James Farmer

James Farmer and the Civil Rights Revolution

VTR Date: November 13, 1992

Guest: Farmer, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Farmer
Title: “James Farmer and The Civil Rights Revolution”
VTR: 11/13/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest, who has spent his entire life as an activist for Civil Rights and social reform, is a man I first met three decades ago when he was one of the so-called “Big Four” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, along with Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Whitney Young of the National Urban League.

James Farmer was the Founder and National Director of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Over many years now few Americans have been as articulate about or contributed as much to the cause of human freedom.

Recently Mr. Farmer and Wyatt Tee Walker joined me for a reprise of the historic two hour program on Civil Rights that we did with the late Malcolm X and Alan Morrison on June 12, 1963. Earlier that very morning Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi, while the night before John F. Kennedy had delivered nationwide the first major Presidential Address on Civil Rights, appealing to what Lincoln had once called “the better angels of our nature” … to help set right the relationship of White to Black Americans.

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” pled the young President, who would himself be struck down before the year was over.

“It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is … whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

“If an American, because his skin is dark … cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?

“Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

Well, the exchanges on our program that day between James Farmer and Malcolm X in particular must have seared themselves into my guest’s mind. And I want to revisit them with him today … asking first what light they shed on where America stands now, and what our future will be, in terms of Black and White. Mr. Farmer?

FARMER: The contrast between that time and this time is very great indeed, Mr. Heffner. That was 1963 and as you indicate that we talked on that panel shortly after Medgar Evers had been gunned down, and we talked less than six months before President Kennedy was killed. We talked just a couple of months before the historic march on Washington took place, and King’s “I have a dream” speech. In that year, 1963, so much happened in Civil Rights and in this country, it was a most extraordinary period of time. And those of us who were lucky enough to be in a position of leadership there were very fortunate indeed. That’s the happiest part of my life, that I was allowed to be in the ranks of the leaders in 1963.

HEFFNER: Is there today, can one find a comparable group of leaders?

FARMER: Oh, there are people who are in leadership, but you can’t compare yesterday with today. You can’t compare the 1960’s with the 1980’s and 1990’s, it would be like comparing George Washington to George Bush … totally different days and different problems. In the ’60’s we had simple problems. Whether a person can sit on the front seat of the bus after he’s bought a ticket to go where that bus is going. Whether a person can get a hot dog, or Coca Cola at a lunch counter despite the fact of his dark skin color. Well, now, this was so simple and so clear, anybody of any decency would argue that, of course, those kids who sat at the lunch counters in 1960 should have been served if they had the money to pay for the food that they ordered. And those Freedom Riders in 1961 should have been allowed to sit any place they wanted to on a first-come, first-served basis. And anyone who said the opposite was a, a “bad” person. So then it was good versus bad … right versus wrong. But now today we’re dealing with such complex issues, like affirmative action, and so-called reverse discrimination. There it’s not a case of right versus wrong, it’s a case of right versus right. What do you do in those complex issues when both sides have some justice and some right with them? I think there you have to make complicated decisions. You have to make judgments … like what kind of action is, is mandated by the situation today, the requirements today. I would compare the Bakke case, for example, then with issues of the 1960’s which were so simple. And I would say that Bakke was right and so was the University of California at Davis, which said that he … that the Blacks had to have a quota. I would say that both were right … both were right. But we had to make a decision based upon which right was more in keeping with the requirements of public policy at that particular time. And when one looks at it from that standpoint, I would come down on the side of the University of California at Davis. I think that public policy required “special” treatment, and a push in favor of minorities who had been excluded. Now that’s the complexity that we are dealing with today. We’re trying to close gaps in education, in income, in housing and so forth. So I would not compare the Ben Hooks of today, and the Joe Lowrys with the Martin Luther Kings, the Roy Wilkins and the Whitney Youngs of that day because they are dealing today with such complex issues, while the issues in the ’60’s were simple.

HEFFNER: Now, now, wait just a minute … are you suggesting that the more complex the issues, the less we may make demands upon those who would aspire to leadership?
FARMER: No, we make all kinds of demands, but leadership is easy when the issues are simple. It was easy in the ’60’s.

HEFFNER: I understand …

FARMER: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … harder times require then tougher leaders, right? Do we have them?

