Farmer in Film
By Justin Toney
Stand by the bust in front of Trinkle Hall and listen to the students walking by. If any take notice of the statue, it is likely they only the familiar bronze eye-patch and thoughtful gesture.
“Who’s James Farmer?” asked one UMW Junior. Indicating the statue, he adds, “My friends all call him ‘Patchy.’”
Dr. James L. Farmer, a former member of the Mary Washington faculty and leader in civil rights is honored on this campus by the commemorative statue bearing his image and numerous organizations established in his name.
More than just a campus figure, however, Farmer has re-entered the national theater literally with the release of “The Great Debaters” starring and directed by Denzel Washington.
Young actor Dinzel Whitaker portrays Farmer in the film, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe in Best Motion Picture-Drama.
Since its December 2007 release, the film has received mostly strong reviews.
UMW senior Osob Samantar, who recently saw the film, thought highly of it.
“It was beautiful,” said Samantar, “It was uplifting and inspirational.
Still, the president of Women of Color expressed that attention to Farmer’s legacy is lacking.
“Bill Clinton said it best, “He’s a forgotten leader,” and sadly he’s forgotten on this campus because when people think of civil rights, people don’t drive home the point that there were other leaders aside from Martin Luther King jr. and even besides early [Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X],” said Samantar.
Farmer has been popularly considered one of the “big four” of the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. His non-violent civil rights campaign began in the early 1940s, decades before the appearance of King onto the national stage.
“The Great Debaters” depicts Farmer not as a civil rights leader, but as a member of the debate team at Wiley College, Texas.
Mary Washington debate coach Tim O’Donnell especially highlighted Farmer’s debating career during his presentation Tuesday night.
“He debated Malcom X several times in the 1960s—debates that were crucial in shaping the course of not only the civil rights movement, but public discourse in the country about what the appropriate solutions were to the race problems in America,” O’Donnell said.
While teaching at Mary Washington, Farmer never became involved with the debate—a regrettable fact for O’Donnell. “It’s one of the great missed opportunities,” he said.
Taking time to address the movie during his presentation, O’Donnell noted a number of historical inaccuracies—particularly the fictional “composite” characters that played major roles in the film.
Acting president of the James Farmer Multicultural Center, Reverend Shaunna Payne, did not express displeasure with the movie’s creative alterations.
“It’s a great movie that has a lot of fact, but also has wonderful fiction.” Payne added, “I think it’s great entertainment for young people to find out who James Farmer is and then seek out the facts by reading his autobiography and his papers.”
Freshman Class President Christina Elder said she was surprised to see Farmer as a young college student, knowing him only in the context of the civil rights movement.
“It made me realize that he had a great start in life,” Elder said. “He was very educated.”
In the mid-1980s, Farmer began teaching at then-called Mary Washington College. Originally, he was invited to teach for one year, but his courses became so popular that he was asked to return. He remained with the school until his death in 1999.
According to O’Donnell, Farmer is estimated to have taught one third of the graduating class while he was a faculty member here.
“There is in my estimation not a greater impact or greater reach by any leader that has made such an indelible and long-term impact on a college population for well over ten years,” said O’Donnell.
Women of Color President Osob Samantar commented, “I think that there should be more classes that integrate Farmer’s legacy taught at this University or teachers should go out of their way to teach a little bit of Farmer’s legacy. I feel like we’ve just forgotten it on this campus.”
Currently, O’Donnell is working to complete an online archive of Farmer’s lectures at MWC. The materials for the archive were mostly compiled and transcripted by students attending last semester’s freshman seminar on James Farmer.
The James Farmer Scholars Program, One of the many organizations named in Farmer’s honor, offers educationally enriching activities to seventh through twelfth-grade African American youths. Debate education is among the many opportunities provided.
“In so far as we offer students the opportunities to partake in debate education, yes, we are participating in [Farmer’s] legacy and the larger legacy that is debate,” said O’Donnell.