As a 3-year-old in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1923, James Farmer received his first emotional jolt. He wanted a Coke at a downtown lunch counter: his mother explained that blacks weren't served there.

"I remember sitting on the front porch of this little matchbox house where we lived, just brooding over this," he recalled. "And my mother had thrown herself across the bed and was crying."

Last spring, more than half a century later, Farmer, by then a prominent civil rights leader, returned to Holly Springs to deliver the commencement address at Rust College, where his father had taught in the 1920s.

After the commencement he went to a bar to size up firsthand the changes that had taken place in the tough Mississippi Delta town.

He gingerly stepped up to the bar and ordered an extra dry Beefeater martini, with a twist. Without blinking, the bartender said, "We ain't got no Beefeater, but now about Tanqueray?" Farmer took it and sipped it -- cautiously.

In walked what Farmer described as the stereotypical Mississippi redneck ("You'd think he was a 'nigger killer'"). Farmer prepared himself for trouble.

But, no, the guy sat down next to Farmer and put his head in his hand. Farmer asked what the trouble was. "I got a young daughter," lamented the man, "and she just had a baby. Wasn't even married. And now she's living with the man."

So what else was new in the world, said Farmer. "But he's an -- ,"said the Mississippian. "I mean he's black. And they're living right here in Holly Springs. Don't get me wrong.I ain't mad about it. I just don't like the way they done it. It'll never last because the Lord don't intend the races to mix that way. And you know that as well as I do." I do."

Sitting in his Washington office, Farmer, a burly man who is built like a stevedore, went on with big recollections. "I'm sure he felt like doing what he would've done 15 years ago -- get the boys together and have a necktie party. But he couldn't do that because the feds would be down there."

James Farmer can take credit for helping bring about that change. He was national director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement. He led the first Freedom Ride through the Deep South in 1961 and spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail as a result. Under his leadership, CORE pioneered the use of nonviolent techniques -- sit-ins, stand-ins and jail-ins -- to fight racial segregation.

At age 60 and out of the civil struggle now. Farmer calls himself a "youngish elder statesman." He is executive director of the Coalition of American Public Employees (CAPE), an advocacy group for several public employe unions.

But he still acts as an ad hoc adviser to several civil rights groups, and in a talk this morning he'll look back on the civil rights struggle at a conference co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and Howard University.

Farmer agrees that a necessary change had taken place in civil rights strategy -- from street confrontations to politics.

"In the '60s, the issues were simple," he explained in his booming preacher's voice. "A seat on a bus, a hot dog at a lunch counter. Now there are more complicated issues.How do you close the income gap, the health gap? You don't close them by sitting-in.

"In the complex '70s and '80s, it's not a question of right and wrong. There're rights on both sides. You take a white kid who's burned the midnight oil in order to get As and go to med school or law school.He should have a chance. But then there's the black kid who hasn't had a chance from the beginning.

"We have to fight on the political front. In many cases, the gains of the '60s are being lost to the budget cutters of the '70s and '80s. And there is not a clear strategy or complex program for the problems of the '80s.

"One of the limitations of the movement of the '60s was that we didn't do any long-range planning. So when success came, we were caught flat-footed. We had no long-range plans of what we should do after we got the Civil Rights Act of '64 and the Voting Rights Act of '65.

"We didn't have time to plan. We were facing emergencies and crises."

And no swivel-chair general was he. Farmer always led his troops in the field, moving, he said, on "self-generated adrenalin and black coffee."

Farmer, son of a college professor trained to become a minister but refused ordination because of segregation in the Methodist Church.

He turned instead to social action. From 1941 to 1945 he worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization. Later he organized for the Upholsterers' International Union in the South and worked for the State, Country and Municipal Employes union.

But he was to become identified with CORE, the organization he formed in 1942 with several University of Chicago students. They wanted to apply Gandhi's techniques of passive resistance to the equal rights fight.

