On October 5, 1928, James Forman was born. He was an African American civil rights activist who is credited with giving the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) its organizational base.
Born in Chicago, Forman spent his early years living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. When he was six, 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. While reporting for the Chicago Defender in 1960, James Forman learned of black farmers in Tennessee who had been evicted by their white landlords for registering to vote. In support, Forman joined a program sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) that provided relief services to the displaced farmers. Later that year, he participated in “Freedom Rides,” in which blacks rode in buses throughout the South testing court-ordered integration of public transportation.
Forman then joined SNCC and began working for black civil rights full time. Having served in the Air Force during the Korean War, Forman possessed more maturity and experience than most of the young members of SNCC. His organizational skills thrust him into a leadership role at the organizationally weak SNCC, where he directed fund raising and supervised staff. Bob Moses was one of the contributing leaders.
In 1964, he became SNCC’s executive secretary, a post he held until 1966. In addition, Forman participated in many of SNCC’s direct-action protests and helped organize voter registration drives in Alabama and Mississippi. Soon after the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, however, arguments over SNCC’s direction, strategies, and tactics consumed the organization’s leaders. Amid this debate in 1968, Forman left SNCC to seek economic development opportunities for black communities.
Forman published his memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, “The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account,” in 1972; a new edition was published in 1997. He earned a Masters degree in African and African-American Studies at Cornell University in 1980 and a Ph.D. from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities (in cooperation with the Institute for Policy Studies) in Washington, D.C. in 1982.
He put together his studies in his 1984 book, “Self-Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African-American People.” Forman has been active in the fight to gain statehood for the District of Columbia. James Forman died on January 10, 2005.