04/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
JAMES FARMER RECEIVED WORD just as he and his fellow Freedom Riders arrived in Atlanta on their trek across the South. His father, James Sr., had died of cancer, and he had to go home to Washington for the funeral It was the summer of 1961, a crucial and sometimes violent time for the growing civil-rights movement. In Alabama the Freedom Riders were beaten and their bus firebombed. When Farmer prepared to rejoin them as they headed into Mississippi, he hesitated. "You'll think Alabama was purgatory and Mississippi is hell," his father, a Methodist minister, had warned. Haunted by visions of lynchings, Farmer thought as he stood in the bus station in Montgomery that his mother shouldn't have to deal with two deaths in a week. But looking into the faces of the young protesters whose eyes were "huge balls of terror," he knew his place was by their side. "These kids were scared," he says. "I couldn't let them go alone."
History proved Farmer's decision sound. The Freedom Rides helped prompt reforms desegregating public transportation and boosted Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to national prominence with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young as one of the era's civil-rights giants. Still, despite his successes, Farmer fell into relative obscurity over time, a fact that once made the 78-year-old, now blind and with his legs amputated because of diabetes, question his life's toils. "I have had great anxiety that my people would forget me, forget my work," he says. "I was hoping the day would come when I would be remembered."
That day arrived Jan. 15. After a four-year letter-writing campaign by luminaries such as NAACP chairman Julian Bond, President Clinton awarded Farmer the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. "When he heard he was getting it, you could see the years melt off his face," says daughter Abbey, 36, who, like her sister Tami Farmer Gonzalez, 39, raises horses outside of Washington. Adds Bond: "It's well deserved. He's a hero of the movement."
Farmer now uses his war stories to fuel the three-hour civil-rights class he teaches twice weekly at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. He is so popular that the class has a waiting list, and professors linger at the door to listen. One recent day he recalled the horrific lynching of Emmitt Till, a Chicago teen killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. "He didn't know the rules of life in the South," he explains. "He hadn't been there long enough."
Teaching runs in the family. Both his father and sister were college professors, and the precocious Farmer graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, at the age of 18. The second of three children, Farmer claims his interest in civil rights was spawned the day when, as a boy in Holly Springs, Miss., his mother told him he couldn't buy a Coke from a store because he was black. "That incident continued to plague me," he recalls. "It directed my life."
Farmer earned a theology degree from Howard University and moved to Chicago in 1941. He founded CORE in 1942, calling on blacks to fight segregation with peaceful protests. In 1949 he married Lula Peterson, a white honors graduate of Northwestern. In later years the marriage upset militant black leaders, but "nobody on God's green earth could tell me who my wife should be," Farmer says. He organized acts of civil disobedience for two decades and in 1961 began a five-year turn as CORE's national director.
In 1968, Republicans backed him in a race to represent Brooklyn's 12th Congressional District. He lost to Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, but was later named assistant secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Nixon Administration—a job he regretted. "Many blacks were registered Democrats, and Nixon was the most unpopular of Republicans," he recalls. He quit after 20 months, when a Nixon aide urged him to support a Supreme Court nominee with a dismal civil-rights record.
Soon afterwards, Lula's Hodgkin's disease, diagnosed before their marriage, worsened, and her medical bills drained the family's finances. At the same time, Farmer's public-speaking offers dried up, and he took a job with an advocacy group. Lula died in 1977, and six years later he moved on to academia. These days after class, Farmer is driven home to his modest, two-story house 15 minutes away. There, in rooms furnished with a hospital bed and mementos such as symbolic keys to Birmingham, he savors his award. "They know my name now," he says. "I think that medal, which they tell me is quite beautiful, will preserve my place in history."
SOPHFRONIA SCOTT GREGORY
ROSE ELLEN O'CONNOR in Fredericksburg