How the Civil Rights Movement Dismissed its Early Heroes

"Destroy segregation." Those were James Farmer Jr’s words to James Farmer Sr. in 1938 when his father asked him what he planned to do with his college education.  What ensued remains one of the greatest yet largely forgotten stories of the civil rights movement.  Farmer began the classic non-violent civil disobedience movement in 1942 with a sit in at Chicago’s Jack Spratt restaurant -- while Martin Luther King was just a child. 

Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to formalize his arguments and advocacy against segregation.  In 1935, Farmer was part of the Wiley College team that defeated USC -- the national collegiate champions of debate.  His debate coach, Melvin Tolson, taught from a unique perspective integrating Christian idealism and racial pride. 

Farmer designed the Freedom bus rides in 1961 that vividly exposed the violence of Southern supremacists in groups like the KKK.  Farmer’s CORE was definitive in assembling the March on Washington in the summer of 1963 that would feature the iconic “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King. 

Farmer was schedule to speak on the same podium as King that day but refused to leave his jail cell in Louisiana as a statement of solidarity with others jailed for civil disobedience against segregation.  CORE was foundational to the designs of Freedom Summer that lead to the brutal murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner in June of 1964.  Farmer’s sustained advocacy was one of the most important political causes for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the surge of African American participation in American politics that ensued. 

As interesting as his work was, it may be more fascinating to grapple with why Farmer has been essentially “whited” out of civil rights history.  I asked key Farmer biographer Gail Biel at a public debate on Wiley’s campus in the fall of 2013 why he has been largely forgotten.  She told me:  1) he lived too long, 2) married a white woman, and 3) worked in the Nixon administration. 

Farmer was forced out of CORE after its initial successes.  Today, hardly anyone knows or speaks of CORE in comparison to the NAACP.  The blue privilege exerted in removing men like Farmer and James Meredith from America’s incredible civil rights history is enlightening regarding the current rhetoric of race burning through America’s intellectual fields, including debate

Farmer and Meredith behaved as if Republicans and Democrats had equally valid obligation and means to the resolution of segregation and racism.  Farmer ran as a Republican for Congress.  He accepted Nixon’s invitation to work in his administration.  Farmer worked emphatically with Democrats and Republicans to resolve segregation. 

Such bipartisanship is no longer intellectually acceptable history on the question of race.  Democrats own and operate race as a weapon.  It cannot be used for or by Republicans.  James Meredith enraged contemporary civil rights operators by choosing to work for Republican Senator Jesse Helms -- deemed racist by almost everyone on the left.  Meredith continues to work diligently at transforming Mississippi’s racist past through Christian advocacy today.

Meredith was always rogue in the civil rights movement -- even when he became the first integrated black at the University of Mississippi in 1961.  Meredith refuses to be used for ideological services.  For that, he has been dismissed by today’s intellectual leadership as “crazy.”

Farmer referred to radicals within the civil rights movement as “Jacobins.”   He believed that activists on the left were continually trying to burn down the bridge of dialogue between white elites and the African American community.  Farmer went toe to toe with Malcolm X on these competing views of integration versus rejectionist segregation.  X believed for much of his life that all of white society was a fraud and rejection was the only reasonable path forward.  Farmer bragged that he beat Malcolm X four times in public debates on these questions. 

Today’s debate about debate and racism is as usual not the sharp dichotomy offered by the media.  It is not “White privilege” versus racial dignity.  The resurgence of Malcolm X’s rejectionist vision against Farmer, Meredith, and King’s vision of a “community of the beloved” is in question.  The nation needs more of Farmer’s vision and equanimity and less of the polarizing judgmental rhetoric of rejection.  We take too much pleasure in calling one another “racist.”

Within the field of argumentation and debate, one of the great articles of all times is one by Wayne Brockriede entitled, “Arguers as Lovers.”  In the essay, Brockriede explores the motives we all might have in argument.  Most ominously, he warns that arguers can behave as “rapists,” people who seek to hurt with words.  Instead of being mutually edifying with our words -- or loving -- we can be destructive.  It is increasingly apparent that the nation’s dialogue on race has devolved from the “community of the beloved” constructed by Farmer, King, and Meredith and toward the confrontation and division sought by the “Jacobins” of the civil rights movement. 

But even Malcolm X was “gone on debating.”  He believed its rational frameworks could convince whites of injustice.  Ultimately, even Malcolm X was persuaded by the “commuity of the beloved” offered by men like James Farmer.  After a religious trip to Mecca, Malcolm X explained:  "In the past, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again -- as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man."  X’s reconsideration of his remarks may have led to repeated threats against him within the Nation of Islam and even the burning of his home a week before he was assassinated

Despite our nation’s growing friction in the dialogue of race, important positive steps toward restoring the “community of the beloved” are being taken.  Wiley College, Farmer’s academic home, won its first national title since Farmer attended the school this past month under the leadership of Coach Chris Medina.  Wiley is making important changes to academia by implementing “debate across the curriculum.”  Perhaps it proves Farmer’s promise came true since the HBCU school succeeded with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds among its students and coaches while remaining a predominantly African-American college.  Urban debate leagues around the nation are also transforming the limitations of public education into incredible opportunities for success and collegiate dreams once thought impossible for thousands.  The “community of the beloved” continues to grow and prove Farmer’s promise to his father true. 

Ben Voth is director of debate and associate professor of Communication Studies at Southern Methodist University and has published a book coming out in May that explains further how James Farmer’s debate skills can continue to change the world for the better as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.  The book is called:  The Rhetoric of Genocide

If you experience technical problems, please write to