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James Forman was born in Chicago on 4th October, 1928. After high school he entered the United States Airforce and fought in the Korean War. When he returned to the United States he studied at Roosevelt University, graduating in 1957.
Forman worked for the Chicago Defender and reported on the civil rightsstruggle in the Deep South. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1961 was appointed as its executive secretary. In this post Forman controversially began to demand that the African American people should be given $500 million in reparations for the injustices of slavery, racism and capitalism.
Forman served as president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Council (UPAC) before returning to his academic studies, receiving a M.A. from Cornell University (1980) and his Ph.D from the Union Institute (1981). Foreman has also written several books including Sammy Young Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement (1968), The Political Thought of James Forman (1970), The Makings of Black Revolutionaries (1972) and Self-Determination (1985).
SCLC decided to devote almost all of its organizational energy to a massive right-to-vote campaign, with headquarters in Selma. SNCC, already based in Selma, agreed to cooperate in this new venture. But disagreement on such key issues as concepts of leadership, working methods, and organizing voters for independent political action versus Democratic Party politics, bred conflict between SNCC and SCLC staffs in Alabama.
As the vote campaign intensified, accompanied by innumerable arrests and beatings, the proposal emerged for a march on the Alabama Capitol to demand the vote, as well as new state elections. Basically SNCC was opposed to a Selma-Montgomery march because of the likelihood of police brutality, the drain on resources, and the frustrations experienced in working with SCLC. At a lengthy meeting of its executive committee on March 5 and 6, SNCC voted not to participate organizationally in the march scheduled for Sunday, March 7. However, it encouraged SNCC staffers to do so on a non-organizational basis if they so desired. SNCC was also to make available radios, telephone lines, and certain other facilities already committed by our Alabama staff.
Then we heard that Dr. King would not appear at the march he himself had called. Without his newsworthy presence, it seemed likely that the lives of many black people would be even more endangered. We therefore mobilized three carloads of staff workers from Mississippi, two-way radios, and other protective equipment. At our national office in Atlanta, a group of SNCC people - including Alabama project director Silas Norman and Stokely Carmichael, whose subsequent election as SNCC chairman was largely the result of his work in Alabama - chartered a plane rather than make the five-hour drive to Selma. Since we had heard of King's absence only after the marchers had begun to assemble, none of SNCC's people were able to arrive for the march itself. But it seemed important to have maximum support in the event that violence developed that evening. While our various forces headed for Selma, we tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to contact Dr. King, to find out his reasons for not appearing and to discuss the situation.
James Forman - History
Published: by Students for a Democratic Society, n.d. [1968?]
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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SDS introduction: James Forman’s speech was given at the Western Regional Black Youth Conference, held in Los Angeles, California on Nov. 23, 1967. In this speech, Forman pushes for a political understanding of the fight against racism, of the fight for black liberation as self-defense against U.S. imperialism.
The self-defense of a people against attack is not a right, but a necessity. From the time of the Geneva Agreements in 1954 until 1959-60, the policy of Vietnamese nationalists was to engage in peaceful legal struggle against the Diem government and its U.S. advisors. More Vietnamese were killed between 1957-59 than during the nine years of the war against the French. The beginning of armed resistance in 1959 was a necessary response to the violence of repression.
And in this country, approximately 6,500 black people have been lynched since the Civil War. These lynchings have sometimes been by rope, more often by the “legal” policeman’s bullet. Racism has been used to justify these murders, just as it is used to justify the genocidal war being waged against the Vietnamese.
Racism and U.S. imperialism, inextricably entwined, are being assaulted by liberation fighters all over the world. In this worldwide struggle between revolution and counterrevolution, there can be no “innocent bystanders.” As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Yes everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good.
No one has clean hands there are no innocents and no onlookers. We all have dirty hands. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.”
The fight against racism is not the struggle of black people, it is ours. And the battle has been joined.
The only correct way to discuss those words is from a historical context. Too often we look at an event, a situation, a slogan, a life history, a rebellion, a revolution. and assume that its present characteristics have always been its past. For instance in Vietnam we see a heroic struggle occurring in which the Vietnamese people are using revolutionary armed force to repel their aggressors. Sometimes we fail to understand that the South Vietnamese had a policy of self-defense for at least four years–from 1955 to 1960– before they engaged in offensive armed struggle to liberate their country from the oppression of the Diem Regime and its United States backers. When the student movement started in February 1960, many of the activists thought they had begun the black revolution. Many of us failed to understand the historical conditions which produced us and the actions we were taking against segregation in this country, especially in the Deep South.
While it is beyond the limits of my time to go into a long discussion of the history of our people, it is absolutely essential to see our history as one of resistance. Our ancestors began to resist the enforced slavery long before they left the shores of Africa. The captured African did not voluntarily go to the shores of Africa and willingly board the slave ships that brought our forefathers to this alien land. They resisted in Africa.
They resisted the moment they were wrenched from the shores of Africa.
They resisted on the high seas.
They resisted in Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina–wherever they were forced to work as slaves building the so-called great white civilization of the United States and the Western World.
We must continue at every step of the ladder of our liberation to view those previous rungs as battles for which we fought as battles for which we paid dearly in our blood, sacrifice, and toil as battles which we could not win unless those below were willing to resist, dead though they may be, unknown, unsung. Many of those names no one knew but they resisted and they died in the liberation struggle.
Those of us who live are obligated to keep the unknown martyrs before our consciousness and to dedicate ourselves to more resistance until there are no more rungs of resistance, no more ladders of resistance, but only the ravines, the fields, the mountains, the Inner Cities and streets of revolution.
The opposite of resistance is accommodation. It is certainly true today that many of our people are accommodating themselves to the system of capitalism in which we live. Personally, I do not view much of the history of our people as accommodation. There may have been a few who accommodated themselves to slavery, a few informers here and there. Even during the period of Reconstruction, throughout the Twentieth Century, in the efforts of the Niagara Movement, the Garvey Movement, and most of the actions of the civil-rights movement must be seen, from my viewpoint, the history of a people who were and are resisting a form of neo-slavery that existed after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation.
It is true that much of the visible leadership in the past has often been characterized as accommodating leadership, but I am not discussing just the visible leadership. Leaving aside judgments on certain visible symbols of leadership, I am talking about the masses of our people. The masses of black people have never accommodated themselves to the United States.
And it is among the masses that our youth may work.
Only from the masses of black people will there come revolutionary leadership, a leadership that will not accommodate itself, that will continue to resist as our ancestors resisted, a leadership that will not mind dying for independence and freedom not only for blacks but for all oppressed.
For those of us who consider ourselves freedom fighters it is imperative that we view our history in this manner– a history of resistance, not of accommodation. It is imperative that we realize that our culture and our people have been able to resist to survive and to make it possible for us to deal more death blows to our oppressors.
