By the time I met James Farmer, back in January 1998, he wasn't all there anymore. His legs were gone, amputated after a bout with diabetes, and so was his eyesight. He was lying in bed in his farmhouse in Fredericksburg, Va., staring sightlessly toward the ceiling. But he hadn't lost his sense of humor or his singing voice. He punctuated his stories with a booming laugh and when somebody mentioned the songs of the civil rights movement, he immediately took a deep breath and belted one out:
Don't Tom for Mr. Charlie.
Don't listen to his lies.
Us black folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize.
Farmer, who died at 79 on Friday, was one of the great organizers of the civil rights movement. The founder of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), he led the first civil rights sit-in in American history at a Chicago doughnut shop called Jack Spratt's. That was in 1942. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 13-year-old schoolchild at the time.
A year earlier, Farmer had graduated from Howard University, earning a degree in theology. His father, who was a preacher and professor, assumed his son would become a minister. But Farmer had another plan.
"What are you going to do?" his father asked him.
"Destroy segregation," Farmer replied.
Destroy segregation? In 1941, that goal was absurdly ambitious, like announcing that you planned to end war or eradicate death. But within three decades, Jim Crow was dead, thanks to Farmer and thousands of other Americans who risked their lives for equal justice.
Farmer was a brave man, but you couldn't learn that from him. He preferred to talk about how scared he was when confronting racist sheriffs and angry mobs.
When I asked him about his most famous protest, the Freedom Rides of 1961, he didn't mention the beatings or the arrests or the bus that was burned by a mob in Alabama. Instead, he immediately confessed that he was so scared he planned to bug out before the bus reached Mississippi--to desert the college kids he'd recruited and flee back to the safety of the CORE office in New York. His cowardly plan was foiled, he said, when the kids shamed him into staying aboard the bus. They all ended up getting busted and sent to the infamous Parchman Farm prison for two months.
"I was scared," he told me. "I don't have great physical courage."
It was an endearing admission but it wasn't really true. Rep. John Lewis, who was on that bus, says Farmer was as brave as the rest of them. "In time of crisis," Lewis said, "Jim could be relied on to say something funny or sing a song to relieve the tension."
Lewis lobbied hard to persuade President Clinton to award Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. And Farmer was not ashamed to admit that he, too, had lobbied for it. "I was urging people to write letters in," he said, "because I thought I deserved it."
He did deserve the medal and when he got it last year, he was thrilled. He'd nearly died of congestive heart failure a month earlier and he figured 1998 might be his last chance to snag the honor. He had a ferocious ego and he desperately wanted to be remembered by history. He was even honest enough to admit that he was jealous of King's fame. It irked him that most Americans knew nothing about his contributions to the civil rights movement.
"They know there was a man named Martin Luther King and he had a dream and he made a speech and he got killed," he said. "That's about it. They never heard of me."
Determined to correct that situation, Farmer spent the last decade teaching a history class on the civil rights movement at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. The classes were inevitably packed with kids, 250 per semester, who listened intently as Farmer sat in his wheelchair, as blind as Homer, recounting this modern American odyssey to students he couldn't see.
Despite infirmities that would have soured a lesser man, Farmer never lost his sense of humor. He could turn anything--even a near-death experience--into a comic riff.
"Last time I was in the hospital I almost died," he told me when I went to interview him about the Presidential Medal. "I couldn't breathe and my heart stopped and they had to bring in the life support system to bring me back. People ask me, 'Did you see a tunnel?' " He smiled impishly. "I've heard stories of people seeing a tunnel and seeing light at the end of the tunnel and Saint Peter there. I tell them I saw a tunnel but I didn't see lights at the end. I saw fire. Flames! And when I got through the tunnel, there was Lucifer. He said, 'Who are you?' and I said, 'James Farmer.' And he said, 'Oh, my God, don't let this N-word in! He'll organize a resistance movement and try to put out my fire!' "
Maybe James Farmer is doing exactly that right now. But if there is an afterlife, he's more likely in the more pleasant place. If he finds any injustice there, you can be sure he'll let the management know about it, loud and clear. If not, he'll just join the choir. He knows a lot of freedom songs.
CAPTION: JAMES FARMER
CAPTION: In 1998, James Farmer, blind and a double amputee, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; at right in an undated photo, Farmer stands behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.