Farmer Lecture: Exam Review and Q&A (Part 2)

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Farmer Lecture: Exam Review and Q&A (Part 2)


Farmer, James, 1920-1999


Second part of the recording of a lecture from James Farmer’s The Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century class, which has been split in half for upload space. Originally titled 'Lecture 038' by Special Collections.

Starting from where the previous video left off, Farmer discusses the Reagan administration's reactions to civil rights legislations, including their opposition to numerical goals and timetables (2:19). He discusses his opposition to the idea that racial discrimination no longer exists in America (5:13). He then answers a question about whether it's possible to eliminate racism by legislative means (13:35) and the idea that people are less racist towards those they know well (18:05). Finally, at 26:10, he begins to discuss internalized racism, the black power movement, and an encounter with Mississippi's Senator Bilbo.


James Farmer


Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Mary Washington




HIST 428 Spring 2020


Copyright is retained by Special Collections and University Archives, Simpson Library, University of Mary Washington. This item is available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Items may not be reproduced or used for any commercial purposes without prior written consent from the University of Mary Washington.





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suits against civil rights workers in the Deep South who are trying to register people to vote, register blacks. In some cases, in Alabama for instance, the civil rights workers are using absentee ballots. They're using forms to take to old people and sick people who cannot go down to the courthouse or wherever it is they have to go to get the registration forms. Taking them to them, having them sign forms, have them notarized, with a notary public there, and then taking them back, registered. And trying to do the same in voting by using absentee ballots. This has been done by the white communities in Alabama for many, many years.

But now, however, that the civil rights workers are doing it to register blacks. The Justice Department is writing a suit against them for voting fraud, charging voting twice. How? Well, they say, Spiver Gordon, you voted for yourself, right? Okay, then you took an absentee ballot over to Sister Jones, who is ninety-two years old, and so arthritic she can't get out of her house, and you showed her where to sign? So you showed her where to sign it and where to vote. You, in effect, voted twice. And that is a criminal offense.

And so, Spiver and a number of the other civil rights workers have been indicted, multiple indictments Spiver has been convicted, I mention him particularly because he was, of course, a member of CORE. He is appealing. I don't know if they will win or lose. Also, affirmative action, which was another victory - I didn't mention affirmative action as a legislative victory because it was not legislative, it was the executive department, executive order where the federal government is concerned, an administrative decision. The president has said, and the Justice Department Attorney General has said, they're opposed to affirmative action and numerical goals and timetables.

They say affirmative action's not so bad, but numerical goals and timetables, which sound like quotas, are terrible, because they color-conscious and not colorblind, which this administration hates a lot. When you say to your employers that since you don't have any blacks or Puerto Ricans in your employ, in the next five years we want to see you bring the number of blacks and Puerto Ricans up to ten percent of the workforce, let's say approximately ten percent of the population in this area. So that's numerical goals and timetables, and that is a quota, and that discriminates. It discriminates against whites. It is color-conscious, and not color-blind, as the president, and says 'at least.'

Therefore, the President has said and repeated on several occasions that he intends soon to issue an executive order which will ban numerical goals and timetables and affirmative action. Well, now, there are many companies, business concerns, and city agencies such as police departments and fire departments which have worked out plans of affirmative action, including numerical goals and timetables. Some of them have had no blacks in their force, the fire department or the police and they worked out a plan with the NAACP or whatever other civil rights organization exists in that community to improve that gradually in the
next five years or ten years, aiming at parity with the population, percentage in the population. Roughly. It's not a hard and fast figure, it's a goal, and it's flexible. Negotiable. They've worked out a plan, they've agreed to it. The Justice Department has learned from it. The Justice Department's gone up and written, "You must not do this, because this discriminates." "This is color conscious. We want color blind"

These companies and these agencies say, "Look, Justice Department, please get off our backs." "We're happy. Our workforce is happy. The community organizations are happy." "The special interest groups are happy. The trade unions are happy. Everybody's happy, would you please leave us alone?" But instead of leaving them alone, Judge Reynolds files a suit against them. Takes them to court. But yeah, they're trying to turn back the clock on those. Part of it is ideological, I think. Honestly, some persons in the administration, I assume this is true of Reagan, feel that... Let's see, how should we put it? That if - that there's no longer any systemic discrimination against blacks as a group, or other minorities as a group. And that if a black person works hard, and follows the Protestant ethic of work habits and everything else, he will do as well as anybody else, because there's no longer any racial discrimination. And this individual will become a white person, with an invisible black skin.