Why have I devoted so much time to interpreting our history as one of resistance? There are several reasons. First, I assume all of us have certain factual knowledge of our history – and those of us who do not will soon acquire that. But I am convinced that many of us have not interpreted those facts correctly. Certainly my interpretation is open to debate, a debate in which I am prepared to engage, and defend. Second, I am convinced that a faulty interpretation of our history is often damaging to our cause. For instance, Johnny Wilson, a member of SNCC, recently attended a conference in Czechoslovakia where there were many representatives of the National Liberation Front and the government of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. The Vietnamese there assembled, people who are fighting and dying daily by the hundreds for their freedom, asked the American representatives to sing the song “We shall overcome”. They stated that they had sung the song often, for it gave them inspiration and much hope. One of the brothers from Newark attending the conference –who may or may not have participated actively in the rebellion–jumped up and said: “No. We don’t sing that song. The people that sang that song were crazy. They were non-violent, and we ain’t.” The Vietnamese were stunned. They are not crazy for singing it, and I do not think all of us who sang it were crazy. People do not sing it today for many reasons. But the brother from Newark was only in Prague because there was a historical relationship between his presence there and the manner in which he got there. I am well aware that my presence here is due to many factors, but if it had not been for the people who sang “We Shall Overcome”, there is no question in my mind that I would not be here today.
To view our history as one of resistance is to recognize more clearly the colonial relationship that we have with the United States. Traditionally, when one thinks of colonialism images of foreign powers occupying another land and subjecting our people are the kinds of mental pictures we frame. But our own colonial status is unique in that we are the descendants of people enslaved and transplanted in a colonial status. The rhetoric, the false claims, the meaningless phrases–all these try to tell us that we are citizens we are Americans. I will not dwell on the absurdity of that, for we all know too well that the internal rebellions in this country, led by Watts, would not occur if in fact that was the case.
The serious conditions in which we find ourselves as a people demand that we begin talking more of the colonized and the colonizer. If we begin to use those terms more and to describe their inner workings, especially the economic base on which colonialism is founded and the industrial military complex of Western countries which sustain it, we shall definitely advance the cause of our liberation. Any colonized people are exploited people. But all exploited people are not colonized. That is to say, we can have in certain situations, as we do in many countries around the world, people exploited because of their class positions in society. Within the United States there are many exploited whites, but they are not colonized. In most instances they form a part of the colonizing class. When Fanon says we must stretch a Marxist analysis when we look at colonial situations he is referring to this condition, even though he didn’t explain it.
Unless my historical understanding is incorrect, the colonial relationships since the Fifteenth Century–with the exception of Ireland–have all involved white Europeans and their American white descendants colonizing the darker people of the world. Therefore race is intimately involved in the colonizing experience. My own experience in various situations with my brothers and sisters has led me to conclude that it is necessary to view ourselves in these terms–the colonized and the colonizer–if we are not to fall into the trap of seeing the causes of our problems as merely skin causes, black skin versus white skin. A purely skin analysis of the cause of and continuing responsibility for our condition not only is 7 theoretically incorrect, but, because it is theoretically incorrect, will lead to some serious mistakes in programming.
When we view our colonial situation in the United States, it is easy, it is emotionally satisfying at times, and it may be the first step toward nationalism, which we must promote to view the cause as one solely of skin. But if our analysis remains there and we do not work to broaden our understanding we are headed for a trick, a frustrating pit of despair.
A purely skin analysis makes it very difficult to guard against reactionary nationalism, for instance. Dr. Hasting Banda of Malawi would undoubtedly and without question tell you that he is an African nationalist. A man with black skin–yet he visits Taiwan, tells us the United States is right for fighting in Vietnam, and is willing to open diplomatic relations with South Africa.
There is an aspect of our colonial experience, however, which we often fail to examine, to look at–to determine its meaning for today and for tomorrow–and which may help I to shed light on the skin analysis. Hence, too often we overlook that our enslavement involved a duality–an alliance by some of our African ancestors with white slavers. The ruling classes of many African territories and nations, the African visitors in many skirmishes and wars with other Africans, co-operated with the white ruling classes and their merchants to get us to this country. This examination should in no way imply that I do not place the greatest burden upon Western Civilization for our enslavement, but I do not think it does much good to overlook that many Africans were willing to make a profit off our bodies.
Today in many instances we see similar situations–exploitation of blacks by blacks, especially in Africa (and I could call a list of countries) and here in the United States. This exploitation has its own historical roots, and any effective programming which we will do in the future must be aware of this current fact from its historical and class basis. A more profound analysis of this problem–the co-operation of the ruling-class Africans with the slaving white merchants–has been made by a young historian, Walter Rodney, whom we met in Tanzania.
Brothers and Sisters, bold analysis of the last six or seven paragraphs of this paper brings into sharp focus three ways of looking at the fundamental causes of our problems: (1) We can take the position that says we are exploited solely because of our skin color. This I call the skin analysis. (2) We can take a second position that says our exploitation is due solely to our class position in this society. This I call the exclusive class analysis. (3) We can take a third position that says our exploitation results from both class positions and race. Given all that I said, it is obvious that I hold to the third position.
The absolute necessity for me to raise this as a discussion item arises from my own experience within the Movement. Once during a discussion with one of my brothers, I used the word Marxian. He jumped up and pounded on the table and yelled: “But, Motherfucker, Marx was not a black. He was not black, do you hear! He was a white writer.”
Just recently we have come through some painful discussions in the New York area and have seen some very deep tensions in the black community resulting from conflicts on this issue. And this is very important, because one brother was kidnapped because of this issue, and three other brothers had to go get him and almost got killed in the process–so the situation is very pressing on my consciousness. For instance, the march on the Pentagon was advertised in Inner City Voice, a revolutionary journal that started in Detroit after the rebellion. This journal called upon blacks to join the confrontation at the Pentagon. In the meantime there had been all sorts of discussion among some black militants on the East Coast about what should be the relationship of black people to the March. The brothers and sisters from Detroit did not know about these conflicts and therefore came to Washington to participate in the demonstration. They wanted the National Liberation Front, so they said, to know that there were blacks opposed to the War and ready to confront the warmakers. However at the March they were torn asunder because there were brothers and sisters who began to say: Black people are not relating to that thing. That’s a white thing. And one so-called spokesman for a Black Power committee said: Black people are interested in their communities. And I’m still quoting him. The whites started this war, so let them end it. We’re tired of marching. We’re headed for a black thing, and that thing don’t include marching on the Pentagon. We’re concerned, this Black Power spokesman concluded, about the cutbacks in the Poverty program. We want jobs and better communities.
Within SNCC today, we are discussing revolutionary Black Power as opposed to reactionary Black Power, for we have seen instance after instance in which conservative forces have tried to explain away or excuse the revolutionary aspect of Black Power. But an understanding of what is meant by revolutionary Black Power hinges on how one sees the fundamental causes of our condition today. From this analysis will flow many things and many decisions and many ways of solving our problems.
