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Civil Rights Activist James Forman Dies at 76; Key Organizer of SNCC

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page B06

James Forman, 76, who as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s dispatched cadres of organizers, demonstrators and Freedom Riders into the most dangerous redoubts of the Deep South, died Jan. 10 of colon cancer at Washington House, a local hospice.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Mr. Forman hammered out a role for SNCC among the so-called Big Five, the established civil rights organizations that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC in those years was the edgier, more aggressive organization, pushing the South specifically and the nation generally toward change.

In May 1969, James Forman interrupted a service at New York City's Riverside Church to demand $500 million in reparations. (AP)

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On numerous occasions, Mr. Forman himself was harassed, beaten and jailed during forays to register voters and organize protests in communities willing to use any means necessary, including terror, intimidation and murder, to resist the dismantling of the region's rigid system of segregation.

"Accumulating experiences with Southern 'law and order' were turning me into a full-fledged revolutionary," Mr. Forman wrote, recalling his experiences of 1962 and 1963. Although he moved increasingly leftward during his years at SNCC, he was edged out of the organization in the late 1960s when Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and other, younger members considered him insufficiently militant.

When Mr. Forman joined SNCC in 1961, it was a loose federation of student organizations housed in a grubby, windowless room in Atlanta, across the street from the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Auburn Avenue. As an Air Force veteran who was about a decade older than most of those involved with SNCC, he had the drive and experience, as well as the administrative abilities, to give focus to the organization, universally pronounced "Snick." Appointed executive secretary within a week of his arrival, he set about paying old bills, radically expanding the staff and planning logistics for direct-action efforts and voter-registration drives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere.

"He imbued the organization with a camaraderie and collegiality that I've never seen in any organization before or since," said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and SNCC's communications director during Mr. Forman's tenure.

"Jim performed an organizational miracle in holding together a loose band of nonviolent revolutionaries who simply wanted to act together to eliminate racial discrimination and terror," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was a member of SNCC. "As a result, SNCC had an equal place at the table with all the major civil rights organizations of the 1960s."

James Forman was born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1928, and spent his early years living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Miss. When he was 6, his parents took him back to Chicago, although he often spent summers in Mississippi. Until he was a teenager, he used the surname of his stepfather, John Rufus, a gas station manager, unaware that his real father was a Chicago cabdriver named Jackson Forman.

He graduated with honors from Chicago's Englewood High School in 1947 and served with the Air Force in Okinawa during the Korean War. After his discharge in 1952, he enrolled at the University of Southern California.

Early in his second semester, in 1953, he was falsely arrested, beaten and held for three days by Los Angeles police. The experience prompted a breakdown that briefly put him in a psychiatric hospital. Afterward, he returned to Chicago and enrolled at Roosevelt University.

He graduated in three years, planning to be a writer or journalist. While doing graduate work at Boston University, he wrangled press credentials from the Chicago Defender and took the train to Little Rock, where, in the fall of 1957, court-ordered school integration was being resisted. From there, he filed a few stories and looked for opportunities to organize mass protests in the South.

After working briefly as a substitute elementary school teacher in Chicago, he found that opportunity in Fayette County, Tenn., a few miles from his childhood home. Seven hundred families of sharecroppers had been evicted from their homes for registering to vote. Joining a program sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, he helped publicize the farmers' plight, distributed food and registered voters.

In the summer of 1961, he was jailed with SNCC-organized Freedom Riders who were protesting segregated facilities in Monroe, N.C. After his sentence was suspended, he went to work full time for SNCC.

One of Mr. Forman's early challenges was to referee an internal dispute between SNCC activists who believed in direct action -- sit-ins, demonstrations and other forms of confrontation -- and those who believed voter registration was the most effective path to political empowerment. Mr. Forman maintained there really was no distinction.

"The brutal Southern sheriffs," he wrote a few years later, "didn't care what kind of 'outside agitator' you were; you were black and making trouble and that was enough for them."

He also wrestled, as did most SNCC members, with the meaning and utility of nonviolence. Unlike his friend and SNCC cohort John Lewis, who considered nonviolence a way of life, Mr. Forman considered it a tactic, nothing more. There were times, he believed, when self-defense -- fighting back -- was absolutely necessary.

Mr. Forman also was often at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1961, for example, Mr. Forman objected to King's involvement in the Albany Movement, a boycott, sit-in and voter registration drive SNCC initiated in Georgia.

"A strong people's movement was in progress, the people were feeling their own strength grow," he wrote some years later. "I knew how much harm could be done by interjecting the Messiah complex -- people would feel that only a particular individual could save them and would not move on their own to fight racism and exploitation."

King came to Albany, spoke and left. SNCC's work in the area continued for the next couple of years.

In the summer of 1964, Mr. Forman's SNCC brought almost a thousand young volunteers, black and white, to register voters, set up "freedom schools," establish community centers and build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Among those volunteers were Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, the three young men murdered along a muddy road near Philadelphia, Miss., in June 1964. (According to Julian Bond, Mr. Forman was probably not aware in the last days of his life that Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and sawmill operator, had been recently charged with the murders.)

Later that summer, Mr. Forman journeyed to Atlantic City, where he worked to persuade Democratic Party officials to recognize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention. Despite his efforts and despite the powerful testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, who told of being fired by her boss and beaten unconscious by the police for her work in support of MFDP, the upstart party failed to supplant the state's party regulars.

"Atlantic City was a powerful lesson, not only for the black people from Mississippi but for all of SNCC and many other people as well," Mr. Forman wrote. "No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South."

Despite Mr. Forman's growing militancy, SNCC dumped him and Lewis in 1966, replacing them with Carmichael and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson.

Mr. Forman, who always had been interested in African liberation movements, went to Africa in 1967. In 1969, he helped organize the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where a "Black Manifesto" was adopted. He also founded a nonprofit organization called the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee.

On a Sunday morning in May 1969, Mr. Forman interrupted services at New York City's Riverside Church to demand $500 million in reparations from white churches to make up for injustices African Americans had suffered over the centuries. Although Riverside's preaching minister, the Rev. Ernest T. Campbell, termed the demands "exorbitant and fanciful," he was in sympathy with the impulse, if not the tactic. Later, the church agreed to donate a fixed percentage of its annual income to anti-poverty efforts.

In the 1970s, Mr. Forman was in graduate school at Cornell University and received a master's degree in African and African American studies in 1980. In 1982, he received a PhD from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities.

A writer and pamphleteer, Mr. Forman moved to Washington in 1981 and started a newspaper called the Washington Times, which lasted a short while. He also founded the Black American News Service. He was the author of "Sammy Younge Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement" (1969), "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" (1972 and 1997) and "Self Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African American People" (1984).

His marriages to Mary Forman, Mildred Thompson and Constancia Ramilly ended in divorce.

Survivors include two sons, Chaka Esmond Fanon Forman of Venice Beach, Calif., and James Robert Lumumba Forman Jr. of the District; and one granddaughter.

In July, despite being weak from his long struggle with cancer, Mr. Forman took a train from Washington to Boston during the Democratic National Convention. He took part in a "Boston Tea Party," in which members of the D.C. delegation tossed bags of tea into Boston Harbor to protest lack of statehood and no vote in Congress.

"It was said that on his deathbed, Frederick Douglass's last words were, 'Organize! Organize!' That's what Forman did every day of his life," Bond said. "That's what today's civil rights movement has forgotten how to do."

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