Farmer was born January 12, 1920 in Marshall, Texas. He was a child prodigy and at the age of 14 was attending Wiley College and participating on the debate team that was portrayed in the 2007 film “The Great Debaters.” Farmer earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Wiley in 1938 and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Howard University School of Religion in 1941.
In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee on Racial Equality, later renamed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), to bring an end to racial segregation through active nonviolence. He served as the national chairman until 1944. In 1961, he organized the Freedom Rides which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state busing in the United States.
In 1975, Farmer co-founded Fund for an Open Society with a vision of a nation in which people live in stably integrated communities and where political and civic power is shared by people of different races and ethnicities. He led this organization until 1999. In 1985, he published his autobiography “Lay Bare the Heart” and in 1998 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President William Clinton.