Within the concept of the colonized we must begin to speak more of the dispossessed–those who do not have. This is important, for it determines where alliances are made. The dispossessed unite with the dispossessed. It must be clearly understood that the nature of the colonial experience is that racism is inherent in all its manifestations. Even if the dispossessed unite with the dispossessed or the exploiters who are responsible for the colonizing are kicked out, the legacy of racism and remnants of the colonial experience remain and must be uprooted. The Chinese are saying in part through their cultural revolution that even though one eliminates the structural forms of capitalism, there are capitalistic ideas and thoughts that still remain and must be combatted.
As Chairman H. Rap Brown stated to the Black Caucus at the National Conference on New Politics, the dispossessed in the United States are the people of African descent, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexican Americans, and many poor whites. We are the vanguard of that group because of our historical oppression and the racism inherent in it. Whether we will live up to our historical role and lead forward that revolution remains to be seen.
It is our job to go forth from this conference using whatever means necessary to liberate ourselves and other oppressed people, not only in the United States but throughout the world. In order to do this we must wage an unrelenting struggle against racism and exploitation of man. We must work, not for ourselves, but for the unborn generations that will carry humanity and our people to new heights, to a world without racism, to a world of no more resistance, but only a community of concern. For this world we must be prepared to fight and to die. And we must believe that we will win. We must believe that our fight and our deaths are not in vain.
How do we organize and what do we organize? One year ago, within SNCC, we called for the formation of all-inclusive political units, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties. We called for the formation of the Freedom Organizations. You can choose any name, so long as it is an independent political organization that will service the needs–the total needs–of the people. These organizations must build within themselves committees to deal with the economic, political, social, cultural, educational, and welfare needs of the people. They must have youth organizations, and it is up to us–those of us with the commitment to total change, with energy and time to go to the masses and organize them– to do this work. One may well speak of revolution, but unless there is day-to-day, block-to-block, city-to-city, and nationwide organizing there can be no fundamental changes in our lives. Those of us who consider ourselves politically hep, those of us who feel we have a consciousness, those of us who are prepared to take care of business–must recognize that unless there is mass participation by black people in efforts to bring about revolution, then that revolution will not occur. No matter how long we talk about it, rhetoric is not a substitute for work.
In fact, brothers and sisters, I do not mean to sound pretentious or presumptuous, or to degrade anyone’s effort–but the reality is that there are so few people willing to do work among the masses of the people. That is why this conference is very important and we should all thank the organizers, for they have been willing to work, to mimeograph, to arrange meetings, to stay up late in order to organize. Blueprints for revolution have been around for a long time. And everyone that I have read has stressed the importance of active political organization. And in fact, man, you got to work in order to do any of that.
And as we work in the Inner Cities and in the rural areas we must be prepared to guard against the sabotaging of our work, the infiltration of our cadres by the FBI and the CIA and local police agents. We must not allow the McClellan Committee, the Eastland Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee to isolate SNCC, to destroy the Panthers, to arrest and imprison other militants because the Man is afraid of RAM. We have to build visible defense committees and link all the militants in some confederation so that it will be more difficult to isolate and destroy any of us. Inner City newspapers must be established to provide alternative methods of communication, for all of us know that the Man is not going to print anything but negative news of our movement.
Finally, we must protect our brothers and sisters and even as I say this there are some brothers in jail about whom there is not much active concern because we have allowed our own internal contradictions to divide us. This brother may not have done that the way some brothers would have done it. Therefore he is left isolated. And to the degree that this occurs all of us stand to be destroyed. Granted that the forward thrust of the Movement cannot be stopped, it can be halted and set back. Time and energy, the two most important assets we have, can be uselessly spent if we are not immediately responsive to crises or ready to take legal action in behalf of brothers that are arrested. This last point cannot be over-stressed, for the Man is picking up brothers all over the country and sometimes there is no response to their arrest. This is not the case with respect to visible symbols of leadership. Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, and so forth and so on, and maybe even myself. It must also be true for the man behind the mimeograph sheet or the one who is taking care of business.
In other words we have to work to eliminate the class bias that is often apparent in many of our organizations and efforts.
And now, brothers and sisters, I must depart from the written script. I had some other notes, but they are not here.
As I said I am very tired and I have had to read this paper because I do not trust myself, my ability to be very coherent without leaning on the paper. I agree that it is very important that we begin to write down our thoughts. We must get away from the oral tradition. It is extremely hard to pass on to future generations ideas and information if they are all in the oral tradition. For six years, as I served as the Executive Secretary, I would make speeches and none of them would be written. That means that if something had happened to me, if I had been annihilated in battle, then whatever ideas I may have had would not have been transmitted, for they would have been lost. That is the problem with the period of Reconstruction in our history. There were many strong black cats who were sheriffs and who were other lawmakers, but there is not much, if anything, written by them nothing that we can read–and many of them could write. As a people we have the oral tradition, and they employed that but for the future generation we must write. We must write from our own experience, for only we have all the insights into what we mean.
However, now I want to talk about five points, or several things that we must do to counteract possible reactions and attempts to destroy us by the Man. The first thing we must do is stop all this loose talk and keep our mouths shut. Because cats are sitting around doing loose talk and the Man is gathering information and intelligence. The Man is piecing together all this loose talk and making up conspiracy charges and what-have-you. This very well may have been what happened in New York, because there were police informers involved in the charges. I don’t know–but certainly they were framed.
I know this is what happened with the Statue of Liberty case, because Policeman Woods was the man who conceived of the idea, pushed the brothers into it by making them feel guilty because they weren’t militant enough, arranged for the dynamite, took a brother to pick it up, and then testified against them in court. The result was: They served three and a half years, and Woods is still free. That is a fact, and you’d better read about the Statue of Liberty case before you go out every night talking about the revolution with anyone and everyone.
The second thing deals with these research programs. I have been gathering some intelligence on them, and I have discovered in one city, Detroit, that three researchers with some money talked to over two hundred and fifty brothers who discussed details of the rebellion, plans and stages for future activity. The researchers have taken the material back to the foundation. What do you think they have done with it?
Obviously the Man has it. This has happened all over this country. Immediately during and after the rebellion you see brothers talking to television cameras saying what they’re going to do soon as the National Guard pulls out. They are just selling wolf tickets and giving out information on themselves. The Man has an intelligence file on everybody. And he has gotten that information in part because we have been running off at the mouth co-operating with some research project about a rebellion. You don’t make a rebellion and describe it until after it’s all over.
