Tuesday, October 04, 2016

James Forman, October 4, 1928 – January 10, 2005

James Forman is one of the under-appreciated figures of the modern civil rights movement. His autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, is a classic.

*   *   *

The following is from the Foreword (June 1997) by Julian Bond to Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1997 ed. [Macmillan, 1972]): xi-xiii.

In a determined voice, Forman describes his life and activism. He doesn’t mince words. Nor is he cautious in his descriptions of those he believes to be enemies of black progress, whether black or white. Revolutionaries is precious because it represents one of the very few autobiographies by a youthful activist. [….]

James Forman had enormous influence on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights movement, and on me personally. He molded SNCC’s near-anarchic personality into a functioning, if still chaotic, organizational structure, and insured that most of its parts functioned smoothly most of the time. He brought his trained historian’s eye and values to our work, thereby accounting for the large repository of field and other reports, giving SNCC the best detailed records (for its short life) among its contemporary and often competing organizations.

‘Write it all down’ was his constant injunction; because he insisted, the SNCC files contain often lyrical descriptions of exactly how an organizer goes about his or her work. Here one may learn who the real ‘leaders’ are, and how those who aspire to leadership can be helped to develop to their fullest. The SNCC field secretaries’ reports, written at Forman’s insistence and withheld at great peril, offer a day-to-day account of community organizing that cannot be found anywhere else. [….]

Forman’s scholarly bent also guided his selection of SNCC staff; the organization had the best research arm of any civil rights organization before or since. Field secretaries entered the rural, small-town South armed with evidence of who controlled what, and who, in turn, owned them.

‘Power structure’ was no abstract phrase for SNCC’s brand of brothers and sisters, but a real list with real people’s names and addresses and descriptions of assets and interlocking directorships, demonstrating how large interests, ranging from Memphis and New York banks to the Queen of England, might own at least partial control of a plantation in Mississippi’s Delta. Knowledge of who owned what was crucial to SNCC’s strategies. From it, we knew that Southern peonage was no accident, but rather the deliberate result of economic policies determined thousands of miles away from the cotton field. [….]

James Forman was slightly older than most SNCC people, and that age advantage gave him a solemnity and seriousness well suited to the task he undertook. Undoubtedly, his military experience—recounted in frightful detail in these pages—made a great difference, too, for most of us were just old enough to worry about the draft when the movement caught us up and made several of us happily ineligible for military service. Imposing governance on the self-styled revolutionaries was a difficult task, but Forman proved equal to it.

He became SNCC’s Executive Secretary because the field staff wanted firm assurance that they would receive their meager pay on time and, equally as important, that a steady hand was ever present in the Atlanta headquarters to insure that the jailings, beatings, and deaths they expected to occur would not pass by unnoticed.

Forman was a master propagandist. He insisted that SNCC develop a publicity apparatus—called Communications—and that it produce material of the highest quality and unassailable objectivity. In time, we owned a large web-fed offset press, had four staff photographers and a professional-level darkroom, and printed a newspaper, The Student Voice. [….]

My favorite Forman memory is of the many youthful whites who trickled into the office, usually convinced that their unique determination and commitment were just what the movement needed, demanding to be put to work leading demonstrations in deepest Mississippi or organizing some other dangerous action elsewhere. Forman’s usual response was to give them a broom and instructions to report back when the office floors were swept. Some left before they finished; those who completed the task were given a second look. He also often swept the floor and cleaned restrooms, believing he ought never [like Mohandas Gandhi] to ask anyone to do task he would not do himself.

‘Forman provided a necessary ingredient in the development of an organizational structure for the southern student movement,’ writes SNCC historian Clayborne Carson. ‘Without a leader like Forman, who was prepared to assume responsibility for fund-raising and directing the activities of a full-time staff, it is unlikely that SNCC could have become a durable organization.’

Carson is right—without Forman, there would have been no SNCC, at least not the one that developed in the early 1960s. Without SNCC, it is doubtful that the movement would have succeeded as well as it did….” [….] 


Blogger JennTeacher said...

That was really interesting. I didn't know any of that. Thanks for sharing.

10/10/2016 11:12 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

You are most welcome...and thank you for the kind words.

10/10/2016 12:55 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home