US civil-rights leader, educator, administrator, and one of the founders, in 1942, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil-rights organization that protects and promotes the rights of black Americans. Farmer, as CORE's national director 1942–66, advocated a policy of non-violent direct action to protest racial discrimination. His efforts included organizing Freedom Rides throughout the South in 1961, in which volunteer Freedom Riders travelled on interstate buses and challenged the federal government to enforce the desegregation legislation that had recently been passed, and the CORE-sponsored March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Born in Marshall, Texas, Farmer was the son of a preacher, and had a degree from Howard University's School of Divinity. As a strong believer in integration, Farmer decided against becoming a Methodist minister, preferring to fight that church's policy of segregated congregations by working for Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Quaker, pacifist organization, and then for CORE. In the late 1960s, Farmer, seeing CORE drift away from its nonviolent roots, left the organization. He remained an active writer and speaker, continuing to lecture publicly on civil rights, and took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1968, he went to work for President Nixon's administration as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Farmer retired from politics in 1971, but continued to serve on many organizational boards, and to also teach and lecture widely. His autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, was published in 1985. Farmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.