In the United States, and perhaps in many other parts of the world, are still lingering vestiges of concern about recent celebrity deaths. It was on June 25,2009, that both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, preceded by Ed McMahon three days earlier, and followed by Steve McNair, Karl Malden, and others. Various supporters of these celebrities separately argued that one or the other received no media play, or that one or the other received excessive exposure. If Elvis Pressley is still around, as some continue to claim, who knows how long the celebrity status of the recently departed may extend.
Not to be overlooked is the outcry that accompanied the debates about the relative amount of attention paid to the passing of Michael Jackson et al. Many people were dismayed that the celebrities appeared to garner a great deal more concern, knuckle cracking, and sympathetic tears than our servicepersons who were killed in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. While their unwillingness to accept what was status quo is reasonable, and worthy of analysis if not redress, their argument could well be extended to include the lack of attention given to heroes long departed.
Case in point is that there was no public remembrance of James Leonard Farmer-- statesman, orator, and leader; a man who promoted freedom, equality, and justice for all. Farmer was a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement as far back as the 1940s. In July 1999, he was the last living member of the so-called Big Four giants of the era--the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Whitney M. Young Jr. Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which spearheaded the sit-in movement and tested President Kennedy's commitment to the importance of defending Civil Rights for the disenfranchised of the nation. On July 19, 1999, when Farmer died at age 79, he should have had just a dollop of the nation's respect amidst the clamor the recent deaths enjoyed.
Yet, even while he was alive, and at the time of his death, Dr. Farmer was not allowed the accolades and remembrance he richly deserved. Saundra Smokes, in a January 1998 opinion piece referred to him as "the almost anonymous pioneer of the civil rights movement and non-violent protest in this country." In fact, he was committed to non-violent protest himself considerably before it was lionized by Martin King.
Sometimes we fail to honor those in our midst while we can see, converse with, and be with them. Too often, however, the old idiom "absence makes the heart grow fonder" is superseded by its corollary, "Out of sight out of mind." James was my friend, a good man whose contribution to this nation and the world is beyond measure. In his 1985 memoir, Lay Bare the Heart, Dr. Farmer tells the story of his meeting with President Lyndon Johnson and the travail of the concept of affirmative action he suggested and promoted.
The election of President Obama would be applauded by James Farmer and I can see him clapping his hands in glee as his face crinkles around his eye patch, a residue of having been tear-gassed combined with the diabetes that later claimed his eyesight and legs. He would be proud of Barack Obama for he had long championed the entrance of blacks into politics. Indeed, he was appointed Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by Richard Nixon at the expense of losing friendship with those who hated to see him carry out the President's policies. Doing so was difficult for him and he eventually resigned. This means that James Farmer was a significant but unheralded contributor to the place of blacks in high political places, notwithstanding the fact that he lost his congressional race as a Republican to Shirley Chisholm in 1968.
Yes, it is well nigh impossible for us to pay tribute to all who are deserving, living or deceased. No doubt, it would be an overwhelming task, what some would call intractable. Nevertheless, let us make an attempt. Let the voices of those who protest the homage paid to the stars and celebrities of the day, and the deference given in favor of fallen soldiers and others we know as relatives and friends, be joined by those of us who pine for heroes past. Let us join not in rancor and distrust, but in a cacophony of joy for those newly gone and for those gone by who have left a legacy to be remembered and a mark upon our hearts. Truly, James Farmer belongs in that latter crowd of witnesses who labored on earth for the betterment of humankind.
[Dr. Gene Gordon, himself a veteran of the Civil Rights struggle, is faculty emeritus of business and information systems at Bloomsburg University. Dr. Gordon also holds a M.Div. degree.]