CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: James Forman Eulogized at 76

By LeiLani Dowell

With Contributions and Revisions from the Pan-African News Wire

On Jan. 10, the world lost a longtime fighter for civil rights when James Forman died at age 76 after a battle with colon cancer.

Forman was born in Chicago in 1928. He lived in Mississippi with his grandparents before returning to Chicago and selling the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, as a youth. He graduated from Englewood High School in 1947 and served in the Air Force in Okinawa during the Korean War. He would later describe the U.S. military as "a dehumanizing machine which destroys thought and creativity in order to preserve the economic system and political myths of the United States."

In 1952, he began studying at the University of Southern California. One day in 1953, he stepped outside of a library where he was studying for an examination and was stopped by police. Forman was falsely accused of a robbery, thrown in jail and beaten. The shock and indignation of this incident caused Forman to suffer a mental breakdown. After spending time in a hospital in Los Angeles, he returned to Chicago.

In 1958, Forman went to Little Rock, Ark., on assignment with the Defender to report on the integration of Central High School. In 1960, he supported the struggle of sharecroppers in Fayette County, Tenn., where 700 families had been evicted from their homes for registering to vote.

Forman became the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961, and remained in that post for five years. Under Forman's leadership, SNCC evolved as the more radical of the major civil-rights organizations of the time, which included the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

During his tenure, Forman pushed for staff education programs on Marxism and Black nationalism. He worked to build working relationships between Black people in the United States and revolutionaries in other countries.

Forman sent scores of organizers into the Deep South on Black voter registration drives and Freedom Rides. He was beaten, harassed and jailed on several occasions.

Forman's study of the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James and Karl Marx, combined with his practical experience, focused his theory and action. He wrote, "Accumulating experience with Southern 'law and order' were turning me into a full-fledged revolutionary."
In 1964, SNCC, along with the Mississippian Council of Federated Organizations, helped organize Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive which successfully registered thousands of Black people by the end of the fall. The murders of three Freedom Summer volunteers by the KKK--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--sparked an upsurge in national support for the civil-rights movement and provided impetus for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (See Jan. 20, 2005, Workers World for more on this case.)

Forman left the executive secretary position within SNCC in 1966. He then served as International Affairs Director between 1967-69, when he addressed the United Nations Committee on Decolonization and a southern Africa solidarity conference in Zambia. He then served briefly as minister of foreign affairs with the Black Panther Party. Prior to the alliance between SNCC and the Black Panther Party he had traveled to Africa in an attempt to develop an African-American Skills Bank to assist newly independent nations.

Between 1969 and 1973 he had served in the leadership of both the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Workers Congress in Detroit. In the 1980s he served as president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Council in Washington, D.C.*

After leaving SNCC, he helped to organize the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit in 1969. That same year, Forman became a visible advocate for reparations when he interrupted services at New York's Riverside Church to demand $500 million from white churches for their participation in the U.S. slave trade. The church later agreed to give a percentage of its income annually to anti-poverty efforts.

Forman remained an activist up to his death. Last year, despite his illness, he traveled to Boston to participate in a "Tea Party," demonstrating against the non-voting status of Washington, D.C. residents.

Forman published several books, including: The Political Thought of James Forman," "Sammy Younge Jr.," "Self-Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African-American People" and "The Making of Black Revolutionaries."

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said of Forman, "Americans may not know Jim's name as a household word, but if they look around them at the racial change in our country, then they will know Jim by his work."


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