Conversations about southern summers, dangerous nights and youthful dreams of changing the world were a clear sign that a reunion was underway. There were playful pats at tummies that have added a few inches, updates about children who've grown into adults and bearhugs meant to make up for those missing years.
The crowd of lawyers, teachers and writers that gathered yesterday to celebrate the life of civil rights icon James Forman, 76, who died last month, needed little prompting to retell harrowing stories of stewing in jail or getting beaten or nearly shot.
Amiri Baraka, left, and Bill Strickland were among those who gathered at Peoples Congregational Church in Washington to celebrate the life of longtime Civil Rights activist James Forman, who died last month.
(Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
Forty years ago, these graying men and women were brash, young members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, who challenged what they considered the backward and racist practices of the South. Side by side with washerwomen and farmhands, they risked their lives to integrate all-white lunch counters and organize blacks to vote in rural communities where others dared not tread. Some didn't make it back.
More than 100 of the civil rights movement's survivors, joined by friends and family members, converged in Washington this weekend. Peoples Congregational Church rocked yesterday as the SNCC Freedom Singers sang an a cappella version of the civil rights standard "Woke Up This Morning" for Forman's memorial service.
The NAACP's board chairman, Julian Bond, called Forman the "organizational genius" of SNCC. Bill Pritchett, of the Service Employees International Union, said Forman was a master at commandeering his staff and made the union's national headquarters his home almost to the end of his life. But Willie "Mukasa" Ricks, the firebrand from Mississippi who popularized the chant "Black Power," reminded everyone who would listen not to let sentimental thoughts of past victories overshadow the work yet to be done.
"We can't go on what we did 40 years ago," said Ricks, wearing a dashiki and, with a raised fist, leading the "Black Power" chant again yesterday. "We got to figure out what we're going to do now. Revolution is the only way, and Jim Forman was a revolutionary all his life."
In 1961, when Forman joined SNCC, it was still a loose federation of student organizations housed in a small Atlanta office. But the Air Force veteran, 10 years or so older than most of the group's participants, quickly expanded the staff and organized logistics for direct-action and voter registration drives in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The organization at times was at odds with the more deliberative civil rights groups, such as the NAACP. SNCC's high-profile chairmen -- Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown -- became nearly synonymous with the word "revolution" during the 1960s.
While empowerment of poor blacks in the rural South was one of the group's primary goals, it was always interracial. And the old buttons with the group's logo -- a black hand and a white hand clasped in a handshake -- were on many a lapel this weekend. The crowd of blacks and whites was representative of those who started together as youngsters to change the world. Many said they still cling to the beliefs that brought them to SNCC.
Larry Rubin remembered being sent to organize in southwest Georgia and Mississippi in 1961 because Forman surmised that whites would provide cover for the local blacks and force southerners to think twice about killing them. But Rubin said he became afraid when he was labeled a "Jewish Communist" by southern whites.
"I was afraid the black community would become afraid of that, and people wouldn't deal with us," said Rubin, 62, who is principal of the Machar School in Northwest Washington. "It didn't happen. They knew better than to trust the establishment."
The mixing of old friends, some of whom hadn't seen each other in 30 years, was easy. It started Friday afternoon while a dozen or so former members told their stories on WPFW-FM radio.
There were tender moments, too. Forman's son Chaka placed his left arm around Joyce Ladner's shoulder and held his right hand out to show her a picture of his baby daughter.
Ladner, an academic and former member of the D.C. financial control board, patted him on the arm. Ladner, who moved to Florida a year ago, said she was ecstatic when SNCC members arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss. She signed up right away. The relationships she made with SNCC, she said, remain strong.
"We were the storm troopers," said Ladner, who smiled when she referred to herself as a "61-year-old revolutionary." "We went into the areas other civil rights groups were afraid to go." Though the occasion was a somber one, Ladner said she loves SNCC reunions.
"When I walk into the room with these people, I don't have to explain myself," she said. "We pick up where we left off."
Most conversations began and ended with the revolution, pushing to make the world better than they found it. Invariably, talk turned to politics. Most in attendance were critical of the war in Iraq and other Bush administration policies. Few found any consolation in the fact that Condoleezza Rice had replaced Colin L. Powell as secretary of state, despite the fact that both are black.
"Miss Rice, we did not fight for you to go and start wars all over the world," Dorie Ladner, Joyce Ladner's sister, said to a standing ovation during the memorial service.
Forman had advocated a similarly direct style, as evidenced by a quote reprinted on the memorial program: "Time is short, and we do not have much time and it is time we stop mincing words. . . . No oppressed people ever gained their liberation until they were ready to fight."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.