I have read Freedom When? by James Farmer three times, and I am now convinced that, in spite of a certain amount of fustian and poor organization, and the sketchy treatment, or unawareness, of certain issues, this book must hold an important place on the now packed shelf of books dealing with the Negro movement. For one thing, the book is important because Mr. Farmer himself has played a dramatic, valiant, and decisive part in the Negro Movement, and any views he holds come colored by the risks in blood of his experience.
James Farmer was born, according to the Introduction, on January 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas, when his father, a remarkable man and the first Negro Ph.D. in the state, was a professor at Wiley College. Farmer grew up on the campus of one Negro college after another wherever his father was teaching, then became a student at Wiley College and Howard University, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Divinity, in 1941. In other words, Farmer, like almost all nationally prominent Negro leaders, has had a middle-class education. CORE itself was a middle-class creation, the result of a coalition between a pilot group set up in Chicago by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with Farmer as leader, and a group of students, who became, in fact, the nucleus of CORE. But that was in 1942, and a major theme of the book is the process by which the pressures of experience changed the philosophical, psychological, and social orientation of CORE, and of Farmer himself.
Originally CORE was a pacifist organization, not so much in the Tolstoyan sense of non-resistance, as under the influence of Gandhi, who thought in terms of action. Gandhi’s action was, however, directed toward the presentation of the “truth which cannot be denied,” and as Farmer points out, the early CORE “believed that truth alone, the transparent justice of our demands, would convert the segregationists.” What CORE aims for now is not change of heart but change of behavior: According to Farmer, CORE has slowly learned to accept the fact that in “the arena of political and social events, what men feel and believe matters much less than what, under various kinds of external pressures, they can be made to do“—and he might well have added that belief often follows doing.
THE RUB COMES, however, not in matters of aims but in matters of methods. With respect to violence, Farmer quotes with approval Gandhi’s statement that he would prefer to see a man resist evil with violence than fail to resist evil out of fear. He regards with excitement the impatience and intransigence of the young Negroes, the manly willingness to risk violence, and the all-or-nothing attitude of the “New Jacobins,” with their orientation toward the “struggle in the streets,” and their notion that nonviolence is merely a matter of tactics. It is easy to sense here something like the feeling that Martin Luther King confessed to about Malcolm X …