Commentary: What 'The Great Debater' James Farmer Can Teach Us Today | KERA News

Commentary: What 'The Great Debater' James Farmer Can Teach Us Today

Jan 12, 2015

Texas has its own claim to the legacy of the American civil rights movement - James Farmer Jr.  Born in Marshall in 1920, Jan. 12 would have been the birthday of the man many remember as “the great debater.”

Dr. Ben Voth, director of forensics (speech & debate) at Southern Methodist University, says Farmer’s bipartisan civility has much to teach us today.

When James Farmer, Jr. was charged a dollar for a five-cent donut at a restaurant in Chicago because he was black, it inspired him to launch the first civil rights sit-in there in 1942.  He and the members of his new civil rights organization - the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE -  contacted the police before their protest.  Rather than confront or accuse the police, they provided prior notice of their intentions.  This helped their cause succeed, because when the restaurant owners called the police in response to the sit-in, the officers refused to arrest the protesters.  Farmer’s unique Ghandian approach that he learned in his training as a Methodist minister, became the cornerstone of the non violent American civil rights movement. His efforts attracted more than 60,000 primarily young white and African American people to the cause of destroying segregation. 

Farmer felt the cause of justice was too big for one political party.  He refused to hitch the fortunes of his efforts to destroy segregation to either the Republicans or the Democrats.  He supported both political parties throughout the 1960s.  He ran as a Republican for Congress against a Democratic woman Shirley Chisholm in New York.  He worked in the Nixon administration during the 1970s.

Farmer’s original training at Wiley College in debate, laid an important civic groundwork that made him what Denzel Washington immortalized in his film as “The Great Debater.”  When Farmer sent a message to President John F. Kennedy arguing for the Freedom Bus Rides as an integrated effort through the South, he referenced arguments from Southern icon Robert E. Lee in order to suggest how desegregation would dignify and not shame the South. 

In 1963, James Farmer and the CORE leadership came up with a list of 12 rules for engaging in activism that would help us all today.  Here are five of those rules:

  1. A CORE member will investigate the facts carefully before deciding whether or not racial injustice exists in a given situation.
  2. A CORE member will make a sincere effort to avoid malice and hatred toward any group or individual.
  3.  A CORE member will never use malicious slogans or labels to discredit any opponent.
  4.  A CORE member will be willing to admit mistakes.
  5.  A member will meet the anger of any individual or group in the spirit of good will and creative reconciliation: he will submit to assault and will not retaliate in kind either by act or word.

Farmer’s promise to his father upon graduation from college that he would use his education to “destroy segregation” proved true.  Jim Crow laws segregating busing, education, voting and so many aspects of American life were gradually dismantled by the non-violent activism pioneered by the great debater from Texas.

Dr. Ben Voth is director of forensics (speech & debate) at Southern Methodist University.

For more information:

Texas Historical Association

James Farmer Project, University of Mary Washington