Obituary: James Farmer

THE NAME James Farmer may not be as familiar as others who devoted their lives to the struggle against racial segregation in the United States. Yet, until his death at the age of 79, historians saw Farmer as the last surviving member of the "Big Four" of the civil rights movement which emerged after 1945. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, Ray Wilkins died in 1971 and Whitney Young 10 years later.

Farmer was not only a civil rights activist but also a trade union organiser. More than any other leader of his generation he saw that mobilising America's black working class behind the struggle for integration was vital.

Born in 1920, he was almost 10 years King's senior but, like King, a son of the manse. His father was a Methodist minister and theologian in Marshall, Texas, where Democrats ruled and segregation was strict. Moving to Holly Springs, Mississippi, in childhood, Farmer grew up in the poorest state in the Union where white supremacy was brutally enforced. Between 1882 and 1944, 573 black Mississippians were lynched, while as late as 1946 an African-American army veteran was publicly flogged for trying to register to vote.

Moreover, rural blacks suffered more than any group during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nevertheless, Farmer was fortunate enough to get an education, reading medicine at Riley College, and then, when he discovered he could not stand the sight of blood, theology at Howard University, Chicago, one of the best black universities. Problems arose here too. Black Methodists accepted the racial segregation Farmer was now determined to destroy, so he abandoned plans to become a preacher and embarked on a political career.

A Christian socialist and pacifist, he was exempted from military draft when America went to war in December 1941. Like King later, he was impressed by the non-violent resistance Mahatma Gandhi was using to such effect against British rule in India, only later learning that Gandhi's tactics had been shaped in part by reading Henry David Thoreau's celebrated essay on civil disobedience written during the Mexican-American war of 1846. He also warned that Gandhi's non-violence must be modified in democratic America.

In 1942 Farmer founded the Congress for Racial Equality (Core) in Chicago and led student sit-ins against segregated shops and services like hairdressing and swimming pools 20 years before they were used as part of the national movement for civil rights in the 1960s. At a time when the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was fighting to integrate the US by using the courts, Core provided the cutting edge of direct action which was eventually so decisive.

The NAACP and Urban League, Farmer argued in a memorandum in 1942, had proved their value. "But they have also demonstrated their inadequacy in dealing effectively with the total aspects of a problem as comprehensive as that of race in America." What was needed, he concluded, was "a virile and comprehensive programme".

Seeking this, Farmer was chairman of Core between 1942 and 1950, and race relations officer with the influential Fellowship of Reconciliation formed to monitor the federal government's Fair Employment Practice Committee, set up by President F.D. Roosevelt to force employers to hire blacks equally for war work.

Victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 opened a new, more effective stage in the struggle for integration. Farmer became organiser of the Upholsterers' International Union, 1950-54, and then of the State, County and Municipal Employees' Union, 1954-59 - one of the few civil rights leaders, apart from A. Philip Randolph, with a strong labour union background.

Meanwhile, the momentous 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the Brown case had revolutionised the struggle for integration. Farmer, now a mature activist in his thirties, gladly left the fight to integrate education to the NAACP, but played a part with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference integrating the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955-56, breaching another bastion of segregation.

He was campaign director for the NAACP, 1959-61, and then led Core's spectacular "freedom rides". Freedom rides were organised in 1961 to enforce the 1960 US Supreme Court decision in Boynton v Virginia that segregating passengers at bus depots when they were travelling between states was unconstitutional. In Alabama and Mississippi police openly encouraged brutal attacks by white mobs on passengers, black and white, who were exercising their constitutional rights by simply travelling and sitting together on buses and at bus stations across the South. Farmer was badly beaten and might have been killed.

The struggle for civil rights ignited that summer. I was then a graduate student in Chicago, and will never forget the courage Farmer and the young men and women he led showed. They forced President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney-General, to act with more speed and decision than they wished. Though the decisive battles for civil and voting rights still had to be won in the years 1963-66, the direct action of Farmer's 1961 freedom rides made millions believe they really could overcome the legacy of bigotry and hate which had poisoned America.

In 1965 (the year he stepped down as director of Core), Farmer published Freedom When? His autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart (1985), though less celebrated than those of King and Malcolm X, is a much better, and more honest, account of the civil rights struggle and its internal conflicts.

By the 1970s these conflicts had become more apparent, and the kind of integrated political movement Farmer believed would end segregation had become the victim of black power. Farmer became assistant secretary at Health, Education and Welfare in Washington in 1969, taught at many universities (including Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia, from 1984) and was awarded scores of honorary degrees. But it was his work with Core and as organiser of the freedom rides that gave him lasting honour and fame.

James Leonard Farmer, civil rights campaigner and trade union leader: born Marshall, Texas 12 January 1920; twice married, secondly 1949 Lula Petersen (died 1977; two daughters); died Fredericksburg, Virginia 9 July 1999.