I don't think that's true. It has become popular, and it has for years, to say that there's no longer any racial discrimination. In fact, one black man, a guy in Michigan, a professor, wrote a book entitled The Declining Significance of Race. Other blacks, black intellectuals, neoconservatives, you know, black and white and such, have taken the position that it is no longer a race problem, it is now just a class problem and there's no longer any problem with race. Color doesn't mean anything anymore, it is class, class only. It is an economic problem. In fact, I heard a discussion on that this very morning,
in New York City, on a TV show. They were being taped. The discussion was of Bayard Rustin, whom I've known many years, 1942, as a matter of fact. He used to be militant,
now he's very, very neo-conservative and takes the position that it's no longer a race problem, it's now an economic problem. That we did it all in the sixties.

Well, for me, that's simply nonsense. I think it is both race and class. There's still racism. Ask yourself if when you see a black person, you see just a person, or do you see a black person? Those of you who are white. Those of you who are black, ask yourself if when you see a white person you see a person who happens to be white, or do you see a white person? I suspect it is the latter. I suspect that all of us, when we see a person for the first time, view that person through race eyes. Because - it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's nothing to deny. Because we've grown in a society which conditions us in that way. And we have to decondition ourselves, if there is such a word as decondition.

Decondition ourselves. It is... I would say this, this is an extreme statement but I think that it is accurate. It certainly used to be completely accurate, twenty years ago I'd say it without any second thought. Now, I'd think before. It is, I used to say it is impossible for any person in our country to grow to adulthood, whether that person is black or white, without having some residues of racial feeling. That was an extreme statement. Now, a bit more sensitive, I'd still make the statement. But with some reservations now. The more sensitive among us, among white and among black, work hard to
get rid of it, to root it out of us. And if we're very, very sensitive, we succeed. The less sensitive, we succeed to a lesser extent, if we are insensitive we don't succeed at all. If we don't try, we certainly don't succeed. But it is hard, because we grow up in a society which conditions us to racial responses. We're black and white. To say that race doesn't count now, that color doesn't matter, that we are colorblind, is to tell ourselves a lie. That is the worst kind of lie, the lie we tell ourselves. When you tell yourself one, you're kidding yourself.

No, the time will come when we will have no racial responses, I'm sure. I don't think that time has come yet. I don't think that. I know a good friend of mine in New York, a woman from South Dakota. I think it was South Dakota, it doesn't matter. Who is very much anti-racist. In South Dakota, I don't think there were any blacks there. One or two, maybe. But she was leading some children in the street, blocked off street, in some game. She was a social worker. And she had to line them up somehow and decide who was going to play what role. So she started off, "Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a -" [Muffles self.] "You know the saying, don't you? "Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a nigger by the toe." "She said, eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a - [choked noise]."

It's the tiger by the toe. And she worried, brooded about that for weeks. She finally told me, and I laughed uproariously. "Why in the world didn't you go ahead and say it?" "Get it out. Because it meant nothing to you. But the fact that it troubled her so much said it meant a little to her." Well, we can get rid of our biases, and I think you young ladies and young gentlemen who ten years from now will have families will have an awesome responsibility and a great privilege of seeing to it that if your children grow up to be decent human beings, with decent, humane values, that one of those humane values that you'll instill in your children will be that of knocking racism.

I think parents could do it. More than the teachers, more than the preachers, more than anybody else, but then they can do much better if they have first done it for themselves. Any other questions?

[Student: I just had a comment about when you were talking about the limitations of the movement, and one is how it did not counteract racism, I'm not sure the movement as such can, because that's something in someone's head - so how do you do that, as a movement?] Well - [How does that come in through the back door, through legislation?] That's a good point. [I don't think that's a failure, maybe I'm not -] Well, some of the movement intellectuals argued during the movement's day that we were trying to get at racism, that laws have educational effect in the long term. Because people don't want to be law violators, they keep abiding by a law which says, you treat everybody the same, and by and by, long enough, you will begin to feel that everybody is the same. I guess maybe that is true in the long term, but it's a very slow process.

How do you do it, how could a movement do it? I'm not sure. I was talking with Doctor Kenneth Clark, one of the better-known black psychologists, who thinks that it can be done and that it would be a task for colleges and publicists to work out together. What they'd have to do in these fields is reach into the kind of input that goes into determining people's thinking, how they think and how they feel. Or how they feel, I guess, then how they think. That would mean the television, a kind of image to get on television, this would have to be a concerted approach where you sit down and kind of program it. Obviously, movies, certain books, especially preschool books, textbooks, children's books. Comic books would be very important because people read those more than anything else.

