Sit-ins, freedom rides and restrained oratory were his style. And the film of James Farmer's 37 years of civil rights activities that flashed black and white shadows over his testimonial dinner on Saturday illustrated his grim determination -- whether the target was a roadside inn or the 1964 World's Fair.
On the opening day of that World's Fair in New York, Farmer sat in the rain, blocking entrances with other civil rights leaders and sternly outlining America's discrimination record. "That was an enormous event -- 250 people were arrested and Jim called from jail, jubilant," said Carl Richlin, a New York attorney, who left the dais the watch the film. In the audience Oliver Leeds, a New York proof-reader, remembered the day differently.
"That was the one time Jim and I argued. I disagreed with tying up the subway and the highways. The sit-in made the point," said Leeds, who wore his old CORE blue hat, with the inscription "Freedom Now." Whatever the disagreements in the past, 400 people joined Rachlin and Leeds to honor Farmer on Saturday evening at the Sheraton-Park Hotel.
Former, 59, recently had an operation for glaucoma and wore an eye patch, but appeared jovial and robust as he embraced old friends. Farmer, who has been married twice, was introducing Gladys Rosa, 28, a management consultant, as his bride-to-be. A Texan, Farmer gave a refined yelp as he spotted friends. "Jim and I have worked in the same areas -- church, youth and civil rights -- since the early 1940s," said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. "I always thought he had the eloquence of A. Philip Randolph in clarifying issues and directing people into action."
Ironically, that eloquence made Farmer some enemies, remembered M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition. "When I was a student at the University of Chicago, Jim was in town organizing. Some of the people would talk about "that communist organization,' and say, 'they even have a person who looks like Paul Robeson, is very theatrical and must have been trained in Moscow.' Of course that only attracted everyone."
Farmer's civil rights career started in the early 1940s when he founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and continues now in his advocacy job as director of the Coalition of American Public Employees. He started sit-ins in 1942, organized the student Freedom Rides in 1960 and was sitting in jail in Louisiana during the 1963 march on Washington. In 1966 he resigned from CORE, and was beaten by Shirley Chisholm for a congressional seat in 1967. He served for 22 months as assistant secretary of HEW under Richard Nixon.
In his remarks, Farmer downplayed his role. "When Floyd McKissick spoke of my physical courage, he was wrong. I didn't have any. I am not being falsely modest -- I didn't want to go to Mississippi," said Farmer. "When the students asked if I was going, I had to do it, because those kids had courage and how could I have faced them later."
The evening, emceed by McKissick, founder of Soul City, N.C., and Chuck Long, local radio personality, was long and uneven. The VIP reception started at 7 and Farmer didn't speak until 11:45. Also on the program was Tony Award-winning actress Virginia Capers; television actress Helen Martin; Massachusetts State Sen. William Owens; Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.); federal official Weldon Rougeau, and officers from General Foods, United Parcel Co. and F.W. Woolworth's Farmer's influence was also cited by Mayor Marion Barry and Jerry Wurf, union leader.
When dinner ended, there were four autograph lines: one each for Capers and Martin; one for Fannie Chaney, mother of James Chaney, one of the three students slain in Mississippi in 1964; and one for Farmer. Some asked about his plans for a black-brown coalition, others about his operation. "I am really not going anywhere," he said as four programs were thrust at him for signatures. "All this is sort of embarrassing."