James Forman Sr., former executive director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, would have turned 93 years old on Monday. As executive director from 1961-66 and a major leader until its dissolution, he guided the development of the organization that led the militant second wave of the civil-rights movement (1960-65).
Forman was probably the most important individual in SNCC. Yet he is the least known of its illustrious roster of leaders — Marion Barry, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Robert “Bob” Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Gloria Richardson, H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin and Cleveland Sellers.
Forman moves from the shadows to center stage in only two instances. On May 4, 1969, he became the face of African Americans’ quest for reparations when he delivered the “Black Manifesto” at New York’s Riverside Baptist Church. The other time Forman enters public awareness is in Ava DuVerney’s 2014 film, “Selma,” which mischaracterizes him as immature, hot-tempered and a poor strategist.
Other than these occasions, Forman’s long career as an exceptional movement theoretician, strategist and organizer remains invisible. Despite his lack of notoriety, Forman left an unparalleled legacy.
Like Ella Baker and Robert F. Williams and so many African American activists before him, childhood lessons in race shaped his decision to join the struggle.
Born in Chicago, he spent ages 1 to 6 mainly in Marshall County, Miss., though he frequently traveled between Mississippi and Chicago. He experienced his first salient racial encounter while visiting an aunt in Memphis, Tenn.
At 5 or 6, he entered an ice cream parlor, sat at the empty counter and ordered a Coca-Cola. The White female clerk promptly disappeared. After some time, “a tall brown-skinned man wearing a porter’s jacket” appeared. The man asked if he wanted a Coke, then led him to a machine in the back and told him, “You have to drink your Coke back here.” Confused, Forman inquired “But ... why?” In reply, the Black man asked, “Where you from?” To Forman’s response of “Chicago,” he replied, “Then you don’t know. Boy, you’re am ‘n-word,’ and Negroes don’t sit on the stools here.”
This and other adolescent racial encounters fueled Forman’s entrance into the liberation struggle.
As SNCC executive director, he was responsible for fundraising, strategic planning and administration. Additionally, it was his idea to build SNCC’s historical archive. As chief administrator, Forman insisted SNCC organizers, called “field secretaries,” submit weekly reports. SNCC field reports identified local leaders, charted institutions and mapped a town’s social structure and power dynamics as well as recounted that week’s significant events.
Early on, he established a research department. In his foreword to Forman’s autobiography, Julian Bond notes that “power structure” was not an abstract concept in SNCC. It was a list of real people’s names and documentation of their wealth, enterprises and interests, and those of the boards, commissions and civic organizations they operated through.
Forman was the impetus for SNCC’s interest in Africa, the Black Diaspora and U.S. foreign policy. At Chicago’s Roosevelt University, he studied under St. Clair Drake, the noted Africanist, and began a program in African Studies at Boston University. Forman also introduced the study of African and Third World revolutionaries.
In addition to his work in SNCC, Forman also played a pivotal, though brief, role in the Black Panther Party, and in transitioning the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers into the Black Workers Congress, a national formation. Indeed, it was the BWC that conceived the “Black Manifesto.”
A noted author, Forman published an autobiography, three monographs, two collections of essays and dozens of articles. He is best known for his autobiography, “The Making of Black Revolutionaries” (1972/1997). Similar to the autobiographies of other African American movement organizers, Forman’s autobiography chronicles his contributions to and analysis of the movement more than revelations of his personal life.
However, unlike the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Huey P. Newton, Ture (Carmichael), Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), or Elaine Brown, “The Making of Black Revolutionaries” does not rely primarily on the author’s memory and incorporates numerous primary documents into its narrative.
Some of Forman’s most insightful writings concern the intricate aspects of organizing. Of note is “The Organizer is a Leader” in “The Political Thought of James Forman” (1970). There, he establishes a basic principle for organizers: “Power is obtained through organization, and this is maintained through constant political education, and that takes hard work.” It also takes time.
As an organizer, perhaps Forman’s most important contribution was the introduction of the “10-10-10” plan and his “high command” principle. A visit to the Republic of Guinea and a study of its leading Democratic Party of Guinea introduced Forman to the “10-10-10” method of political organizing — dividing a city into 10 sections, each section into 10 subsections and each subsection into another 10 subsections. This granular model reflects his concern with building a movement from the bottom up.
A revision of democratic centralism, Forman’s “high command principle” allows an organization to incorporate rank-and-file decision-making into its centralized structure.
In vernacular of the Black liberation movement, Forman was a dragon. Recovering his contributions, especially his emphasis on power-structure analysis, political education and place-based organizing, is of the utmost importance.