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James Forman 1928-2005: Civil Rights Pioneer Dies At 76

StoryJanuary 12, 2005
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Civil rights organizer James Forman has died at the age of 76. In the early 1960s he served as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was seen as a major strategist within the civil rights movement. We hear a 1969 speech by James Forman and we speak with former field secretary for SNCC Robert Moses and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). [includes rush transcript]

Civil rights organizer James Forman has died at the age of 76. In the early 1960s he served as executive secretary of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was seen as a major strategist within the civil rights movement. He helped plan the 1963 March on Washington and organized Freedom Summer in 1964.

While registering voters and organizing protests in the South he was repeatedly harassed, beaten and jailed. He once wrote “Accumulating experiences with Southern 'law and order' were turning me into a full-fledged revolutionary.”

After leaving SNCC, he temporarily moved to Africa and became one of the first to call for reparations to pay to African Americans. He made reparations an issue in May 1969 when he interrupted a Sunday church service at New York’s Riverside Church. He demanded white churches pay $500 million in reparations.

Also in 1969, he helped organize the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where a “Black Manifesto” was adopted. In 1972 Forman published his best-known book “The Making of Black Revolutionaries.”

He continued his activism until this year. In July he traveled to Boston during the Democratic National Convention to take part in a protest organized by the D.C. Democratic delegation to call for statehood.

  • Robert Moses,former field secretary for SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1964, he organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi. He joins us on the phone from Jackson Mississippi where he now runs a math literacy project called The Algebra Project.
  • Rep. John Lewis, (D-GA).
  • James Forman, excerpt of his speech, “The Dynamics of the Black Manifesto” at the University of Pennsylvania, October 1969. Courtesy of: * Pacifica Radio Archives.*

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Robert Moses. He is former field secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In ’64, he worked with James Forman in organizing Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Joining us on the phone from Jackson, Mississippi, where he now runs a math literacy project called the Algebra Project. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob Moses.

ROBERT MOSES: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about James Forman?

ROBERT MOSES: You know, SNCC, when in 1961, when Jim —

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just going to ask if you could speak as loud as you can, because we have a very poor line.

ROBERT MOSES: Okay. SNCC, James —- Jim joined SNCC in 1961, in the summer of 1961. I think it was Diane Nash who recruited or who led the recruitment of Jim to leave his work in Chicago and come south to assume the executive directorship of SNCC. And he literally built the infrastructure for the central office of SNCC from scratch. That was in the summer of 1961 when he came in, and over the next few years -—

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Moses, we’re going to try to call you back, because your line is very bad, but as we make that call, we’re also joined on the line by Georgia Congressmember John Lewis. I was wondering, if you could pick up, Congressmember, where Bob Moses left off, talking about the legacy of James Forman. Welcome to you.

JOHN LEWIS: Thank you very much. Bob Moses is right. Jim Forman had the ability and the capacity and the vision to build the infrastructure of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I believe Julian Bond was quoted a few days ago, who was the communication director for SNCC during those days, saying that Forman was the glue that held us together. He not only believed in protests but he also believed in preparation. He had a research department. We had a photography department to recall the history of the movement and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He had a field secretaries working all across the south. Most of the major civil rights organizations and groups didn’t own their own buildings. We rented a space for a while in Atlanta, but Jim went out and we bought a building. We had our print shop, a printing press where we had newsletters and we published papers, and we also had fliers and posters all across the South encouraging people to become participants in the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you first come to know James Forman?

JOHN LEWIS: I first met James Forman in 1961, when he became the SNCC field secretary. I heard of him. He was living in Chicago, I believe had grown up in Mississippi, but he was in Chicago, and he came to west Tennessee. I was a student in Nashville. He came to west Tennessee where a group of black farmers and sharecroppers were attempting to get registered to vote. And they were evicted from their farms and plantations. Jim came there to write stories about them and later to assist them. He came to the attention, as Bob Moses suggested, of Diane Nash and SNCC was looking for an executive secretary, and he was brought on board. I worked with him close up for seven years even before I became the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, but during the three years that I served as the executive — chair of SNCC, Jim was already the executive secretary, and we worked very closely together during those difficult years. As did Bob Moses and many others.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Moses has also just rejoined us. How did you first come to meet James Forman, Bob Moses?

ROBERT MOSES: I think I first met him in Macon, Mississippi, it was in the summer of 1961, and a group of SNCC field secretaries came down to Macon, and had a meeting. I think they were on their way to Monroe, North Carolina. I think it was Williams was doing a demonstration there, the NAACP head in Monroe. I think that’s where I first met Jim.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Lewis, in the 1963 March on Washington, when you were forced to tone down your speech by the leadership, by Dr. King and the others — what role did James Forman play in that?

