Nearly 500 people turned out yesterday to help UMW kick off Farmer Legacy 2020, a yearlong celebration of Dr. James L. Farmer Jr., the day after what would have been his 100th birthday.
The hourlong launch party packed plenty of emotion, from student accounts of life-changing experiences they’ve gained through UMW – and learning about Farmer’s legacy – to a moving rendition of Happy Birthday by Mary Washington gospel ensemble Voices of Praise.
Held in the UMW University Center’s Chandler Ballroom, the celebration commenced a year of events paying tribute to Farmer, the late Mary Washington history professor who founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and made an immeasurable impact on the civil rights movement as a member of the Big Six. Fredericksburg residents, Board of Visitor members and colleagues in higher education joined UMW students, faculty and staff in recognizing Farmer and his contributions, and vowing to follow in his footsteps by dedicating themselves to civic action and inclusion.
Honorary celebration chair, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, the last surviving member of the Big Six, had to cancel plans to attend yesterday’s launch due to a recent cancer diagnosis. Attendees signed a card for him.
Recognizing the powerful contributions of activists like Lewis and James Farmer, UMW President Troy Paino said: “If we continue to work together to commit ourselves to the ideals of justice, equality and service to our community, we are going to experience a better day.”
Mary Washington events planned throughout 2020 to mark milestones in the struggle for equality – the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and more – give him a “sense of hope and optimism for the coming year,” he said.
Paino shared the stage yesterday with Legacy Committee co-chairs, Mary Washington Chief Diversity Officer Sabrina Johnson and Vice President for Student Affairs Juliette Landphair, along with a pair of UMW students.
Junior anthropology major Courtney Flowers traveled across the country from her home in Torrance, California, to study at Mary Washington, she told the crowd, after stumbling across a name she didn’t recognize while working on a high school assignment: James Farmer. UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center and commitment to furthering Farmer’s legacy won her over.
“I came to Mary Washington because of James Farmer, and I came a long way,” she said.
UMW Student Government Association President Jason Ford, who, last fall, traced the path of the 1961 Freedom Rides orchestrated by Farmer to transform interstate travel, recounted how he and a UMW group recently visited Rep. Lewis and told of the impact it left on him.
“How do people of my generation continue the fight today,” Ford said he asked Lewis. “What can we do?”
Lewis urged him, Ford said, to never forget the efforts and supreme sacrifices that have already been made and to remember that “you can play a role bigger than yourself in this country.”
This year, for Farmer Legacy 2020, that’s just what Ford plans to do.
“The fight is far from over, but I have faith in humanity,” he said yesterday. “I pray that we will be able to be the generation that makes that change.”