January 12, 2005
James Forman Dies at 76; Was Pioneer in Civil Rights
James Forman, a civil rights pioneer who brought a fiercely revolutionary vision and masterly organizational skills to virtually every major civil rights battleground in the 1960's, died on Monday at a hospice in Washington. He was 76.
The cause was colon cancer, his son Chaka Esmond Fanon Forman told The Associated Press.
As executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1961 to 1966, Mr. Forman was at the barricades of the civil rights movement from Selma to Birmingham to the Mississippi Delta to the March on Washington. Few outside the movement knew the extent to which he choreographed the now-legendary demonstrations and campaigns.
Known by its initials SNCC, pronounced "snick," the group viewed itself as the shock troops of the civil rights movement. In many Southern towns, its field organizers were the first professional civil rights workers to arrive.
Mr. Forman's job was to keep a haphazard organization of idealistic young leftists functioning. He raised money, paid the bills, mapped strategy and insisted on keeping records.
Mr. Forman set up a research department and a print shop in the group's office and made the decision to move the office to Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1964, the "freedom summer" when volunteers went to Mississippi to campaign for voting rights for blacks. He and Bob Moses, another SNCC organizer, were the principal organizers of the operation.
But Mr. Forman did not neglect larger intellectual and ideological issues. He encouraged his members to read Mao and other leftist writers, and organized a field trip to Africa for SNCC leaders in 1964. Almost eagerly, he put his body on the line.
"Every now and then, he got out there and got arrested and went to jail like the rest of us," Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was chairman of the group from 1963 to 1966, said in an interview yesterday.
Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, "He really was the personality and the glue that held us all together."
Mr. Bond said Mr. Forman was "extremely forceful" without "shouting and screaming."
Mr. Forman was called James Rufus when he was born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1928. The man he thought was his father was James Rufus, a stockyard worker. Not until he was 14 did he learn that his biological father was Jackson Forman, a jitney driver in Chicago.
Mr. Forman spent his early life on a farm in Mississippi with his grandparents. They worked their land with a mule-drawn plow. An aunt who was a schoolteacher, nurtured his early interest in books.
Mr. Forman, in a 1996 interview with Emerge magazine, said that one day when he was 8 years old his uncle took him to town, where he failed to say, "Yes, ma'am," to a sales clerk. Men in the store told the uncle that if he took young James to town again they would lynch the child.
His grandmother assured the boy that she would protect him. "Those kinds of things are things I grew up with," Mr. Forman said.
The boy soon returned to Chicago where he sold copies of The Chicago Defender, a prominent black newspaper. He read with interest the articles about discrimination and lynching and also pored over the works of black intellectuals like W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.
Mr. Forman attended junior college and then joined the Air Force where he found segregated military bases and "a dehumanizing machine which destroys thought and creativity in order to preserve the economic system and political myths of the United States," according to his autobiography, "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" (Macmillan, 1972).
After his discharge, he attended the University of Southern California, where he was falsely accused of robbery and beaten in a police station. He was never charged.
Traumatized, he returned to Chicago and graduated from Roosevelt University. In 1958, he got an assignment from The Defender to report on Northern civil rights workers in the South. After teaching in Chicago schools and studying French at Middlebury College, he was invited by a subcommittee of the Chicago branch of the Congress of Racial Equality to work with dispossessed tenant farmers in Tennessee.
He joined SNCC as executive secretary in 1961, and soon traveled to Albany, Ga., as part of a "freedom train." He and seven others were arrested for trying to challenge the segregated seating policy in Albany's Union Railway Terminal.
He spoke out against people who wanted to invite the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Albany, arguing that a monolithic leader hurt the development of what he called "a people's movement." It was hardly his last criticism of Dr. King. In 1963 in Birmingham, he said Dr. King was being too conciliatory with local officials in order to curry favor with the Kennedy administration.
Mr. Forman said Dr. King "had proven to have feet of clay." Mr. Forman also opposed Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights as insufficiently aggressive.
But in 1963, when 200,000 demonstrators went to Washington to demand civil rights, Mr. Forman found himself in the odd position of trying to appease the Kennedy administration himself. The White House believed the fiery language in Mr. Lewis's speech could harm passage of its civil rights bill. Mr. Forman persuaded Mr. Lewis to remove a threat to someday march on Washington "the way Sherman did" through Georgia, a phrase thought to be less than felicitous to Southerner ears. But with the full endorsement of A. Philip Randolph, the chief organizer of the march, they kept another provocative phrase: "We're involved in a serious revolution. The black masses are restless."
Mr. Forman resigned as executive secretary of SNCC in 1966, but continued as an administrator for another year. He then briefly served as minister of foreign affairs with the Black Panther Party.
In 1969, Mr. Forman presented what he called the Black Manifesto at a conference in Detroit. It demanded that Protestant and Jewish organizations pay $500 million in reparations for crimes perpetrated by generations of blacks during slavery. He pressed the claim, part of a long and continuing legacy of such demands, at Riverside Church in Manhattan, where he dramatically interrupted services in May 1969.
He then wrote and studied, earning a master's degree from Cornell and a doctorate from the Union Institute. He later was president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee in Washington, where he was active in Democratic Party politics.
In addition to his son Chaka, Mr. Forman, who was twice divorced, is survived by another son, James Robert Lumumba Forman, and a granddaughter.
Correction: January 13, 2005, Thursday:
An obituary of the civil rights leader James Forman yesterday misstated a word in describing his call, in 1969, for reparations to be paid by Protestant and Jewish groups for the crimes of slavery. Mr. Forman asked for $500 million for crimes perpetrated against generations of blacks, not "by" them.