The third question deals with rumor-mongering. For the last two or three weeks I’ve gotten telephone calls from people saying that this person or that person is “the Man”, and when I check it out there doesn’t seem to be much basis in fact for the kinds of rumors that are spreading. Such evidence as “This chick looks funny!” or “She talks funny!”. I am not saying that there are no informers. There are enough FBI and CIA agents, even in this room, that we don’t know about. We do not need to make the situation worse by spreading rumors that have no foundation based on facts and reality. One must check out these things before fingering a person.
What is the danger of rumor-spreading ? The danger is that the Man uses this as a divisive technique. He puts the finger on cats. He wants to create suspicion, he wants to divide and conquer, he wants to put the finger on cats by spreading ill-founded rumors. This has happened all over Africa. Liberation fighters have had to combat suspicions placed on them by the fingers of the Man. And if we give in to this type of rumor-mongering we are contributing to that type of activity.
The fourth thing is the negative press which we’ve talked about. We cannot expect favorable coverage of our activities. We must have our own papers.
The fifth thing which is extremely important deals with splitting activities. As Brother Snelling said, “Everybody’s black.” Blackness is granted. It may not be sufficient, but certainly it is granted. But the reality is that the Man is wearing Afros today he’s wearing dashikis. You dig it? He’s wearing them. I’ve seen them in the crowds. When we were in Philadelphia on the so-called dynamite frame-up case, a cop, whom we were suspicious of and had not seen for three weeks, came around in a dashiki and a turban identifying with the masses. The brothers easily identify with me because I’m wearing a buba, the other brother is over there clean and taking care of business. See, we’re in a trick. We have to watch out for this kind of activity because it’s happening all over. That is why the Man has so much intelligence in Harlem, because he has gone in there on that kind of basis and he’s doing it everywhere else and we have to watch out.
The kidnapping in Washington was supposed to have happened because the brother wasn’t black enough, and some of the same people involved in the kidnapping put out a newsletter charging that there was an internal Communist conspiracy to kill black people at the demonstration at the Pentagon. It was admitted in the newsletter that there had been conversations with the Police Department, admitted there had been discussions about how this organization could keep down a rebellion in DC. Also in the newsletter there were words to the effect that Robert Williams, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown were associating with governments that bring greater repression on black people in the United States. And yet this organization called itself the Black Man’s Volunteer Liberation Army. I am not even saying that those who put out that newsletter were the Man. Maybe they didn’t put it out, but they didn’t disown it. It is obvious, however, that the effect was the same. The Black Community in Washington was terrorized. They did not know what was going to happen that day. Certainly they did not want to be involved in gunfights between blacks. When we fight like this among ourselves, only the Man stands to gain. He got his peace and quiet in Washington at our expense. Black people were split, and we must realize that blackness is going to be used more and more as a splitting tactic.
Remember, this Government will use any means to control the upsurge of insurrectional activity coming from the Inner City, and we must not help him. This happened here at this conference. Those cats out there were trying to terrorize this conference. They had said they were going to do that. But they were stopped. When we have to fight among ourselves we don’t have time to deal with the Man. We just do not have the time to fight among ourselves. The masses get bewildered and they are not willing to go out on the streets if they feel they have to fight with brothers. It is difficult enough to get any of us out on the streets.
It’s bad enough to have to deal with a hunky. Nobody wants to shoot a brother. In Washington the people who went to see about the newsletter and other matters did not want to shoot those cats. As a matter of fact it is my contention that the Man was waiting for them to start something.
There is no better help we can give to the Man than to fight among ourselves. In Washington it was a perfect set-up. If the brothers had mounted the stairs to take care of business, they could easily have been blown away.
Brothers and sisters, I am going to close. But I want to emphasize that we have brought a lot of information in papers to this conference and we urge you to go back to your campuses and get this material distributed.
The point is that we want the material read. Now you are hip enough to get all of these Afro-American organizations started on your campuses. And I know not many of you on the West Coast go to all-black schools. There aren’t any. So you ought to be hip enough to get those mimeograph machines rolling and copy this material. If you do this we can have a distribution of a hundred thousand copies of the material printed and distributed in a month.
It is imperative that we do this, but to do it we have got to work. I am old and I know that, but I also know that most cats are shucking and jiving. They simply do not want to do any work. They do not want to do any work. They want to sit down and talk about how black I am and how bad the Man is, but they won’t even get up and raise a quarter for a black organization.
Now I ain’t going into no cultural-historical analysis of that. It ain’t nothing but out-and-out laziness.
Finally we must be concerned about the future. It is a trap to think in terms of our lives. Do you think that if those North Vietnamese soldiers were worried about their lives they would put up the fight they do at Dak To hill? If you are worried about your life it means that you are trying to protect your life. And if you are too worried, you are expressing again individualism. You are not concerned with the future. When you are not worried about your life and you are concerned about the future, about all the unborn Huey Newtons, all the unborn Emmett Tills and Charles Mack Parkers and Sammy Younges and Ruby Doris Robinsons, and when you are concerned about your own children–then you are ready to take care of business. And you ain’t got no business having any children if you ain’t gonna fight for their freedom.
James Forman - History
Born October 4, 1928 in Chicago, IL
Died January 10, 2005
Civil Rights activist, Executive Secretary of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the key early years of the Civil Rights Movement
Civil rights pioneer, organizer, and prolific author, James Forman was a significant force in the Civil Rights Movement. As the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Forman organized workers and volunteers in protests of segregated facilities, voter registration, and many other direct action campaigns. He continued to work on civil rights issues until his death in 2005.
James Forman was born on October 4, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother was Octavia Allen Rufus, and his stepfather was James &ldquoPops&rdquo Rufus, a gas station manager. He used the Rufus last name until the age of 14 when he learned that his father was Jackson Forman.
Until the age of six, Forman split his time living with his mother and stepfather in Chicago, and with his maternal grandmother on her farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. Forman would continue to spend summers with his grandmother, who stressed the importance of education and acceptance of all people, regardless of race. Forman&rsquos experiences in the segregated South proved very important in his developing social consciousness.
He graduated with honors from Englewood High School in 1947 and later attended Chicago's Wilson Junior College before joining the U.S. Air Force. After completing four years of military service, Forman enrolled at the University of Southern California where he was beaten and arrested for robbery by white police officers in a case of mistaken identity.
Forman returned to Chicago in 1954 and earned his B.A. in Public Administration three years later from Roosevelt University where he became a leader in student government and other political groups. Forman then attended graduate school at Boston University where he studied Mahatma Gandhi and his efforts to effect change through direct action.
In 1958, Forman became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the South when he covered the Little Rock, Arkansas school desegregation crisis for the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. Through a program organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Forman also helped provide food and clothing to 700 Fayetteville, Tennessee sharecropper families who had been evicted for registering to vote.
Forman, who believed it was important to have an organization work full time on the problem of segregation and discrimination, moved south and joined SNCC in 1961. He became the organization&rsquos executive secretary where he helped unify the split between members who advocated direct action versus registering voters. In his leadership role, Forman organized transportation, housing, and food for organizers and helped them get out of jail. He also raised funds for SNCC&rsquos direct action campaigns.
