Civil rights leader James Forman dies at 76
TIMES WIRE SERVICES
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 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 holidays, served as the executive director of SNCC from 1961 to 1967.
SNCC, which grew out of lunch counter sit-ins organized by students in Nashville, Tenn., 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 movement's most influential leaders, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an early SNCC chairman, and, later, the fiery 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 believed his tactics, which were more militant and confrontational than King's and those of many of the movement's other key leaders, were the best way to press the case for integration.
Forman's role within SNCC was not as public as that of Lewis or Carmichael.
But he was, historian Taylor Branch said Tuesday with the Los Angeles Times, the "backbone ... the brawn and muscle" of SNCC. 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 most of the college students who belonged to SNCC, and he commanded respect in part because of the experiences he brought to the organization.
He had served in the Air Force and had worked in rural Tennessee helping black farmers who had been evicted from their land because they had tried to register to vote.
Among the volunteers SNCC attracted under Forman's leadership were Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered 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, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalled dropping by the SNCC office one day in the early '60s to find Forman sweeping the floor.
"I thought he was the janitor," Bond, then a college student, recalled 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, editor of the newsletter and the person who wrote the press releases. Forman made me do it. He had a compelling personality."
Lewis, whose tenure as SNCC 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 SNCC 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 him."
Beyond his role with SNCC, 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 blacks.
While national response was tepid, it did fuel a debate that has resurfaced time and again over the years.
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.