The danger of that, of course, is that it might be too Big Brother. If it's to be so all-encompassing, affecting every instrument which comes to disseminate culture, and that's what he's talking about, then it would have to be orchestrated, I suppose, by government. And if the government begins orchestrating, involving every one of those instruments, where does that stop? Would the cure not as bad or worse than the disease? I don't know. But I think your question is such a good one, I'm kind of trying to talk around it, there.
I'm not sure what can be done, can be orchestrated, but I think it might. I know dictatorships can do it.

Cuba, by fiat, or is it fai-at, fiat, wiped it out. But that's a totalitarian society now. But the pre-Castro regime was not anti-racist. Castro came in and made a remonstration of racism. From weapons and all of the instruments which turn how people think and so forth, and get that message across. And I'm told by people who spent time there that it seemed to work. I think it's gonna be hard. Other questions?

[Student: There was a comment about a theory that few people were racist towards someone they knew well.] Knew well? [Because once they know people well, that sort of decreases racism?] Yes, generally that's true. I would put one caveat down. Maybe I'm wrong, know that you can disagree with me. [Student: Okay.] Good. Isn't it possible, though, for a person to, say, know a servant well and love that servant, and still treat that person as a servant and think of the person as a servant? Which could well be a form of racism. Yes. Could be a form of racism.

[Student: But wouldn't that imply to whites having white servants and blacks having black servants address them as people and not as colors? But just as the position of servant, not the rank.] Well, now, would it? Let's, let's discuss it, I think it is an important point. A person has a white servant, the servant is a servant but there is no concept of genetic inferiority. But it is quite possible for a person to love a black servant, love that black servant dearly, as we loved the mammies, the black mammies, as we loved Uncle Toms, Uncle Toms, we loved Uncle Toms. But there was the concept of genetic inferiority and the basic difference. The basic difference. No less affection or love, but it was superior - inferior genetically. Now with white I assume it would be superior with inferior on status level, but not on a genetic level.

[Student: We could automatically assume that... I hope that you can see, either way, it's a problematic business.] [Other student: There's also the fact that the Irish were discriminated against, and the Irish weren't allowed to go into some stores, and they had to go into the back doors to things, and people had Irish servants that even if they were white families and the Irish were white, they still thought there was something that made them better than them.] Did they think it was genes, though? [It'd be cultural.] Cultural. As in the South, the white plantation owner, this plantation owner was an absentee owner, and there was the riding boss, store boss, driving boss on the plantation. Now, he was on a different level from the poor whites who worked on that plantation, the sharecroppers or tenant farmers. But it was not a caste system, that's the distinction. It was not a caste system, because it was still possible for that tenant farmer to become a store boss.

[Student: Maybe a better example than the Irish would be Hitler's race theory on the Jews. They were thought to be genetically inferior.] I'd argue they were thought to be genetically superior.[Not in the Nazi perspective.] Not in the Nazi period, that's right. Yeah. [And Jews are still - people are still prejudiced against Jews today. (Overlapping talk.) Not to the point of Nazi Germans, but still.] Yeah, but you see, there is one thing different - I'm not finding the words that I want to put my finger on it, but there is a qualitative difference. The antisemite looks at the Jew and feels the Jew is somehow less of a person than he, the antisemite, is. But he does not say that he is inferior to me. The thought is, the Jew is smarter. And the Jew would outdo him in business. That the Jew would run circles around him, therefore he hates him. But there is not that thought in dealing with a black. When he looks at the black, he does not see a man who he thinks is smarter than he is, he sees a man who he thinks is genetically not the smarter.

[Student: But even based on historical background, the first blacks came here basically as slaves, but our introduction to Jews here in the United States was, the first interactions seem to match, the sort of limiting of freedom.] Well, there were white indentured servants, nearly slaves. But Europe was not a caste system. Intermarriage was not taboo. That is a classic distinction. Slaves are, it is true, thought to be inferior. Aristotle looked at the Greek slaves and concluded so in his writing. "See? No wonder they're slaves, look at them."

"They're obviously inferior to the rest of us and inferior to their masters." "Otherwise they wouldn't be slaves." Well, of course, Aristotle made a common mistake. He confused the effect for the cause. They became inferior because they were slaves, because they were treated that way, not the other way around. That's the way this thing even started. You had to brainwash a slave to make him act like a slave. You beat him and whip him and sometimes he prefers death. I'm glad that at last we've got some questions, people are challenging some assertions. All right, that's good! Because, you know, you may be right and I may be wrong!