SNCC&rsquos activities, under the leadership of Forman, and other organizations&rsquo activities, led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That summer, Forman and other SNCC workers organized hundreds of black and white students to register voters, set up community centers, and establish an alternative to the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party. Three of the program&rsquos volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were found murdered in the fall.
Forman traveled to Africa in 1967 to study African leaders&rsquo efforts to end colonialism he wanted to know whether their methods could be used to help American blacks. Two years later, his &ldquoBlack Manifesto,&rdquo which demanded reparations for slavery from white churches and Jewish synagogues, was adopted at the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit. Other civil rights leaders have echoed this call for reparations in recent years.
In 1969, Forman&rsquos first book, "Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement" was published and was followed three years later by his autobiography, &ldquoThe Making of Black Revolutionaries.&rdquo Throughout his life, Forman prolifically wrote books and magazine and news articles.
In the 1980s Forman led the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee, started a short-lived newspaper, and formed the Black American News Service. Forman also earned his M.A. in African American Studies from Cornell University in 1980 and his Ph.D. from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities, in cooperation with the Institute for Policy Studies, in 1982.
Forman remained committed to direct action to achieve civil rights until he died of colon cancer on January 10, 2005. During the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Forman traveled to Boston to participate in a &ldquoBoston Tea Party&rdquo in which D.C. delegation members threw tea bags into Boston Harbor to protest the city&rsquos lack of statehood.
Forman, who was divorced from Mary Forman, Mildred Thompson, and Constancia Ramilly, is survived by two sons: Chaka and James, Jr., and one grandchild.
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Nearly a decade older than most civil rights activists involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), James Forman gained the respect of SNCC’s staff through his militancy and organizational prowess. At times, his more confrontational, revolutionary style clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent, faith-based approach to civil rights activism.
Born 4 October 1928 in Chicago, Forman spent his early childhood living with his grandmother on a farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. At the age of six, he returned to Chicago, where he attended a Roman Catholic grammar school. Forman graduated with honors from Englewood High School in 1947 and went on to serve in the Air Force before enrolling at the University of Southern California in 1952. After suffering a beating and arrest by police during his second semester, Forman transferred to Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he became a leader in student politics and headed the university’s delegation to a conference of the National Student Association in 1956. Forman received his BA in 1957 and moved east to attend graduate school at Boston University.
During the late 1950s, Forman gradually became involved in the expanding Southern civil rights movement. In 1958 he covered the Little Rock school desegregation crisis for the Chicago Defender. In late 1960, Forman went to Fayette County, Tennessee, to assist sharecroppers who had been evicted for registering to vote. That summer, he was jailed with other freedom riders protesting segregated facilities in Monroe, North Carolina. After his sentence was suspended, Forman agreed to become executive secretary of SNCC.
Forman’s occasional criticism of King was not simply a rhetorical exercise, but reflected a genuine concern about the direction King was leading the movement. He specifically questioned King’s top-down leadership style, which he saw as undermining the development of local grassroots movements. For example, following W. G. Anderson’s invitation to King to join the Albany Movement, Forman criticized the move because he felt “ much harm could be done by interjecting the Messiah complex. ” He recognized that King’s presence “ would detract from, rather than intensify ” the focus on ordinary people’s involvement in the movement (Forman, 255). Forman echoed the concerns of those in SNCC and the broader civil rights movement who saw the potential dangers of relying too heavily upon one dynamic leader.
Following the defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, Forman and other SNCC workers went to Guinea at the invitation of that nation’s government. After his return, Forman became increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of the federal government and cautious liberalism. Within SNCC, he encouraged staff to become more aware of Marxism and Black Nationalism. He was, however, critical of the black separatist faction within SNCC who expelled whites from the organization. Forman joined with other black militants, including the Black Panther Party (BPP), in calling for greater alliances between black and white radicals. Though still working for SNCC, in early 1968 Forman became the BPP’s minister of foreign affairs and sought to build ties between African Americans and revolutionaries in the Third World.
Later in 1968, Forman also joined forces with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and in April 1969 he and other League members took control of the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, where Forman was scheduled to speak. He read a “ Black Manifesto ” that demanded that white churches pay half a billion dollars to blacks as reparations for previous exploitation. A month later he interrupted a service at New York’s Riverside Church to read the manifesto again, and later that year he resigned from SNCC.
A prolific writer, Forman authored many books on the civil rights movement and black revolutionary theory, including Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement (1968), and his autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972). He received a master’s degree in African and Afro-American History from Cornell University (1980) and a PhD from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities (1982). In 1981, he published his thesis, “ An Examination of the Question of Self-Determination and Its Application for the African American People, ” in which he advocated an autonomous black nation in the Black Belt region of the United States. Forman died of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 76.
'Until the Drug Dealer's Teeth Rattle'
A new book examines how black communities inadvertently helped lay the groundwork for mass incarceration.
Any real discussion of mass incarceration is impossible without addressing racism. Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow cast the criminal-justice system as a successor to slavery and segregation, one that’s hamstrung the African American community’s social and economic growth since the civil-rights movement. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has explored at length how racial anxieties led white politicians to support increasingly harsher punishments for gun and drug crimes to devastating effect.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America adds more layers to this case. (A full review of the book can be found in the upcoming June 2017 issue of this magazine.) The author, James Forman Jr., is a Yale University law professor and the son of a civil-rights icon. What he offers is an insightful history of black American leaders and their struggle to keep their communities safe from police and criminals alike. “Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks, African American officials and their constituents have been consumed by it,” he writes.
What often followed, however, was a tragic embrace of punitive solutions to deep-seated social woes. “We’re going to fight drugs and crime until the drug dealer’s teeth rattle,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson insisted in the 1970s. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who represented Harlem for decades, enthusiastically took up the mantle of a drug warrior during the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Eric Holder, a federal prosecutor and later the first black U.S. attorney general, championed pretextual car stops and searches to curb gun violence during the Clinton administration.
Even while focusing on black America’s presence at the start of mass incarceration, Forman does not detach it from its roots in racist policies. If anything, he uncovers deeper ones. Black leaders in the 1970s, for example, called for “a Marshall Plan for urban America” to combat entrenched poverty and despair. They demanded social justice, stronger policing, and greater economic opportunity—and received only stronger policing in response.
Bracketing this history are Forman’s own experiences as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he witnessed black judges and prosecutors carry out the thousands of small decisions that helped build mass incarceration. He opens with the story of a local judge who reprimands a teenage defendant with what Forman describes as “the Martin Luther King speech”—a stern lecture on how one’s failings are an insult to the civil-rights struggle—before handing the young man an excessive prison sentence. “I grew to hate the Martin Luther King speech,” Forman writes.
