Toward a More Perfect Union

When the word of Jim Farmer’s death in July reached us we were flooded with vivid memories of this valiant hero of the struggle for democracy in America. Although we had not often seen Farmer during our years in the Southern freedom movement, his presence was very real. As a leader in the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1940s, as a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as the main organizer of the Freedom Rides of 1961, he had been centrally engaged in almost every element of the nonviolent action movement that challenged and eventually overcame the deadly anti-democratic poison of legalized racial segregation in America.

Almost all of us who worked in that movement knew that Farmer represented a special reality: that bridging of generations and experience, that full-time commitment to democratic change so important to the freedom movement. For while it was true that young people in their teens and 20s were usually the courageous front-line forces, Farmer represented the slightly older generation of courageous and committed co-participants who had decided earlier to dedicate their lives to the creation of "a more perfect union." They were constantly present to the young people as teachers, companions, guides—and sometimes opponents in the ongoing debates concerning the best paths ahead in that largely uncharted journey toward freedom. Farmer’s name and image brought back to our minds others who comprised this group of what might be called younger elders of the Southern movement. Among them were Ella Baker, Amzie Moore, Anne Braden, Slater King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rosa Parks. (Having begun his public participation at age 26, Martin Luther King Jr. was really a member of the younger generation in this cohort.)

Their names were constantly on his lips the first time we sat and talked at length with him in a Philadelphia hotel room in the 1970s. Farmer was very conscious of his connection not only to the other younger elders, but to that community of freedom workers who had paved the way for them. He spoke of both his contemporaries and the earlier freedom-makers with all the eloquence and pithy humor of his thoughtful and creative intellect. As we listened to him then and as we remembered him in the days after his death, we knew we had encountered a man of certain magnificence, a regal figure who was filled with humor, ready to laugh at himself and others, an older brother who had sacrificed so much on behalf of us all, on behalf of this nation’s best possibilities.

The last time one of us saw Farmer was in 1998 when Vincent and our colleague, Sudarshan Kapur, went with a professional camerperson to meet Farmer at his house in a semi-rural area outside Fredricksburg, Virginia. By then he had lost his sight and both of his legs to the ravages of diabetes, but the magnificence was still very evident, the booming laugh very present, and the old eloquence kept flowing against the debilitating tide of his illness.

We had come to Virginia to include him in the series of videotaped interview/conversations with "Veterans of Hope" that form the core of our work at the Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal. This interview experience was a reminder that neither Farmer nor many of the other younger elders made (or make) any claim to traditional, confessional religious life. As a matter of fact, when Farmer completed his work as a student at Howard University’s School of Religion (as it was then called) most of his friends and family expected him to follow in the footsteps of his father, James Leonard Farmer Sr., a respected Methodist pastor, teacher, and professor of Old Testament.

But Jim Farmer had already begun to discern another calling for his life. So he told his father that he could not in good conscience be ordained in what was then a segregated Methodist denomination. Instead, he declared that his life’s vocation would be to work for the dismantling of legal segregation in America. The development of bold, visionary, and courageous nonviolent challenges to the American system of racial segregation became the focus of his life. When we inquired about his work in FOR, and CORE, and with the Freedom Rides, asking him whether that life-risking, transformative work was really his "ministry" in the world, Farmer offered a fascinating response. Sitting up straight, adjusting the Presidential Medal of Honor that he recently had received, he smiled and said, "Oh yes, it certainly was my ministry." And then he added, "It was a ministry free from the bondage of religion."

Now it may be that this magnificent hero of American democracy has finally entered the greatest freedom of all, beyond all bondage. And we are left to continue the ministry, to begin a new century in the path of the constant struggle, the undying hope for a more perfect union, a more compassionate nation, a new generation of women and men who will commit our freed lives to the transformation of our country and ourselves. We remember James Farmer and we respond to his call.

ROSEMARIE HARDING is a counselor in private practice and adjunct professor in Denver University’s School of Social Work. VINCENT HARDING is professor of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where they have recently founded the Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal.

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