On 15 January 1998, what would have been Martin Luther King’s 69th birthday, James Farmer was awarded the presidential medal of freedom in the White House’s East Room. “He has never sought the limelight,” said the then president, Bill Clinton. “And until today, I frankly think he’s never got the credit he deserves. His long overdue recognition has come to pass.”
Farmer, who ran the Congress of Racial Equality and led the Freedom Rides through the segregated south in 1961, was by that time blind, diabetic and a double amputee. He died the following year. When I spoke to him a few months after the ceremony, he said it was the best day of his life. “It was just like the old days. But this time, I felt like I was finally being vindicated; that the years of invisibility were over.”
And what, I asked, had rendered him invisible? Having a white wife, he said, had been an issue. But the main reason, he believed, was that the US had only enough room to remember one civil rights leader. “I was in the shadow of Martin Luther King,” he told me. “And that was quite a big shadow. It was King who made the ‘I have a dream’ speech. And King was assassinated – and that always enlarges a person’s image.”
Half a century after King’s assassination, there is value in reflecting on that shadow. The angle at which King’s body of work caught the light after he was killed tells us a great deal about how a black radical preacher came to be so big and what else may be hidden in the darkness.