James Forman, 76; Key Organizer During the Civil Rights Movement

Times Staff Writers

James Forman, who marshaled the energy of young civil rights workers and, with his considerable organizing skill, helped turn the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee into one of the civil rights movement's most powerful institutions, died Monday night at a hospice in Washington, D.C., after a long struggle with cancer. He was 76.

Forman, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in the early 1990s and was hospitalized during the Christmas holidays, served as the committee's executive director from 1961 to 1967.

The committee, which grew out of lunch counter sit-ins organized by students in Nashville and Greensboro, N.C., played a primary role in many of the era's watershed events, including the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer and the 1963 March on Washington. It nurtured some of the civil rights movement's most influential leaders, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an early committee chairman, and Stokely Carmichael.

Over the years, SNCC and other leading civil rights organizations -- including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- took opposing views on strategies in the fight for integration.

Forman felt his tactics, which were more confrontational than King's and many of the movement's other key leaders, were the best way to press for integration.

Forman's role within the committee was not as public as that of Lewis or Carmichael. But he was, historian Taylor Branch said in an interview with The Times on Tuesday, the "backbone ... the brawn and muscle." He was the one who raised funds and recruited volunteers for demanding, often perilous assignments.

"He'd say, 'Go organize South Louisville -- here is the contact,' " said Branch, the author of two books on the civil rights movement. "He made people believe they could do that."

Forman was a decade older than many of the college students who were members of SNCC, and he commanded their respect in part because of his experiences. He had served in the Air Force and worked in rural Tennessee helping black farmers who had been evicted from their land because they had tried to register to vote.

Forman was also physically imposing. He had a large build and wore overalls over a white shirt, the uniform of the working man in the South, though he was a Northerner by birth.

Among the volunteers the committee attracted under Forman's leadership were Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in June 1964 while registering voters in Philadelphia, Miss. Last week, Edgar Ray Killen was charged with three counts of murder in the 40-year-old case.

Julian Bond, the former Georgia legislator and current chairman of the National Assn. for Advancement of Colored People, recalled dropping by the committee's office one day in the early 1960s to find Forman sweeping the floor.

"I thought he was the janitor," Bond, who was then a college student, recalled in a phone interview with The Times on Tuesday. "He immediately began to ask me what I could do -- or thought I could do. Before I knew it, I had become the publicity director of the organization, editor of the newsletter and the person who wrote the press releases. Because Forman made me do it. He had a compelling personality."

Lewis, whose tenure as committee chairman overlapped with Forman's years as executive secretary, called his former colleague "a pillar of the modern civil rights movement" and credited Forman with turning the group into a multidimensional organization with an effective infrastructure.

"We were not just a protest group," Lewis said. "We had a structure. We bought a building. We had our own printing press.... We had a research department that had the capacity to engage in rapid response. All this happened under his leadership."

Beyond his role with the committee, Forman gained wide public attention in 1969 by presenting the "Black Manifesto," a call for $500 million in reparations from white churches and synagogues as compensation for years of oppression suffered by African Americans. On one Sunday in May, Forman interrupted a communion service at the Riverside Church in New York City to press his demands. And, though the actual response nationally was tepid, it did fuel a debate that has resurfaced time and again over the years.

Forman was born in Chicago on Oct. 4, 1928. Before his first birthday, his parents took him to Mississippi to live with his grandmother, a subsistence farmer.

He would later recall the threat of being lynched in Mississippi because he had failed to say "Yes, ma'am" to a white woman in a store.

He eventually returned to Chicago, where he graduated from high school, earning the Chicago Tribune's student honors award. After attending college for a year, he joined the Air Force and served in the Korean War.

After his discharge, Forman settled briefly in Los Angeles where he enrolled at USC. But his time at USC ended when he was arrested -- he said falsely -- on suspicion of robbery. He was jailed for several days without charge and beaten by LAPD officers, he said, but was finally released.

Shattered by the incident, Forman had a nervous breakdown and spent several months in a state hospital.

Upon his recovery, he moved home to Chicago and enrolled at Roosevelt University, studying anthropology, sociology and history and earning his degree in 1957. Years later, he would earn his master's at Cornell and a doctorate from Union Institute in Cincinnati.

It was at Roosevelt that he became politically active, meeting regularly with other students to talk about socialism and the burgeoning civil rights movement.

He later wrote in "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 "woke me up to the real -- not the merely theoretical -- possibility of building a nonviolent mass movement of Southern black people to fight segregation."

He lived briefly in Boston to pursue African American studies at Boston University but soon returned to Chicago, where he made his living as a schoolteacher. But he also began participating as a freedom rider in North Carolina.

In early 1961, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then one of the newest civil rights organizations that was doing extensive work registering voters in rural areas of the South.

Working from the organization's office in Atlanta, he hoped to turn the committee into a broad-based political party.

Both the committee and the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference were credited with playing important roles in setting up the March on Washington that brought 200,000 demonstrators to the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, but once there they differed in the tactics to take in pressing their case.

At the march, Forman prepared a speech for committee director Lewis that expressed "bitter criticism" of the racism found in American society. Other civil rights leaders read a draft of the speech and demanded that Lewis tone down some passages, which they felt were blatantly revolutionary.

"The rewriting took place at the Lincoln Memorial," Forman said in the documentary "Eyes on the Prize." "It was done out of a spirit of unity. We wanted the SNCC participation to be very visible; we were certainly not interested in withdrawing from the March on Washington."

But after the march, Forman would call it an exercise in "Uncle Tomism," and join Malcolm X in labeling it the "Farce on Washington."

In 1965, Forman went to Selma, Ala., to oppose King's planned march to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest the lack of voting rights for blacks. Forman again wanted a more aggressive response.

As his views on tactics continued to differ with those of Lewis, Forman quit as executive secretary in 1966 but remained a committee member. He urged other members to study the revolutionary works of Mao Tse-tung and social theorist Frantz Fanon, hoping to foster a black nationalist consciousness.

For a brief period, he served as minister of foreign affairs in the Black Panther Party and hoped to press an alliance between the two organizations. But by 1968, the committee's leadership had changed radically -- Carmichael was the leader -- and Forman left the group.

Forman went on to press his case for reparations first at the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit in April 1969 and weeks later at the Riverside Church.

Bond said Forman's call for reparations was "one of his proudest moments. That is an old, old idea that has been around since the end of the Civil War, when blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule, which never happened. He gave it new life and reintroduced it to the American political dialogue."

Forman placed great importance on documenting the history of the committee and the civil rights movement.

"He constantly told us, 'Write it down, write it down,' " recalled Bond, who uses Forman's memoir, "The Making of Black Revolutionaries," to teach a course about the movement at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Forman, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by two sons, Chaka Esmond Fanon Forman of Los Angeles and James Robert Lumumba of Washington, D.C., and one grandchild.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction James Forman -- An obituary of civil rights leader James Forman in Wednesday's California section said he was executive director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His title was executive secretary.
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