James Farmer Essay – Based on Prof. Ferrell Interview

by mballard ~ December 5th, 2009. Filed under: Essays.

James Farmer Interview Essay

For this interview, myself and a classmate, Timothy Sherrange, interviewed Professor Claudine Ferrell of the University of Mary Washington History department.  She began teaching at UMW the same year as James Farmer, 1985.  She teaches African-American history along with other eighteenth and nineteenth century American histories.  Professor Ferrell provided a detailed story about Farmer’s time at UMW.

James Farmer came to UMW and taught a single class about the period of the Civil Rights movement he was involved in, which was from 1940-1980’s.  Farmer used his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, as the chief text for the class, which he taught without notes or slides. He lectured strictly from memory, and had a knack for storytelling.  However, Farmer did face difficulties as the years wore on.  He suffered from a rare ocular disease and was steadily losing his sight.  He believed in spreading his knowledge to as many people as possible, and his classes often had in excess of 150 students.  Some of these students disregarded the Honor Code and would leave the classroom on exam days since Farmer could not see.  Other students would simply discuss the exam with their neighbor.  Members of the History department felt obligated to protect Farmer from this, but still needed to treat him with respect.

Professor Ferrell taught African-American History in a single semester when Farmer was a professor, and she reflected that having him around to teach students about the Civil Rights movement meant that Prof. Ferrell could skim over that time period because every single one of her students had taken, or were taking Farmer’s class.  Ferrell loved having Farmer teach there because he was not a typical history professor.  He had actually lived through the experiences he spoke about, which is something the vast majority of professors cannot claim.  James Farmer believed that the Civil Rights movement had accomplished a lot, but it was far from over.  He wanted to paint an accurate picture of the past for the students so that they would realize what still needed to be done.  Kim Rogers, in her essay Oral History and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, says, “Of greatest importance is the contribution that oral history can make to our understanding of the genesis and sustenance of social movements.”[1] This is what Farmer wanted his students to know.  The movement was not just King marching on Washington and giving a speech, it was a grassroots effort led by thousands of blacks and whites who wanted civil equality.  These people made up the backbone of the operation, and are often ignored when talking about the movement.     

Even as his eyesight waned, Farmer insisted that his students write an essay on discrimination, either a research essay, or a personal experience essay.  His students could write about their experience with weight issues, being black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, anything that caused them to experience prejudice or discrimination.  He felt it was important for students to identify on some level with the black and white Civil Rights activists.  Farmer had to have an aide read the essays to him so he could grade them.

Farmer was also a big fan of his students.  He loved to chat with them, and many even brought their parents to come meet him and get an autograph signed.  Lay Bare the Heart was published in French and he gave a signed copy to Prof. Ferrell’s mother, who is French.  This demonstrated a very caring and thoughtful side to Farmer.  As Farmer’s health declined, he would spend less and less time in the department, only showing up for class.  He was unable to connect with his students and faculty the same way.  This hurt him deeply.

James Farmer received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, towards the end of his life.  Prof. Ferrell remarked that Farmer had a feeling like “it’s about time.”  Farmer was honored to be recognized by President Clinton.  He did not want to become one of the lost names of the Civil Rights movement.  Farmer admired and respected Martin Luther King Jr. and what he had done for civil rights, but Farmer did feel like MLK Jr. received all the attention and praise for making the Civil Rights movement happen.  Farmer was very good about keeping these sentiments private.  He would never publicly decry the generalization of the movement.  Farmer also held great respect for Malcolm X, whom he genuinely liked.

Professor Ferrell was able to attend a dinner with Farmer and other prominent figures including Ralph Abernathy, who was a close associate of MLK Jr.’s and who took over the SCLC after King’s death.  Farmer showed his book to Abernathy, who was clearly impressed, and who thought; “I gotta keep up with James Farmer.”  Farmer enjoyed having a successful book to show off.

Prof. Ferrell provided a unique look at the legacy of Farmer to UMW.  She said that UMW was not structurally ready to handle a man like Farmer.  The administration had never dealt with a professor who was teaching from experience and not from having a Ph.D. in the subject.  Farmer tended to get lost in the “mundane paperwork and day to day.”  UMW was a small town college that was not a UVA or George Mason, which are equipped to handle such a person.

This interview told us a great deal about James Farmer and his tenure here.  It seems as though lecturing at a college was the next logical step in the career of Farmer.  He had been a staple on the lecture circuit for years, but now he was able to take a full semester to inform large classes about the real nitty-gritty of the Civil Rights movement.  In her article Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History, Kathryn Nasstrom discusses the role that historians play vs. the role of those who lived through it.  She quotes Ralph Abernathy saying “in his introduction to And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography, (Abernathy) pays historians this decidedly backhanded compliment: “Historians do an excellent job of re-creating the past, but for the most part they do so by superimposing their own abstractions on the concrete particulars of experience.”[2] This is what James Farmer believed also.  He distrusted traditional textbooks and favored personal narratives instead.

I mentioned in this brief essay works by Kim Rogers and Kathryn Nasstrom.  These works highlight the importance and usefulness of oral history and autobiographical narratives in constructing an accurate and complete picture of the Civil Rights movement.  They discuss how oral histories such as interviews can offer details overlooked in historical documents.  Historians can dissect and analyze Kings I Have a Dream Speech all they want, but without oral histories from base level individuals, they will never know how or why King came to give his speech.  There needs to be analysis at the grassroots level.  Nasstrom points out the important of autobiographies when she says:

Civil rights autobiography, following another convention of autobiographical writing, begins the history of the movement in family, childhood, and the formative experiences of growing up, and the memoirs help us comprehend the origins of activism on the individual level. This manner of documentation contrasts with most historical accounts that begin in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court or on the Montgomery bus on which Rosa Parks sat.[3]

[1] Kim Lacy Rogers, “Oral History and the History of the Civil Rights Movement.” 568, Journal of American History.

[2] Kathryn L. Nasstrom, “Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History.” 326, Southern Historical Association, 2008. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2009).

[3] Ibid, 338.

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