James Forman (born 1928), a writer, journalist, political philosopher, human rights activist, and revolutionary socialist, was a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during most of its active period.
James Forman was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 4, 1928. He spent his early life on a farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. Upon graduating from Englewood High School in Chicago, he attended junior college for a semester. He then joined the U.S. Air Force as a personnel classification specialist. Having completed a four-year tour-of-duty, he enrolled at the University of Southern California; however, his studies were interrupted when a false arrest charge kept him from taking his final examinations. This also gave a new meaning to the racism he had observed in the armed services and elsewhere.
Returning from Chicago, Forman excelled in the intellectually-charged environment of Roosevelt University. There he served as president of the student body and chief delegate to the 1956 National Student Association. In the fall of 1957 he began graduate studies at Boston University in African affairs, yet could not reconcile himself to studying Africa when children in Little Rock, Arkansas, were trying to integrate a school. He left Boston and went to the South as a reporter for the Chicago Defender. During this period he also wrote a novel about the ideal interracial civil rights group whose philosophy of non-violence would produce massive social change.
Forman returned to Chicago to teach, and became involved with the Emergency Relief Committee, a group affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and dedicated to providing food and clothing to black sharecroppers evicted from their homes for registering to vote in Fayette County, Tennessee. In 1960 he formally joined the civil rights movement by going to Monroe, North Carolina, to assist Robert F. Williams, head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his confrontation with local white people, Williams had been censured by the NAACP for his call of armed self-defense. Though still teaching in Chicago, Forman maintained his ties with the southern student activists and from them heard about a newly formed group called SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), which was structured much like the organization his novel suggested. After some debate, Forman left teaching and went to SNCC's national headquarters in Atlanta. Within a week he was appointed executive secretary, in 1961.
Forman's greatest contribution to SNCC in eight years of involvement was his ability to provide the administrative skills and political sophistication the organization needed. He hired an efficient staff, brought professionalism to the research and fund-raising activities as well as discipline and direction to SNCC's various factions. He realized the need for specialized skills and made office-work, research, and fund-raising all part of SNCC's revolutionary activities.
As executive secretary of SNCC, Forman was involved in every major civil rights controversy in the nation. He coordinated the famous "Freedom Rides" and advocated the use of white civil rights workers in white communities. He started the Albany Movement, which paved the way for Martin Luther King's campaign there. He criticized the 1963 March on Washington as a "sell-out" by black leaders to the Kennedy administration and the liberal-labor vote. In 1964 Forman and Fannie Lou Hamer opposed the compromise worked out by the Democratic Party and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention. In addition, he questioned the capitalistic orientation of mainstream black leaders and castigated them for not understanding the correlations among capitalism, racism, and imperialism. Forman also noted that most civil rights groups were not effective or enduring because they were "leader-centered" rather than being "group or people-centered." Some of those other civil rights leaders saw Forman as something of a hothead. As James Farmer noted in his autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart, "Forman was volatile and uncompromising, an angry young man. His head had been clubbed many times on the front lines in Dixie. He was impatient with Urban League and NAACP types; he was nervous and perhaps a trifle battle-fatigued."
As director of the International Affairs Commission of SNCC, Forman and ten other staff members went to Africa in 1964 as guests of the government of Guinea. This trip began to alter his views, and he developed a global analysis of racism. His understanding was shaped by reading the works of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Kwame Nkhrumah, Fidel Castro, and Malcolm X. In 1967 he delivered a paper in Zambia entitled: "The Invisible Struggle Against Racism, Colonialism and Apartheid." His internationalist orientation lead him to accept an appointment in the Black Panther Party (BPP) as minister of foreign affairs and director of political education in 1968. (Early in 1967 SNCC and the BPP had coordinated a number of ventures and activities.)
This alliance soon ended, and Forman even left SNCC in 1969 when he was essentially deposed by H. Rap Brown, then chairman of the committee. Before Forman left, he delivered one of the most provocative challenges to come out of the 1960s. In a speech given in April of 1969 at the Black Economic Development Conference, Forman called for "a revolutionary black vanguard" to seize the government and redirect its resources. In addition, in his now famous "Black Manifesto" he demanded that "white Christian Churches and Jewish Synagogues, which are part and parcel of the system of capitalism," pay half-a-billion dollars to blacks for reparations for slavery and racial exploitation. He wanted the money to create new black institutions. Specifically, he demanded a Southern Land Bank, four major publishing and printing enterprises, four television networks, a Black Labor Strike and Defense Fund Training Center, and a new black university. Interesting enough, some funds did come in; however, most were given to the traditional black churches and organizations.
In some ways, "The Black Manifesto" was Forman's greatest moment. He had linked contemporary wealth with historic exploitation; thus, he presented the ultimate challenge to American society. In the early 1970s Forman spent most of his time writing his mammoth work on black revolutionaries. In 1977 he enrolled as a graduate student at Cornell University. He received a Masters of Professional Studies (M.P.S.) in African and Afro-American history in 1980.
In 1983 Forman served a one-year term as legislative assistant to the president of the Metropolitan Washington Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO). He was chairman of the Unemployed and Poverty Council (UPAC), a civil and human rights group in Washington, D.C. As one of the major leaders of the civil rights era, James Forman continued to represent a dimension of black activism which sought to develop a revolutionary organization in America. He also received a Ph.D. in 1985 from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities in cooperation with the Institute of Policy Studies. In April 1990, Forman was honored by the National Conference of Black Mayors, who awarded him their Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom Award.
Further Reading on James Forman
Forman was a prolific writer. He was most noted for: 1967: High Tide of Black Resistance (1967); Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement (1968); Liberation: Viendra d'une Chose Noir (1968); "The Black Manifesto" (1969); The Political Thought of James Forman (1970); The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972, 1985); and Self-Detertion: An Examination of the Question and its Applications to the African-American People (1980, 1984). He also wrote for newspapers, journals, and magazines. Books in which Forman is discussed in detail include Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytical History by Robert L. Allen (1969); In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Claybourne Carson (1981); Power on the Left: American Radical Movements Since 1946 by Lawrence Lader (1979); and The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC by Cleveland Sellers and Robert Terrell (1973). A Web site containing information on SNCC's formation in the 1960s, and an article entitled SNCC: Basis of Black Power can be found at <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTMLdocs/Primary/manifestos/SNCCbla.>