In the years leading up to his death from congestive heart failure on July 9 at 79, James Farmer lost his sight and his legs to the ravages of diabetes. It seemed a cruelly ironic fate for a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality who, at the height of the civil rights movement, embodied vision and momentum. "He was a real giant," says NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who earlier told reporters, "He's going to be much missed."

In 1942, the same year he co-founded CORE, Farmer, a Texas-born professor's son, organized one of the early antisegregation sit-ins, at a Chicago coffee shop. By 1961 he was leading the first Freedom Rides. As CORE was eclipsed by more radical black-power groups, Farmer faded from prominence. In 1968, running as a Republican, he lost a Brooklyn congressional race to Shirley Chisholm. He then served as assistant secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Nixon Administration, resigning in 1970. In recent years the widowed father of two, who in December retired as a professor at Virginia's Mary Washington College, worried about his place in history. "I have had great anxiety that my people would forget me," Farmer told PEOPLE. Those fears were assuaged in January 1998 when—after a campaign by Bond and other ex-movement leaders—President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom. "James Farmer was one of the founding fathers of the new America, not just the new South," says Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a friend and civil rights compatriot. "He...made our country a better place."