FARMER: Well, you don’t know how tough a leader can be until he has to dea with tough situations. Now I do not know how Wilkins or Whitney Young or Marting Luther King would deal with the issues today. I don’t know whether they would prove adequate. It’s not now something that can be dealt with by marching, or by sitting-in, or by freedom-riding. You have to have a plan, and there were no plans in the ’60’s beyond the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65. I think that was the great weakness of our leadership then. We didn’t do any long range planning. When we were caught with the short term successes, such as the two pieces of legislation to which I referred, we were caught flat-footed without a program for the future. And that was our shortcoming. We should have done long range planning then. Now the leaders are in the mire of wrestling with difficult problems without an overall plan.

HEFFNER: Now, your suggestion, I gather, is that the easy, moral imperative … easy in the sense that one could identify it in the ’60’s is not so evident today. That puzzles me a little. Are you saying when it comes to compensatory action, when it comes to affirmative action, when it comes to any of these other things, you cannot make a strong moral judgment?

FARMER: You can make a strong moral judgment. But you may be right, or you may be wrong. In the ’60’s we were right, and we knew it. And those who opposed our right to sit on the front of the bus, or eat the hot dog at the lunch counter were wrong.

HEFFNER: You mean … you’re, you’re saying then that you, you knew they were wrong and now it’s harder to maintain a strong position because you see so clearly that there are different sides to this. Is that the point?

FARMER: Well, because they’re complex issues, there are different sides.

HEFFNER: So it’s harder …

FARMER: Bakke was right, and so was the University of California. Bakke was right … if he had worked hard during high school, and during undergraduate school so that he could get into medical school, then he had a right to expect that he would be admitted. At the same time, Black doctors are desperately needed in the rural sections of the Deep South, and in the urban ghettoes and they will … we will not have them unless we get more competent Black students in medical schools. And that was the reason for the so-called quota systems in the medical schools at various universities then. So, both were right. But …

HEFFNER: But how …

FARMER: … the University was more right than Bakke.

HEFFNER: But how are you going to do this? If you don’t have a moral compass, how are we going to move from here to there? I mean … I, I, you know, when, when we did that reprise of the program we did with Malcolm X …


HEFFNER: … we did the reprise with Wyatt Tee Walker, and I quoted you as saying to me in 1963, “well, five, 10 years from now” you thought you’d be able to go fishing.

FARMER: I was too optimistic. Far too optimistic. I’ll go fishing maybe in the next life, but I can’t go fishing in four or five years.

HEFFNER: But aren’t … isn’t there a moral, a moral directive … a moral imperative. You say you have a question of competing rights, but it is that difficult to identify the one to which we must repair.

FARMER: We cannot be as dogmatic today on many of the issues as we could be in the 1960’s.

HEFFNER: So what are we going to do?

FARMER: Well, what we are going to do is to develop more wisdom, for one thing. We’ve got to find out which side is more in keeping with the demands of public policy, and work with it. Now it’s harder to, harder to organize a movement and to get motion; it’s harder to organize when you don’t have a clear devil to point to. In the 1960’s we could point to the Bull Connors, and organize thousands of people to march then.

HEFFNER: Mmmm-hmmm.

FARMER: That was very simple, very easy. Somebody suggested that the NAACP should have given its Spingarn Award to Bull Connor …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

FARMER: … for having made the greatest contribution to Civil Rights (laughter) of anybody in that year. But when you don’t have an individual who can be a personification of evil to organize against, instead you’re dealing with complex issues in which persons of good will can be on both sides. Then it’s harder to organize.

HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact that maybe this will fit the category of non-question … but it puzzles me, how do we account for the fact that whatever the difficulties we have seen that … that difficult position … economically, socially, otherwise that minorities have been in, we have, despite the fact that so many summers, one predicts “this is going to be …


HEFFNER: … the hottest and the most difficult of summers … we haven’t experienced the great racial unrest, and upturn that one would … might have expected. How do you account for that?

FARMER: Well, the trigger did not come. The trigger came in Los Angeles.

