James Farmer

Document Type

Occasional Paper

Publication Date



Affirmative action has had an interesting history. I, with no attempted modesty, claim to have proposed the idea to Lyndon Johnson in either late 1962 or early 1963 when he was vice president. The only person I known who would disagree with me on that is the late Whitney Young, and he is not present to voice his disagreement now. When I reported to the Council on United Civil Rights Leadership, the group that was called the "Big Six" or the "Big Four" by the media, that I had had such a meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and had proposed this idea, to which he gave the name "affirmative action," Whitney said, "Well, I discussed the same idea with Jack Kennedy." So perhaps we, in contemplating the same set of facts, had reached the same conclusion that something new was needed to deal with the terrible job situation that minorities found themselves in. We were making progress, it is true. Blacks were getting better jobs and black income was increasing but that was in absolute terms, not in relative terms. We were not closing the gap. As we (blacks) rose, the majority rose faster; the gap widened, and so we had to do something else. Well, that was one indication of the complex days we were entering then.


Transcript of presentation made on March 5, 1986, as part of the William Monroe Trotter Distinguished Lecture Series on Affirmative Action. James Farmer is the founder and former national director of the Congress of Racial Equality and has devoted his life to civil rights activism and social reform.

Occasional Paper No. 5



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