I think there's a qualitative difference and I think the qualitative difference is because you do have some residues of a racist feeling. I don't doubt - you know, before black power, most blacks considered themselves inferior to whites. I looked at my father, and he always astonished me, not just because of his brains, he could speak and write and read and think in so many languages, but because I was convinced that in his heart of hearts, he believed that blacks were inferior and whites were superior, despite himself and his obvious superiority. But then I asked myself, how could he believe anything else?

He was born in Kingstree, South Carolina, 1886. As a small boy, moved to Peterson, Georgia, and there he was brought up, and everything that he saw or heard told him that blacks were inferior. A black was told that he was inferior, and came to believe it. How else do you explain the phenomenon of a black with kinky hair referring to kinky hair as 'bad' hair? And straight hair as "good hair"? I have bad hair.[Class laughs][Addressing a student:] Your hair's good hair. We're trying to lighten one's feeling, but good question. On the other hand, whites try to darken their skin, by cooking themselves in the sun.

[Class and Farmer laughs.] And curl their hair, too! I think it really was ridiculous, but blacks did reject themselves. And considered themselves inferior, and thus began acting inferior in the presence of whites. That's why it was such a breath of fresh air, in spite of all its potential for danger and for evil, when the young blacks in the middle of the sixties began shouting, "Black is beautiful, it's not ugly!" "I'm somebody!" I haven't got bad hair, it's good hair! I won't try to get rid of those kinks, I'll grow them long in a bush and celebrate every kink! And make a few more of them!" So there was something refreshing about that, a person coming to terms with themselves, In spite of the danger of that person then saying, "If you are not black, and your hair is not kinky, then there's something wrong with you." You're not pretty, you're ugly. You're not beautiful, you're ugly.

And that's of course what happened with many of the Black is Beautiful black power advocates. But many social movements have those negative, general... Bill Wilson said he believed in black power once, he was almost convinced, he'd go to a meeting, and hear Stokely Carmichael's full oration, and he'd be all fired up, once he'd listen to one of the orations, and his chest was stuck out, and his head held high. He'd walk down the street and told himself that the first brother or sister he saw, he was going to give them the old black power salute, you know? He said he'd got a cab on the way, and he saw a brother coming toward him, a black brother coming toward him. He waited until he got real close, and he gave him the old salute. He said, "You know what that guy said? He said, you better get both hands up, baby."

[Laughter.] This is a stick-up. [More laughter.] Black is not automatically beautiful. The point is, it's not automatically ugly. That is the best thing to have you learn. I think that... blacks hated themselves. And believed themselves inferior and most whites believed blacks to be inferior. I told Senator Bilbo... This was 1938, 37? You don't know that name, do you? Senator Bilbo? Ted Bilbo, Mississippi, the granddaddy of all senatorial racists. The twenties and the thirties, and I guess the early forties, too. Bilbo ... I talked to him, and had an appointment with him, I was literally eighteen years old or so. And he said that "there ain't a nigger a fourth as smart as any white man."

Which is of course an absurd statement. That's a very intelligent man, he was an intelligent man, obviously. So I round off of this with a few Negro - that is the word used in those years - Negro geniuses. He thought for a minute, said, "I bet every one of them had some white blood." I mentioned one, one black scientist who performed some miracles in surgery. The first successful operation on the human heart. Open heart surgery. A black surgeon, I mention that to Bilbo he thought for a while. He said, "Yeah, that's right, niggers always were good with knives." [Scattered laughter.]

I had a laugh, too. You just can't win with this guy. Maybe I told you last week that - did I tell you? That I learned that he had a black mistress and black children – half, actually – whom he put through college. He loved his illegitimate family. I got this information from a chauffeur of Bilbo's, taking him to this lady's house. At least twice a week. Yet he was the worst Negro hater in the South. He'd educated his children. It's a funny thing. It's a strange love-hate complex. Less so now. Less so now than it was in those years, but we still have residues of it we have to try to get rid of.

What time is it? Do we want to take a break, or do we want to - have I gotten all your papers? Are there some who still have their papers here, or are there some who don't have their papers here to turn in? Okay, you will get them into the office - [Student: Tomorrow.] Okay. Those that have not brought their papers, please try to get them in tomorrow. Okay?





James Farmer, “Farmer Lecture: Exam Review and Q&A (Part 2),” James Farmer at Mary Washington, accessed June 22, 2024,

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