HEFFNER: Came in Los Angeles …

FARMER: And there we saw the explosion. Well, thank God we haven’t had similar explosions in many of the other big cities around our country. I think there are a number of reasons for it. One reason is that the riots of the summers of ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, and indeed, ’68 after Dr. King’s assassination showed many, many Blacks that, that they were damaging their own communities. They were damaging themselves when one took a body count and found out that those who were protesting were the ones who … got killed in most cases. The fire power was compared with the fire power of the police, and people are more hesitant to riot, unless the, the, the bomb … the, the, the incendiary, unless the, the thing which triggers the rioting is as great and as clear as it was in Los Angeles.

HEFFNER: You don’t feel that the lot of the Black person in America, absent in one point … at one point in one city another area, absent something like the Rodney King business, absent something that triggers, that the lot of the Black person is sufficiently difficult to lead us to expect more trouble in the streets, at the next hot summer, even without a, a trigger.

FARMER: Well, I think that we’re sitting on a keg of dynamite in our cities now. The fact that unemployment is more than twice as high in the inner city, and the fact that people feel that they are on the outside of the world looking in through a knothole in the fence, as it were, makes the cities ready to explode if the trigger is sufficient. And we just hope that the trigger will not be sufficient. I regret that it seems that the nation can respond to the social and economic problems of the inner city only when there has been an explosion. Now people are falling over themselves to pour money into South Central Los Angeles, because it blew up. But what about the Harlems, the Bedford Stuyvesents, the Southside Chicago’s, which have not blown up, but which are ready to blow up if the trigger comes.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you something, straight on question … you say they’re ready to “blow up” …


HEFFNER: … is that really true, or do you want to see it as a prod to bring about …


HEFFNER: out of fear …

FARMER: Riots are not a, a tactic. They’re not a strategy. People don’t sit down and plan … not even the late Malcolm X sat down to plan a riot. He didn’t even participate in rioting in Harlem, he was abroad at the time, and he was lucky then that he didn’t have to put up or shut up, when he talked violence. No, no, no. They’re not planned. The rioting in Los Angeles was not planned. It was a … an outburst of frustration and anger which has been pent up for so long, and finally just bursts out … that’s, that’s what happens. We cannot predict when it’s going to happen, you know.

HEFFNER: What have been the restraints?


HEFFNER: What have been the restraints?

FARMER: The restraints have been police fire power, for one thing. And they have been cosmetic changes that have been made in the cities. Some of the leaders of the large cities have learned how to co-opt some of the persons who have communication with and contact with the more militant and angriest segment of the poverty community in the ghetto. And thus they’ve been able to hire them as community organizers, and what have you. And that has tended to prevent outbursts which otherwise might have taken place.

HEFFNER: Do you applaud that technique?

FARMER: I think they should use all techniques. But it’s more useful and certainly more permanent to try to deal with the social and economic problems. Which means providing jobs for the jobless and homes for the homeless, and improving the education, and improving the housing … housing, housing, that’s a particularly important issue.

HEFFNER: Do you think that this country will move without more overt action in the streets?

FARMER: Oh, well, I certainly hope so. If I would …
HEFFNER: I know you hope so.

FARMER: … if should say that it probably will not, that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I don’t want to indulge in that.

HEFFNER: You said before that Malcolm X, if he had been put to the task would have done … what? What would he have done?

FARMER: Well …

HEFFNER: You, you were in jail …

FARMER: I don’t know …

HEFFNER: … you marched, you were in jail …


HEFFNER: … you led people into jail (laughter), you stayed there yourself. What would he have done?

FARMER: Well, this is one criticism that we had of Malcolm, that I had of Malcolm in the ’60’s … the first half of the decade … the ’60’s, and that is that he talked and he didn’t do anything. Because the things which he talked about doing would have been self-defeating if he had attempted to do them. That is for posing guns as a solution, and guns can be no solution to the problems of a minority that has no guns to compare with the guns of their adversaries.

HEFFNER: What do you think about the present involvement, on an almost a national level, the admiration for Malcolm X … There’s a movement, there’s a cult.

