JAMES L. FARMER, who died last Friday at 79, will be best remembered as a giant of the historic civil rights movement that transformed America in the 1960s. As one of the "Big Four," along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Mr. Farmer led the struggle that destroyed many legal barriers to full citizenship for African Americans.
Jim Farmer waged his campaign against segregation as national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization he founded in 1942 as an interracial force to fight racial prejudice. In all the the difficult experiences that followed, including jailings, mobs, beatings and death threats, Jim Farmer never backed off his belief that the nation's future rested with an integrated society. "I don't see any future for the nation without integration," he said two years ago. "Our lives are intertwined, our work is intertwined, our education is intertwined."
To bring the country to recognize the need to overcome social injustice was a life-long pursuit of Mr. Farmer's. It took uncommon bravery. The most dramatic assaults against Jim Crow were launched with the nation's first "sit-ins" and "freedom rides," which he orchestrated. He began riding buses to test the laws segregating interstate travel nearly 40 years ago, when local courts, law enforcement and customs were stacked high against him and his CORE companions. As an organization, CORE paid the ultimate price. Three volunteers, New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, a black Mississippian -- all working on a CORE-backed voter registration project in 1964 -- were killed by Ku Klux Klansmen.
The Mississippi murders, as with all the other violence and hostilities directed against Mr. Farmer, did not prevent him from confronting and ultimately overcoming segregation in America. For that reason, and out of appreciation, Mr. Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 -- the country's highest civilian honor. The medal was, said Howard University in awarding its alumnus an honorary doctorate last May, an expression of how deeply he was appreciated and how much his contributions meant to the country. All true.