For years CORE's influence was limited. It staged its first successful sit-in at a restaurant in Chicago's Loop area. Then, in 1947, 16 blacks and whites from CORE made a bus trip, called the Journey of Reconciliation, through the upper South to challenge southern bus segregation.

The lid blew off the civil rights movement in 1960 when student sit-ins began in Greenshoro, N.C. CORE gave immediate assistance to similar sit-ins that spread throughout the South.

More significant for CORE was the Freedom Ride it organized in 1961. Farmer had just taken office as national director, and wanted to test a recent Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in interstate travel.

"My father was here in Washington in Freedman's Hospital with cancer," Farmer said. "I had talked with him during our training session. He said, 'That's an interesting idea, Junior, I hope you survive it. I guess you'll be all right through North Carolina, South Carolina and probably Georgia too. But 'Bama, there they'll probably take a pot shot at you.'

"Every day I was on the freedom ride my mother told me Dad would take out my itinerary, look at it and say, 'Let's see where Junior is today.' Early one day he said, "This is the morning Junior goes through Albama.' He died that day.

"My mother insisted that he willed the timing of his death in order to bring me back here. I got the call just a couple of hours before the bus was to leave Atlanta.

"And as I look back on it, I think I would have died in Alabama. Jim Peck was beaten so badly that he needed 57 stitches in his head. He was left unconscious in a pool of his own blood. Walter Bergman suffered a severe stroke, a cerebral hemorrhage and has been confined to a wheelchair since."

After his father's funeral, Farmer rejoined the group in Montgomery. The ride had attracted the attention of the nation and raised the ire of many white southerners. A white mob stormed a black church where the Freedom Riders were rallying but was turned back by federal marshals. After fierce debate as to whether the ride should continue, the demonstrators decided to go on to Mississippi.

As soon as the riders hit the bus terminal in Jackson they were arrested, filling the jails. Some were eventually transferred to Parchman Penitentiary, long a symbol of southern prison brutality.

"To me it was a kind of vindication," said Farmer. "Mississippi revisited after the age of 3.

"They knew many of us were chain-smokers. They wouldn't allow any cigarettes in. No books to read. Most of them [the prisoners] were college kids. No paper to write letters.

"We had to strip when they passed out clothing for us. They just gave us shorts, a pair of undershorts. The big guys got tiny undershorts, and the little guys got huge undershorts. It was funny. The big guys were trying to hold theirs shut and the little guys were trying to stay in theirs."

Farmer demanded to see the director of prisons.

"The guards escorted me," he recalled. "There I was with my tiny shorts trying to keep them up, walking along almost naked to see the director of prisons. He was sitting in his office, smoking a big cigar and wearing a Palm Beach suit. I was standing there with just a pair of tight shorts. No shoes or anything."

After 40 days of imprisonment, he and the others were released. Later that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order prohibiting Jim Crow facilities in interstate travel.

Now he can say it. "On the Freedom Rides I was scared to death. But intellectually I had to bite the bullet."

In 1966, Farmer resigned as CORE national director to run for Congress against Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn. He lost. Subsequently, he served for 22 months as assistant secretary of HEW in the Nixon administration, traveled the lecture circuit and headed a think tank at Howard University.

Farmer broke entirely with CORE in 1976 in a disagreement over national director Roy Innis' attempt to recruit black Americans to fight in Angola. He has since accused Innis of turning the organization into a "tragedy."

Farmer, who wears an eye patch because of glaucoma, lives in the Chevy Chase section of Washington with his two daughters, Tami Lynn, 20, and Abbey Lee, 18. His wife died in 1977.

"Neither of them is interested in social action," he said of his daughters. "It's probably because they remember the terrible experiences I went through.

"They're both primarily interested in riding and showing horses. They have no academic interests. They're both bright kids.

"Sometimes I wonder how someone can spend so much time with horses. But they're happy. And that's what matters."