From both these personal experiences and the history that helped shape them, Forman uncovers the black community’s role in waging wars on crime and drugs. I spoke with him about the book, the stories behind it, and their meaning for this unusual moment in the national conversation on American law and order. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Ford: What surprised you most when you were writing and researching this book?
James Forman: Let me say two things: One is a general thing, and one is something that’s more specific. I’m very critical of the system of criminal justice that has been built and its devastating impact on black communities, and I’m very critical of people like the judge who I open the book with, that story. When I went back, and I did the research, and I read transcripts, and I read op-eds, and I interviewed people, I tried to put myself in the position of looking at the world through their eyes and in their context. One of the things that I developed was a greater sense of compassion for and empathy for people with whom I disagreed or made decisions that I thought now, in retrospect, were mistakes. And it’s interesting because as a public defender, I’m always asking that people be empathetic and people be compassionate toward my client. But I realized that I wasn’t particularly empathetic at all toward someone like the judge. And I think I developed some of that through the writing. My views didn’t change. I still think the system is destructive and damaging and a human-rights violation in many ways. But I have more compassion for the people who helped to build it and understanding where they were coming from.
The more specific answer was the chapter on black policing. A few things surprised me about it. One is for how long into the past the demand for more black police officers had been on the civil-rights agenda. I found Martin Luther King, Sr. saying in 1947 that the 105,000 Negroes of Atlanta needed and deserved one Negro officer. I didn’t know it went back that far. I also was surprised because I didn’t know that there were so many different rationales that had been asserted over time for why we needed more black officers. I was familiar with the “black police officers would be less brutal” rationale—that’s a little bit more of the modern-day one. But I didn’t know that people argued that black police officers will be more aggressive and attentive to crime because they’ll care about crime in black neighborhoods. I didn’t know that was an argument that dated back to the 1940s.
Another surprise finding for me was the disconnect between the civil-rights advocates who were pushing for black officers and the actual people who were going and taking the job. A lot of the people that were taking these jobs as black officers were taking them because they wanted a good job. They were having a different conversation with themselves than the civil-rights leadership that was demanding more black police was having. And I never appreciated that disconnect until I went back and noticed how even though there were 40 or 50 or 60 or more years of asking and demanding for black police, the officers themselves were so silent through that process. They weren’t the ones testifying. They weren’t the ones making speeches. They weren’t the ones writing op-eds. They were going to work. That tension is one of the things that I argue is kind of problematic about the way we think about black police now—because we have, I think, unreasonable expectations. I now realize we always have had those conflicting and unreasonable expectations of the difference that they would make. And I’ve now settled on the view that I never had before, which is that we should have more black police officers, but we should have them because blacks deserve our fair share of good municipal jobs—not because we think they’re going to change policing in any way.
Ford: A notable theme in the policing chapter was how class affected the black community’s views. How does that division shape the discourse around criminal-justice issues, then and now?
Forman: The class question goes back a long time. One argument that civil-rights advocates in Atlanta had in the 1930s and 1940s was that black officers would be able to more effectively distinguish between the law-abiding members of the community and those that weren’t. In essence, they were saying, “White people can’t tell us apart, but those of us that are upstanding, black officers will understand. They’ll respect those members of our community who deserve respect.” I’m sympathetic to that, of course, but then I would go further and say everybody deserves that respect. That was an early example of a class distinction becoming apparent.
Another one came later in the 1960s. I tell a story about Tilmon O’Bryant, who was the first African American lieutenant in the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. He was also one of the first African American officers, period, to rise up through the ranks. And he overcame tremendous racism alongside Burrell Jefferson, his friend and ally who would go on to be the first black D.C. police chief. They overcame rank discrimination where they couldn’t get promoted because there was a quantitative assessment, a test that they had to take, matched with a qualitative assessment, a supervisor evaluation. And their white, racist supervisors wouldn’t give them rankings high enough that even with high test scores they could get promoted. Their response to that was to double down and triple down and study two and three times as hard. They set up a special training session in O’Bryant’s basement and they studied weekly for the test. Eventually, out of that first class of black officers, all but one scored so high that even with the discriminatory qualitative assessment, they had to be promoted.
As the March on Washington was preparing to descend on D.C., there was advocacy in the local community for more black officers, including in The Washington Afro-American. And O’Bryant came out in opposition to affirmative action. He said, “We don’t need that.” And the Afro-American, D.C.’s black newspaper, which was more of an elite institution than O’Bryant and his working-class background, they told him basically to remain in his place, that he should “stick to policing, not to civil-rights work.” Here they are, the African American elite, through the leading black newspaper, telling this barrier-breaking, path-breaking, working-class African American officer that he should know his place. And that’s the kind of subtle but real class differences that start to appear.
When we move to present day, what we see is a reality where an African American who dropped out of high school is 10 times more likely to go to prison than an African American man who’s attended college. That’s a big difference, then, because the people who are making laws, passing laws, and implementing laws overwhelmingly went to college. And so even though there’s this concept of linked fate in black communities and even though family bonds mean that lots of members of the African American middle class have somebody in their family who’s been caught up in the prison system, it still affects you differently.
There’s one more way in which I think class works its way into our politics of criminal justice: not mass incarceration, but racial profiling in the 1990s. Racial profiling was really the big criminal-justice, racial-justice issue. And the reason I think that racial profiling came to our attention is that it’s an issue that cuts across class lines. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have—if your skin is dark enough to be identifiably black, then you run the risk of being racially profiled. So that issue comes to the attention of the civil-rights establishment almost two decades before mass incarceration does. And the reason, I think, is class.
Ford: I got kind of the sense of déjà vu reading some of these stories you have in here, because it seems like we’re having some of these same debates over and over again—on gun violence, on marijuana legalization, on the criminal-justice system’s interaction with both of those issues, on racism’s impact on them. Are we?
Forman: I think that we are. I think that the conditions that lead to the debate have remained similar if not the same, and then I think the debates remain similar if not the same. The historical context changes, our language changes, some of our understanding of the issues changes, but the issues themselves—issues of crime, issues of police brutality, issues of underenforcement—don’t. Chapter Two is called “Black Lives Matter,” so I’m self-consciously trying to make the point there that something we think of as a 2014 or 2015 development is something that’s been around for 50 years.
Ford: There’s also kind of a sense of tragedy, especially in the early chapters of the book, where you can see the thought processes going into these decisions, but we already know from modern experience where some of these paths will lead.
Forman: Well, yeah. I mean, I wanted to cry sometimes when I’d read the debates surrounding marijuana decriminalization in 1975, because I saw people like African American ministers who came out against decriminalization and people like Doug Moore. Moore was a Washington, D.C. city council member, a black nationalist, a race man, and a minister with a deep, deep love for the black community. In many ways, he organized his life around fighting for black people, fighting for black youth, fighting for disenfranchised black youth. I mean, the man was endorsed by a coalition of prisoners. This was someone who cared about those that society has given up on.
