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People Top 5
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- July 26, 1999
- Vol. 52
- No. 3
Wheelchair-Bound in His Final Years, James Farmer Stood Tall on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Struggle
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."
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