JOHN LEWIS: Jim played a major role. There’s a great scene of Jim talking, and he negotiating with Dr. King and A. Phillip Randolph and others. We had a portable typewriter. I think we were sitting to the right of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Jim was there marking and making the changes, and making the suggestions and recommendations for what we should delete for the sake of unity — Mr. Randolph and others had been pleading with us to make changes in the speech. Jim, with his ability, he was just taken away on this little typewriter, and there was some discussion about whether I should keep the phrase, “black masses” — I said something like “we are now involved in a serious revolution. The black masses are restless” and some people wanted me to delete that from the speech. Jim said no, and A. Phillip Randolph came to our rescue and said, “There’s nothing wrong with the word black masses,” in his baritone voice, “I use it myself sometimes.” But the part of the speech where some people in the Kennedy administration and others had some problems was where I sort of suggested if we did not see meaningful progress today, the day may come when we may not confine our march to Washington, but would be forced to march in the South the way Sherman did non-violently. Jim was very, very helpful in changing that to suggest that we would march through certain cities, not just in the South, but also in other parts of the country in a non-violent fashion.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Lewis and Bob Moses, we wanted to play a clip of a speech that James Forman gave in 1969. This is from the Pacifica Radio archives. It’s a speech he gave at the University of Pennsylvania called “The Dynamics of the Black Manifesto.”

JAMES FORMAN: Now, the profit motive system and upward mobility becomes a control mechanism throughout the population in a country such as the United States because this country has to make everybody in this room believe that profit is valuable. If people in this room do not believe that the profit motive system is good, then and if people throughout this country do not believe that, there would be no more capitalism. Because the profit motive system is fundamental, but the country tries to teach all of us that profits are good. It is desirable to get an education. People are being programmed throughout the educational institutions not to be fighters, not to be rebels, but fundamentally to make more money inside this country. To make more money, to — the more degrees you have, the more you are supposed to be able to earn money, not mentioning all the draft dodgers who are getting a PhD, which is all right with me if you want to fight the draft that way. Nevertheless, people inside institutions are fundamentally here because they unconsciously believe that the profit motive system is desirable. It’s not even a conscious question. It has become unconscious in people’s minds that to make money is desirable inside the United States. To be upward mobile is desirable. These are two values which we in fact have to work for inside the United States, and that becomes a very important and effective control mechanism in 1969 and throughout the history of capitalism.

Love of life and fear of death goes hand in hand with the profit motive system and upward mobility, because people are taught to love life so that they can live longer and spend more money, and earn more money and prop up the system. And for us, who are black people, the love of life and fear of death becomes an extremely important control mechanism, because as a group of individuals who are colonized, we cannot be concerned about the love of life and the fear of death, not if we are talking about liberation. And it’s very important point which has to be thoroughly analyzed and thoroughly discussed. Another point which is an overall control mechanism is the fear of ideologies, which call for revolution inside the United States. It’s no mystery why the Philadelphia Enquirer Bulletin printed the Black Manifesto. I mean, aside from the fact that I may be a little bit paranoid. At the same time, it is important that these papers give to a white audience, you know a manifesto which calls for armed struggle in the United States, which we don’t disavow. We do not disavow, and we’re not about to disavow it. But this kind of fear is designed to make people afraid of anything. There’s no mystery why there was the witch hunt during the ’40’s, the McCarthy hearings, there’s no secret why there’s senate internal securities committee, or a committee house on American activities committee or whatever the new name happens to be. There’s no mystery why there are all of these committees operating throughout the United States. Because they have to witch hunt. They have to name call. They have to label people. They have to pull people before committees in order to repress the population.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of James Forman, and we’ll end with his last words, but before we do, on the line with us, Bob Moses, and John Lewis, two of his colleagues in SNCC, in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Can you talk, Bob Moses, about after James Forman left SNCC. And the path he took and his call for reparations?

ROBERT MOSES: Well, I think that what is important there is the call to actually make a demand on the country. I think people in the country, black people, people who are at the grassroots of the country really don’t make demands on the country that can be articulated and understood and heard. And I think what we have to really appreciate is the strength in Jim’s voice and the strength of his demand on the country, and myself, I am not really — what I’m involved in is a demand for — that the country honor all of its children, and for the first time in its history, recognize them all as its children, and at the federal level of this country, that we insert and actually have a right —- a federal right to a quality public school education for every child in the country, and in that, I would think of myself as following in Jim’s footsteps, in lifting up a demand that we need to make on the country as a whole, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me give Congressmember John Lewis just the last word. Ten seconds before we go to the final words of Jim Forman.

JOHN LEWIS: Jim Forman never gave up. He had the ability to be consistent and to be persistent. He did what I sometimes call, he got in the way. He was not afraid to talk back, and talk up or speak up. People today don’t like to get in the way. They don’t like to make noise. But Jim continued to make noise and continued to get in the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Lewis, Bob Moses. I want to thank you both for being with us, as we end with Jim Forman.

JAMES FORMAN: Another point which becomes important in the control mechanism is the assassination of black leaders. You know, I mean, there’s no reason — there’s no mystery why brother Malcolm was killed in public. There’s no reason why Sammy Young Jr. was killed in — no mystery why Sammy Young Jr. was killed in Tuskegee. No mystery why Martin Luther King was killed, no mystery why Medgar Evers was killed. No mystery why 6,000 black people since reconstruction known to have been lynched. There’s no mystery to that, because when all of the other props begin to fail, it becomes necessary to get rid of black leaders, especially those talking revolution. So, the assassination of black leaders becomes a control mechanism that we have to deal with, and there’s only one way to deal with it, and that’s to organize for retribution and for revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: James Forman, 1969. He died this week in Washington, DC.

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