James Farmer’s Libraries: A Special Exhibit

Campus buzzes this year with activity associated with Farmer Legacy 2020Here in Special Collections and University Archives, we’re also doing our part to recognize and celebrate the legacy of James Farmer. As mentioned in our previous post, we’ve opened the James L. Farmer Papers for research and published the finding aidand we’ve also created an exhibit in the Convergence Gallery. To add to this, most recently, we’ve curated another exhibit titled James Farmer’s Libraries. This exhibit features select items from the personal book and music collections of the Civil Rights icon. 

The majority of the materials in these libraries came to Special Collections and University Archives after his death in 1999. Like his papers, these items reflect his involvement with various Civil Rights organizations and notable figures, and they highlight a lifetime of activism. 

James Farmer seated at a desk in front of bookshelves.

James Farmer at his desk, 1988. Photograph by Lou Cordero.

Among his long string of accomplishments, James Farmer was also a writer whose prose struck as effectively as his speech. He appreciated the craft and curated a collection of books from various authors who wrote about topics close to his heart. Important themes of civil rights, justice, and equality clearly run dominant throughout his library.

Most of the books displayed in the exhibit were gifts to Dr. Farmer, as evidenced by the number of personal inscriptions. One such inscription is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair, famous in his own right for his social justice involvement and investigative works such as The Jungle. Sinclair signed a copy of his book The Return of Lanny Budd with the note, “To James Farmer, one of our young crusaders who must take over. 

Handwritten inscription that reads, "To James Farmer, one of our young crusaders who must take over, Upton Sinclair"

Inscription to James Farmer from Upton Sinclair.

Farmer’s library includes a few autobiographies of fellow activists. Coretta Scott King’s 1969 book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.is one such example, containing an inscription that reads, To James Farmer, with gratitude for your love and support, and with warm regards. Coretta Scott King. Farmer’s own autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, is also on display. This item once belonged to James Farmer, but unlike the other volumes, he personally gave it as a gift to the Mary Washington library with the inscription, “To the students of Mary Washington College”. 

Cover of Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement by James Farmer with a photo of the author featured

James Farmer’s autobiography recounts a life of work towards equality and freedom for all.


For James Farmer and others in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), nonviolence was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, as both weapon and defense, CORE frequently wielded song. Farmer was deeply familiar with this, and wrote in Lay Bare the Heart:  

“We sang loudly to silence our own fears. And to rouse our courage. There is no armor more impenetrable than song.”

Four young African-Americans joining hands and singing.

The Freedom Singers (Cordell Reagon, Rutha Harris, Charles Neblett, Bernice Johnson Reagon). This quartet traveled with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and performed frequently throughout the Civil Rights Movement, including at the 1963 March on Washington.

Even in the face of hatred and violence, those marching for equal rights sangMany of the records in James Farmer’s library of albums feature collected songs of the Civil Rights Movement. These records include the soundtrack to the famed 1963 March on Washington, featuring music from folk legends such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as gospel stars Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.  

Album cover for We Shall Overcome!: The March on Washington, August 28th 1963

The recording from the March on Washington contains the music and the speeches of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned “I Have a Dream” speech.

Farmer’s collection also includes A Jazz Salute to Freedom, notable as CORE’s first venture in music production. The album features several popular jazz musicians of the era: Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Nat and Cannonball Adderly, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. As CORE’s National Director, James Farmer wrote a note of gratitude on the liner notes, thanking all purchasers for supporting CORE and reminding them of CORE’s purpose. 

Album cover for A Jazz Salute to Freedom

CORE’s first music production featured recordings from famous jazz artists, coming together to support equal rights.

Currently on display outside of the Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room on Simpson Library’s second floor, James Farmer’s Libraries will remain up for viewing until March 28. 

February 20, 2020