James Farmer and the Great Debaters

James L. Farmer, Jr. was a major figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. He was a renowned orator, one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), organized the first sit-ins, and was a key figure on the Freedom Rides during the 1960s, a phrase he actually coined.

Image of Martin Luther King. Whitney Young, and James Farmer meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964
Lyndon B. Johnson meets with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James FarmerOne of the lesser-known facts about one of the lesser-known leaders behind the struggle for social justice during the long twentieth century was that he taught at Mary Washington. During the 1980s and 90s (up and until his death in 1999) he taught a class on the Civil Rights movement. In fact, professor Tim O’Donnell’s freshman seminar, “James Farmer and the Great Debaters” (oh yeah, Farmer was also a part of the storied Wiley College debate team that broke the color line and defeated Harvard University in 1935), is actually transcribing the audio from one of Farmer’s courses that was recorded during 1987. In fact, the course was actually video-taped, but unfortunately the video for the first four classes are unwatchable.Additionally, Farmer brought three major figures of the civil rights era (Whitney Young, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Walter E. Fauntroy) to campus during the late 1980s and taped some really interesting interviews with these figures about their reflections upon this moment. So, Tim O’Donnell’s class has done an unbelievable job of scouring the archive at Mary Washington for all these resources (and this is really just scratching the surface), and more than that they are going to transcribe these resources, put them in a blog and make them freely available to the world wide web. So, if all goes well, just about anyone will be able to sit in on a course with a figure who lived through and had a profound impact upon on of the most tumultuous moments of US History.

I believe this class will be following a similar format as the American Rhetoric site on UMW Blogs (see an example here, which features Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”). Each page will include the audio file of each lecture as well as the corresponding transcript. Additionally, at least nine classes will have a video component, wherein you can see Farmer in action in front of the classroom. Say what you will about lectures, but I’d sit in a lecture hall any day of the week to listen to this man talk about his experiences, which are extraordinary in every sense of the word.

Here is a quick two-minute introduction to one of the videos that I think is beautifully edited and features one of Farmer’s speeches during the 1960s movement -powerful stuff indeed.


What an amazing resource, and it just makes me smile to think that Tim O’Donnell and the students in his seminar will be making it available to the world at large. The labor is intense, but the rewards are even more intense.

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7 Responses to James Farmer and the Great Debaters

  1. You forgot his later achievements, with Edublogs.org etc… He’s a total renaissance man!

  2. jimgroom says:


    That’s funny, because whenever I google search James Farmer I get that WordPress lovin’ Aussie. And whilw he’s good and everything, I don’t know if he is the real “James farmer.” 🙂

  3. Jessica Ahlers says:

    Great article. I was given the gift of being one of his students while I attended Mary Wash, and it was extraordinary. His laugh was incredible, and he brought so much insight to the civil rights movements. I have to admit, there was a feeling of sadness within him, as he felt he did not receive the recognition he deserved for the work he did. It was an amazing gift!

  4. jimgroom says:


    How lucky are you! I have to admit that I only became familiar with Farmer’s work once I started working at UMW two years ago. Interestingly enough, one entire class of his about the Civil Rights movement at UMW was videotaped, and I was able to watch the entire course, he was phenomenal. UMW will be releasing the transcripts of the class with the audio and video shortly, I’ll link to it here when it is available. It may give yo a chance to re-experience some of his magic.

    As for his sadness, that is a fascinating observation. Not having witnessed his talks first hand I’m far less qualified to comment. Yet, from some of the lectures we have on tape here I think the terrible weight of history that was so much with him comes through at moments. What an amazing gift and tremendous onus to be a freedom fighter in a land premised on this value.

    Thank for sharing your experiences in the comments here, it really made my morning.

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  6. Pingback: Civil Rights Leader James Farmer’s UMW Lectures Online | bavatuesdays

  7. Pingback: Civil Rights Leader James Farmer’s UMW Lectures Online — UMW Blogs

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