FARMER: Yes. There is a cult … in fact I think it is more than a cult. He is being made a god, he is being deified. And I think there are a number of reasons for that. One reason is the past 12 years, politically have a … that is Reagan and Bush years, have made many of the young Blacks come to the conclusion that they cannot integrate in this society, that they are being pushed out of it, that it is a society that denies them, and that the Federal government is not an ally, but is an adversary. That is the message which they’ve gotten from the past 12 political years in our country. And therefore they turn to the advocate of separation. “If we can’t integrate, and if the government is not an ally, and will not work with us, then what do we do? We have to separate,” they tend to say. Who spoke separatism? It was Malcolm. So they go back to Malcolm’s speeches, his speeches are re-visited by young Blacks in their dormitory rooms throughout the country. And another reason is there has been a resurgence of overt racism within our country in the past few years … on the college campuses, the graffiti in dormitory rooms, the re-appearance of the ethnic jokes, particularly with Blacks as the “butt,” and the use of the “n” word so freely and so openly. And as I visit college campuses and talk with young Black students, asking them why, why this adherence to Malcolm, why going back to Malcolm X … what they say, in different words is “Brother Farmer about that non-violence may have been all right for the ’60’s with Dr. King and you all, but now with this stuff that’s coming down, we’re going to have to fight.” Well, what’s the stuff that’s coming down? It is the graffiti, it is the overt racism, it is the Klan, the Skinheads, the Aryan Nation and so on. And if they talk of fighting, talking of self-defense, then who was the advocate of that? Malcolm X. And that’s why Malcolm has been re-visited. Then with Spike Lee’s movie, and the, the publicity surrounding it, the whole situation has been spurred, has been increased.

HEFFNER: So that when, on the other program we did with Dr. Walker, when I said that there was no relationship between the two, but, of course, we did them at the same time …


HEFFNER: … doing them. Ah, when I asked which Malcolm …

FARMER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … are these … is the cult built around …


HEFFNER: … you’re really saying it’s the first … the original …

FARMER: That’s right. It’s Malcolm before he visited Mecca. It’s the first Malcolm, which was the Malcolm of hate. Hating Whites and believing that Whites were evil, that’s the Malcolm that they are worshipping. Most of the young Blacks are not aware that there was a Malcolm subsequent to that, that Malcolm changed his views when in Mecca he saw blue-eyed blondes worshipping Allah along with him, and indeed kneeling beside him, and he came to the conclusion, as he said to me, as he sat in my apartment in lower Manhattan, lower Manhattan … New Year’s Eve … Christmas Eve, I’m sorry … 1964 … when I asked him if the postcards I’d received from him while he was in Mecca had indicated a change in his thinking. He said yes, they had, because he had had very little formal education, and he’d believed what he had been told by his leader, Elijah Mohammed, and he had been told that Islam was a Black man’s religion, and that White people could not get close to Mecca, they would be killed if they tried to enter. And there he saw the opposite. He saw Whites worshipping Allah. He said that led him to do researching, re-thinking and soul-searching. And he came to the conclusion that anybody who will fight along with us, not for us, he put, but with us, is his brother. And he said, “and that goes for your three guys, too, Brother James, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney,” those were the three CORE leaders, CORE staff people who were killed in Mississippi in the summer of ’64. Malcolm knew very well that two of them, Schwerner and Goodman, were White and were also Jewish … it was quite a concession for the Malcolm X of the time when we taped that program …

FARMER: … to which you refer. Now to say that Schwerner and Goodman, two White Jews were his brothers.

HEFFNER: We have a minute left … let me ask you, whether at the time that Malcolm was moving toward where you were …

FARMER: Mmmm-hmmmm.

HEFFNER: … have you experienced any movement toward where he was?

FARMER: Yes, you put your finger on it then. The two were converging … Malcolm was moving towards the Civil Rights Movement, and pro-integration at the time when the Civil Rights Movement was experiencing a burgeoning sense of pride and identity in being what one is … so the two were coming together. And that is a synthesis of two poles of thought … the integrationist and the separatist point of view. And that’s where we are now.

HEFFNER: Do you think where you are now will succeed in doing, enabling you to go fishing in the next life?

FARMER: In the next life, yes, but there’ll be a cultural pluralism here before I can go fishing.

HEFFNER: I, I, I … what do you mean “cultural pluralism”?

FARMER: That each group, each ethnic group in the country will be able to love itself and applaud its heritage, and at the same time respect and admire the others’ cultures … come together … so that is pluralistic culture. I love me, I love what I am, and who I am, I also join with you in loving yourself.

HEFFNER: Jim Farmer, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America..