James Farmer was born in Marshall, Texas, on January 12, 1920, but was raised in Mississippi. He enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, at the age of 14. Graduating in 1938, Farmer went on to Howard University's School of Religion and graduated from there in 1941. During World War II, Farmer applied for conscientious objector status and was deferred from the draft because of his divinity degree.
Rather than become an ordained Methodist minister, Farmer began work as Secretary for Race Relations at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Quaker organization. Then in 1942, Farmer, along with George Houser, founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago, IL. Based on its founders' beliefs in the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi, CORE pioneered the use of nonviolent protest tactics such as sit-ins and freedom rides. Farmer is often credited with organizing the first sit-in of the civil rights movement at a Chicago coffee shop.
Following the February 1, 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in by four North Carolina A&T State University students, Farmer and CORE representatives traveled to Greensboro, NC. Some of Farmer’s other well-known accomplishments as head of CORE include organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, co-sponsoring the 1963 March on Washington, and participation in the 1964 Freedom Summer during which three white CORE members were murdered.
In the spring of 1966, Farmer left CORE. He continued to lecture publicly on civil rights, including marches in Greensboro and High Point. Farmer took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and in 1968 ran for U.S. Congress. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Richard M. Nixon's administration as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Farmer retired from politics in 1971 and served on many organizational boards, including the Coalition of American Public Employees. In 1985 he published his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, and moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to begin a teaching career at Mary Washington College. In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Congressional Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Farmer died in Virginia on July 9, 1999 at the age of 79.