James Leonard Farmer, Jr., one of the major leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, said that his experiences as a young college student in segregated Marshall led him to "participate in a movement that would try to bring about change."
Born in Marshall in 1920, Jim was the second child of Pearl Marion Houston and James Leonard Farmer, Sr., an educator and Methodist minister teaching at Wiley College. Shortly after Jim's birth, the family moved from Marshall when his father accepted a teaching position out of state but they returned after Farmer, Sr., became a professor of religion and philosophy at Wiley in 1933.
The family lived on Barney Street across from the Wiley campus where Jim enrolled at age 14. A gifted student, he was influenced by Melvin B. Tolson, an English professor, poet and director of Wiley's highly successful debate team, which Jim joined. Tolson, considered a radical by some, introduced him to the concept of civil disobedience through Thoreau's writings. Farmer and other students often discussed their desire to end segregation that kept them out of Marshall's restaurants and restricted them to the balcony of the Paramount movie theater accessed through a side entrance.
After graduating from Wiley in 1938, Farmer moved to Washington, D.C., where his father joined the faculty at Howard University and Farmer earned a divinity degree. Drawing on his religious studies, he joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization. Farmer embraced the nonviolent philosophy and incorporated it into the mission of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he co-founded in 1942.
CORE organized the first successful restaurant sit-in in Chicago in 1943 and the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 with both white and African Americans challenging segregation on interstate bus travel in the South. That action became the model for CORE's Freedom Rides in 1961 in which dozens of riders of both races endured assaults and jail time for crossing the color line.
Farmer worked for the NAACP and wrote articles about civil rights before dedicating himself full-time to CORE. CORE organized peaceful protests against Virginia's policy of massive resistance after the Brown decision. In 1960, college students using CORE's nonviolent tactics held sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South. Under Farmer's direction, CORE worked with other groups including the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to fight for civil rights, a struggle that threatened Farmer's safety but also brought him to the White House to meet with President Lyndon Johnson as federal civil rights legislation was crafted.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, Farmer left CORE, began teaching and later served as the Assistant Secretary for Health, Education and Welfare in the Nixon administration. Dr. Farmer, as he was called, continued his career in higher education, becoming a professor at Mary Washington College in 1984.
Dr. Farmer returned to Marshall several times to discuss his experiences there and his civil rights work. In 1995, the City of Marshall changed the name of Barney Street to James Farmer Street to honor Dr. Farmer and his father. President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the year before Dr. Farmer died in Fredericksburg, Virginia.