And his love for black community, combined with his not knowing what was to come, combined with his fear of drug addiction and drug use and his distrust of white liberal allies who were proposing decriminalization—all of those come together and lead him to conclude that the harms of marijuana use were greater than the harms of marijuana criminalization. And he won the debate. It was a close debate, but he won the debate. And when I look now and I think about how much damage marijuana criminalization has done to black communities, I think that somebody like that, if he knew what was to come later, he surely would have done something different. That’s, for me, the tragic element.
Ford: Another aspect that stood out to me was the role black-on-black crime played in these debates. These days we always hear it as a lazy retort when people talk about police shootings, but you highlight a greater role for it in the civil-rights era. How big of an influence was it?
Forman: It was huge. First of all, black commentators created the term “black-on-black crime.” A whole Ebony magazine in 1979 was devoted to the term. The first post-Jim Crow generation of black elected officials came into office, and they were bound and determined to make black lives matter. They wanted to protect black people who they knew had never been protected. They came out of a world—this would’ve been true in the North, too, but it was especially true in the South—where you didn’t bother to call the police for a crime in the black community because they weren’t going to come, and if they did come they were just going to make matters worse. Racist Southern sheriffs that had been infiltrated by the Klan considered a black death just another dead black person—and they didn’t use the term “black person.” And so these black elected officials come into power and they want to remedy that. They are deeply motivated by a desire to protect black lives, which they saw and understood as under threat principally from other black people.
And that’s why one of the arguments in the book that’s so important for me to highlight is—I just think it’s a 239-page rebuttal to the idea that black people only care about crime and abuse when it’s at the hands of the police officers. No, no, no. You see page after page of deep and dripping and profound concern for the protection of black lives, regardless of who puts them under threat—whether it be the police or whether it be the robber on the street.
Ford: How does that kind of shape our understanding of how mass incarceration arose? We think of it primarily as this sort of abstract force that came from on high, but you make the really good point that it’s kind of a brick-by-brick thing. Does this kind of history change how we should view the origins of mass incarceration?
Forman: I think it requires us to supplement how we’ve come to view the origins. I see a lot of power and persuasive force in the traditional model that focuses first and foremost on how kind of race-baiting politicians used race to cynically win votes, and how our relative indifference to black suffering at the national level is part of what’s blinded people to the pain and the misery that is mass incarceration. I lay what I’m doing alongside those. I think we have failed to focus on all of these little tiny decisions. When you stack them up and you add them up across time and across the country, and when you add them up throughout the criminal-justice system from police on the one end, through prosecutors and judges and legislatures and probation and parole officers at the other end of the process—when you look at all of these actors over time and over space and across the country, if everyone only becomes somewhat more punitive, but everyone does it together and everyone does it for decades, you get mass incarceration.
I do think that’s a crucial part of the story, and I don’t think it’s one that has gotten enough attention. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs are the kind of natural hinge points for the story, and they’re important. But they’re not the only things that are important. It’s harder to see some of these smaller decisions. One of the ones I draw out—that’s a classic example of something so small that you wouldn’t even notice it—is Dave Clark, who was a marijuana decriminalizer and a civil-rights activist. He becomes the D.C. city-council head and he gets deluged with letters from constituents asking him, “Hey, there’s drug dealers on my corner, do something about it. There’s drug sales in my neighborhood, do something about it. There’s addicts that are strung out in front of my place of business, do something about it.” And he forwards those letters to a D.C. agency, and the head of the agency writes back to him, and he forwards the response back to the constituent and says, “Look, I did something about the problem. You wrote to me and I took action.”
But he always writes to the police chief. He never writes to a department for drug rehabilitation. He never writes to the department of mental health. This is somebody who’s no drug warrior, but it doesn’t even cross his mind that there would be a non-law-enforcement option to the problem of addiction and the drug trade. So part of the story is lack of imagination. We’ve become, as a nation, trapped in a way of thinking about these problems, and it’s infected everybody, even the good people.
It’s those kinds of small steps that I want us all to confront. That means we’re all going to have to confront it as a way of getting out of this mess. Most people reading this interview have a job and work somewhere. What are your employer’s HR policies? What do they say about the ability to get hired if you have a criminal record? If you’re a student or a professor or an administrator at a university, what are your policies toward admission? What barriers do you impose for people to become admitted to your school based on criminal records? What signals do you send to discourage people by suggesting that if they have a criminal record they won’t be successful in the application process? I want everybody in the country to think about their sphere of influence—because it was everybody kind of acting together, sometimes unknowingly, that helped to create the problem, and I see that as how we’re going to have to unwind it.
Ford: What does this history tell us about the future of reform? I think you pretty much just answered that, but to clarify: It’s going to require not just some sort of legislation, but some sort of collective response?
Forman: That is correct. We definitely need legislation. When I’m talking about kind of the small steps, some of those steps are legislative. A lot of times, someone will propose something, whether it be bail reform or juvenile-justice reform or you name it, and by itself it doesn’t look like it is ever sufficient to respond to this problem of mass incarceration. It can be demoralizing, because the problem is so big, and then you look at this particular legislative response and you think, “Well, that’s not going to solve the problem.” And it’s not. But we have to do it. And we have to do it times a thousand because that’s how we built it. There was no moment when America said, “Hey, do we want to become the world’s largest jailer?” We never took an up-or-down vote. That’s not how it was built. It was built with all these tiny little legislative pieces and in the private arena. We’re going to have to unwind it the same way. Some of them are going to look very small by themselves, but collectively they’ll be powerful.
And yes, it’s going to also have to be all of us in our personal spheres of influence. We’re not only voters and citizens and activists, right, we’re also employers and students, church members or members of religious institutions. What if every religious institution decided that it was going to take three people a year and commit to helping them reenter society? Reentry is one of the biggest problems we have. If every religious institution in America took three people coming back from a prison or jail this year, every one of them coming back would have a place where people are saying, “We are going to care for you. We’re gonna help you get housing. We’re gonna help you get a driver’s license. We’re gonna help you get reconnected to your family and your children.” There are 300,000 religious institutions in America and there are about 900,000 people coming back from prisons and jails every year. So we just need to each do three. It’s that kind of collective response that I’m thinking of.
Ford: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Americans’ ability to confront this issue?
Forman: It depends on the day. I am fundamentally an optimistic person. And I’m optimistic, in part, because of the amount of interest that I see in this issue. I teach a class on race and the criminal-justice system at Yale Law School. Last year, I taught it inside a prison, so it was 10 law students and 10 incarcerated students studying together. I only had ten slots in the class [for Yale students], and I had six times as many students on the waitlist. And I see that when I go and I lecture and I talk to professors at other schools. College students and law students and high-school students are extremely motivated around this issue. Many of them have been brought to it by reading The New Jim Crow. Others have been brought to it by reading Bryan Stevenson. Still others have been brought to it by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. Still others have been brought to it by reading some of the hundreds of academics and activists who are less well-known than those three, but are speaking and publishing and advocating. I see this energy. This was not the case in the early 1990s when I became a public defender. Not at all. And that is the thing, fundamentally, that gives me the most optimism.
