James Forman (b. 1928)

James Forman, who served as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1961 to 1966, was one of the foremost black militant leaders to emerge from the Southern civil rights movement. Born on October 5, 1928, in Chicago, Forman spent his early years living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. When he was 6, his parents took him to Chicago, where he attended a Roman Catholic grammar school before transferring to a public school in fifth grade. Until he was a teenager, Forman used the surname of his stepfather, John Rufus, a gas station manager, rather than that of his real father, Jackson Forman, a Chicago cabdriver.

Forman graduated from Englewood High School in 1947 with honors and then served in the air force before entering the University of Southern California in 1952. After being beaten and arrested by police at the beginning of his second college semester, Forman transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he became a leader in student politics and chairman of the university's delegation to the National Student Association conference in 1956. He graduated in 1957 and attended Boston University as a graduate student.

During the late 1950s Forman gradually became active in the expanding Southern black civil rights movement. He covered the 1956-1957 desegregation crisis in Little Rock for the Chicago Defender. In 1961 he left his job as a substitute elementary school teacher to go to Fayette County, Tennessee, to help sharecroppers who had been evicted for registering to vote. In the summer of 1961 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.

Older than most civil rights activists, Forman gained the respect of SNCC's staff of organizers because of his militancy and willingness to undertake mundane administrative chores that were avoided by other staff members. In 1964, after participating in the unsuccessful effort of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat the regular all-white delegation at the national convention in Atlantic City, he and other SNCC workers went to Guinea at the invitation of the African government. After his return, Forman became increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of the federal government and of cautious liberalism. Within SNCC he advocated staff education programs to make civil rights workers more aware of Marxist and Black Nationalist ideas. Critical of the black separatists who expelled whites from SNCC in 1966, Forman, who was married for several years to white activist Constancia Romilly Forman, nevertheless joined other black militants in demanding a greater role for blacks in alliances with white radicals. As SNCC's director of international affairs, he sought to build ties between Afro-Americans and revolutionaries in the Third World.

Expelled from the disintegrating SNCC in 1968, Forman joined the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. In April 1969 he and other League members took control of the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, and a month later he interrupted a service at New York's Riverside Church to read his "Black Manifesto," a demand that white churches pay half a billion dollars to blacks as reparations for previous exploitation. He received a master's degree in African and Afro-American history from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities. In 1981 he published his thesis, Self-Determination and the African-American People, in which he advocated an autonomous black nation in the Black Belt region of the United States.


SOURCES: Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC` and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981); James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972).