. Their debates about the proper methodologies for fighting racism foreshadow our urgent discussions today. Debating built a bond of friendship stronger than the differences of their ideas. Farmer was the only major civil-rights leader to attend X’s funeral after his assassination in 1964.

When the bodies of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman were found in an earthen dam in early August 1964, the FBI called James Farmer Jr. They told him on the phone, “These were your men.” Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman died as part of “Freedom Summer,” an event designed to educate African-Americans in Mississippi and register them to vote. Dozens of daring advocacy projects like these led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ultimately, LBJ would reluctantly hand off a signing pen to his fellow Texan, James Farmer Jr., when signing this legislation.

Farmer died in 1999, but his intense commitment to bipartisanship in racial politics and to civility amid profound moral challenges such as racism remain vital to our civics today. Texans and the nation would do well to reflect on the importance and value of this Texas civil rights giant.


Ben Voth, director of Debate at SMU, is the Calvin Coolidge Foundation Debate Fellow. His book “The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text” includes a chapter on James Farmer Jr. Twitter: @BenjaminVoth.