Celebrating the Legacy of James Farmer

Feb 11, 2020

During Black History Month, many people will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, but on one college campus another name is prominent.  This year marks the 100th birthday of James Farmer – a leader of the civil rights movement and, later, a professor of history at the University of Mary Washington.

James Farmer was an important civil rights leader in this country and a professor of history at the University of Mary Washington.
Credit University of Mary Washington

Historians sometimes talk about the big six when exploring the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and James Farmer.  They organized the March on Washington, and some took part in the famous Freedom Rides – taking buses through the South to integrate public places.  Farmer recalled being jailed for 40 days in Mississippi.

“We sang freedom songs: Before I’d be a Slave I’d Be Buried in My Grave, or Which Side Are You on, Boy, Which Side Are You On? or I Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn me Around, Turn Me Around.  Turn Me Around.”

At the state’s penitentiary guards threatened to take the only thing in their cells if they didn’t stop singing.

“They said, ‘Stop that singing! Stop the singing or we’ll take away your mattresses!’  One particular freedom rider said, ‘They don’t really want your mattresses.  What they want is your soul! If you stop singing, they've got your souls.'’ and then another freedom rider spoke out with his basso profundo voice:  ‘Guards, guards, guards!’ he said.  ‘Come get my mattress!  I’ll keep my soul!’”

Such stories inspired students when Farmer taught history at the University of Mary Washington.  Sabrina Johnson is the school’s vice  president of equity and access.

“He touched the lives of so many students," she says.  "It was the most popular class on campus.  It brought in historic numbers.”

Farmer worried that civil rights leaders would be forgotten – that the sacrifices they made might be taken for granted according to Juliette Landphair, Vice President for Student Affairs at UMW.

“There’s a danger sometimes or a risk when you just reflect and celebrate as if the story is over.  We have to hold on and protect and not backslide when it comes to the progress that’s been made.”

So the school has planned a year of special events surrounding the late civil rights leader, beginning with a 100th birthday celebration. 

(Performers sing happy birthday)

In addition to performances, there will be films, lectures and political organizing according to Brianna Reeves, president of the NAACP’s student chapter in Fredericksburg.

“Criminal justice reform is one of our themes this semester, and this year voting.  Obviously, this is a huge, huge year.”

UMW students took a field trip following the route of the Freedom Riders.
Credit University of Mary Washington

Last year the school organized a field trip – tracing the route the freedom riders took.  Faculty, staff and people from the community rode along with students, but Johnson was surprised by how much the older participants learned.

“We came thinking, ‘We’re going to sit with the students, and we’re going to give them guidance and perspective,’" she explains, "but it wasn’t that way at all.  We were all impacted.  It was very emotional.  It was transformative in a lot of ways, but when we got together to debrief we found that we just listened. And all we could say is, ‘The future is you!’  Our goal was just to get behind you and support you as much as we can.”

The university is relatively small – just 48-hundred students – 10% of them African-American or bi-racial. Courtney Flowers, a junior at UMW, came from Los Angeles after completing a high school assignment.

“I was doing a research project on Malcolm X, and this source kept coming up, and I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’ And the source was James Farmer, so I Googled him, and this website came up, and it was a website that Mary Washington students had put together, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This is a huge civil rights icon.  Why have I never heard of him before?’ But also, ‘What is this University Mary Washington?’”

She was intrigued by the James Farmer Multicultural Center – a building that opened thirty years ago to host student activities that celebrate diversity and a social justice summit each spring. Landphair hopes that event will inspire the next generation of civil rights leaders.

“It was the younger generations of college students in the early 1960’s who said, ‘It’s time to go,’ and we’re seeing that same energy with our students, and it is hard as educators, as administrators, as leaders at a university to step back, but we have recognized – we’ve learned from the legacy of James Farmer – if we really want to see substantive change, that’s what we need to do.”

Farmer died in 1999, but administrators hope he’ll provide posthumous help to draw more students and faculty of color to its campus.