Nearly a decade older than most civil rights activists involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), James Forman gained the respect of SNCC’s staff through his militancy and organizational prowess. At times, his more confrontational, revolutionary style clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent, faith-based approach to civil rights activism.
Born 4 October 1928 in Chicago, Forman spent his early childhood living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. At the age of six, he returned to Chicago, where he attended a Roman Catholic grammar school. Forman graduated with honors from Englewood High School in 1947 and went on to serve in the Air Force before enrolling at the University of Southern California in 1952. After suffering a beating and arrest by police during his second semester, Forman transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he became a leader in student politics and headed the university’s delegation to a conference of the National Student Association in 1956. Forman received his BA in 1957 and moved east to attend graduate school at Boston University.
During the late 1950s, Forman gradually became involved in the expanding Southern civil rights movement. In 1958 he covered the Little Rock school desegregation crisis for the Chicago Defender. In late 1960, Forman went to Fayette County, Tennessee, to assist sharecroppers who had been evicted for registering to vote. That summer, he was jailed with other freedom riders protesting segregated facilities in Monroe, North Carolina. After his sentence was suspended, Forman agreed to become executive secretary of SNCC.
Forman’s occasional criticism of King was not simply a rhetorical exercise, but reflected a genuine concern about the direction King was leading the movement. He specifically questioned King’s top-down leadership style, which he saw as undermining the development of local grassroots movements. For example, following W. G. Anderson’s invitation to King to join the Albany Movement, Forman criticized the move because he felt “much harm could be done by interjecting the Messiah complex.” He recognized that King’s presence “would detract from, rather than intensify” the focus on ordinary people’s involvement in the movement (Forman, 255). Forman echoed the concerns of those in SNCC and the broader civil rights movement who saw the potential dangers of relying too heavily upon one dynamic leader.
Following the defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, Forman and other SNCC workers went to Guinea at the invitation of that nation’s government. After his return, Forman became increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of the federal government and cautious liberalism. Within SNCC, he encouraged staff to become more aware of Marxism and Black Nationalism. He was, however, critical of the black separatist faction within SNCC who expelled whites from the organization. Forman joined with other black militants, including the Black Panther Party (BPP), in calling for greater alliances between black and white radicals. Though still working for SNCC, in early 1968 Forman became the BPP’s minister of foreign affairs and sought to build ties between African Americans and revolutionaries in the Third World.
Later in 1968, Forman also joined forces with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and in April 1969 he and other League members took control of the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where Forman was scheduled to speak. He read a “Black Manifesto” that demanded that white churches pay half a billion dollars to blacks as reparations for previous exploitation. A month later he interrupted a service at New York’s Riverside Church to read the manifesto again, and later that year he resigned from SNCC.
A prolific writer, Forman authored many books on the civil rights movement and black revolutionary theory, including Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement (1968), and his autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972). He received a master’s degree in African and Afro-American History from Cornell University (1980) and a PhD from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities (1982). In 1981, he published his thesis, “An Examination of the Question of Self-Determination and Its Application for the African American People,” in which he advocated an autonomous black nation in the Black Belt region of the United States. Forman died of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 76.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.