The second thing that gives me optimism is the enhanced and elevated role that we’re starting to give to people who have been incarcerated and their family members. For so long, those folks were at the margins. Nobody really gave them a voice. Folks were afraid to speak up, they were so stigmatized. “Who really wants to hear from me? I have a felony conviction. Do I really want to reveal my past?” These are the questions that people were asking. And in the past couple of years, that started to change. That idea of turning to those who are closest to the problem for solutions—I think that’s also a cause for optimism.
James Forman - History
As Executive Secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which sought to register disengranchised black voters in the Deep South, James Forman raised money, dispatched volunteers, and voiced the work of SNCC in speeches, press communications and marches. In 1972, Forman wrote a memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, noted as a seminal text in radical literature and civil rights history. As president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee (UPAC), Forman applied his ideas and administrative acumen to such issues as voter rights, pro-choice awareness, government secrecy, commemoration of civil rights history, and D.C. rent control.
Born to a poor sharecropper family in 1928, Forman was raised on his grandmother’s Mississippi farm and as an adolescent moved to Chicago with his mother. Graduating in 1946 from Englewood High School, Forman matriculated at Wilson Junior College for a semester and joined the United States Air Force in 1947. Spending much of his four-year tour in the Pacific, Forman was discharged in September 1951, after which he enrolled in the University of Southern California.
In early 1953, Forman suffered what he called a “breakdown” after a wrongful arrest and physical and psychological abuse by the Los Angeles Police Department. The experience caused Forman to briefly enter a California state mental hospital. In March 1954 Forman returned to Chicago and enrolled in Roosevelt University, where he graduated in January 1957.
In the early 1960s Forman was active in Fayette County, NC, working under Robert Williams, a local chairman for the NAACP and “open advocate for armed self-defense.” A shrewd orator, Williams survived an attack by the KKK after attempts to integrate a local swimming pool, and in the 1960s liaisoned in Cuba.
Forman published press releases in the Chicago Defender for his work with the Emergency Relief Committee of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and supported the United Packinghouse Workers of America in Tennessee to break a boycott by the Whites Citizen Council, who opposed the increased registration of black voters and refused to sell gasoline to black workers to fuel their tractors.
In 1961, after a six weeks program at Middlebury College in French, “where only that language was permitted day and night,“ according to a UPAC newsletter, Forman returned to Chicago to teach elementary school. Forman was soon contacted by Paul Brooks, who protested with Forman in Monroe, NC during the Freedom Rides. Brooks invited Forman to attend a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in McComb, Mississippi.
Forman left Chicago to join SNCC, recognizing an opportunity to inspire mass change in black voter registration with a young, detemined, maverick organization. First arriving at the Atlanta office, Forman described finding an empty and “grubby room.”
Forman acted as Executive Secretary of SNCC until 1966, stumping for funds, managing field worker activity, and arranging transportation, food, and housing for volunteers. After the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought delegates at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, SNCC began to split over ideology and administration. Forman pushed for a lateral group leadership, and though suspect of the enlistment of white college students, believed in the communications advantages of employing all available resources. Forman’s resistance to the cult of personality, which would alienate the most critical voter education in local rural black populations, was soon disfavored as SNCC leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown moved to change the group’s name, replacing the sentiment of “Nonviolence” with “National.” In the late 1960s, Forman served as International Affairs Director, traveling to Africa and writing two books.
In 1969, Forman delivered the “Black Manifesto” at Riverside Church in New York City, which called for $500 million from religious groups as payback for slavery, that “America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor.” Originally a platform for the Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC), in Detroit, Michigan, Forman’s actions as a revolutionary and fundraiser were investigated by the FBI as crimes of racketeering and extortion.
In his memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman layers the narrative of his own story with oral histories, prison journals, sworn affidavits taken on paper towels in a Georgia jail, KKK propaganda, and unpublished manuscripts of fellow actors on both sides of the movement. Forman founded UPAC, a nonprofit social action organization which spearheaded the majority of Forman’s work after 1974.
In 1980, Forman studied Electronic Journalism at Howard University, and was a founding member of Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists. Forman received a Master’s Degree in African and African American Studies from Cornell University, and in 1982 earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Forman settled in Washington, D.C. and started The Washington Times, a short-lived newspaper, and founded the Black American News Service. Forman wrote books and pamphlets, taught classes and produced documentaries. In 1990, Forman ran in the primary for State Senator, D.C., and in 1995 for local Democratic Party representative, Precinct 35, Ward 1. Forman was also an advocate of official Statehood for the District of Columbia, and edited Free D.C./Statehood Now: A Book of Documents, which included verbatim debate from the 1993 Congressional Record, newsclippings, factsheets, and correspondence by Forman. In 2004, Forman traveled with members of the D.C. delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Boston to take part in the “Boston Tea Party,” where bags of tea were tossed into Boston Harbor to protest the lack of representation for the District.
Forman was a provocative writer and book collector, advocated self-education and questioning of authority, and sought the enforcement of words to action. “My best skills,” writes Forman, are “agitating, field organizing, and writing.”
Forman died in January 2005 of colon cancer at the age of 76.
“Black Manifesto. The New York Review of Books, July 10, 1969.
“Control, Conflict and Change,” in Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliott Wright, eds., Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism and Reparations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 34-51.
High Tide of Black Resistance. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1994 org. publ. by SNCC International Affairs Commission, 1967.
Liberation Viendra d’une Chose Noir. Paris: Masterro, 1968.
“Liberation Will Come from a Black Thing.” Chicago: Students for a Democratic Society, 1968 in “Text of keynote speech delivered by Brother James Forman at the Western Regional Black Youth Conference held in Los Angeles, California on November 23, 1967.”
The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: Macmillian and Co., 1972 Washington, DC: Open Hand Publishing, 1985.
The Political Thought of James Forman. Detroit: Black Star Press, 1970.
Sammy Younge Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1986 org. publ. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Self-Determination and the African-American People. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1981.
What Was the SNCC?
The new group played a large part in the Freedom Rides aimed at desegregating buses and in the marches organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC.
Under the leadership of James Forman, Bob Moses, and Marion Barry, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee also directed much of the Black voter registration drives in the South. Three of its members died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan during the Mississippiਏreedom Summer of 1964.
Events such as these heightened divisions between King and SNCC. The latter objected to compromises at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where the party refused to replace the all-white Mississippi delegation with the integrated Freedom Democrats.
Little Known Black History Fact: James Forman’s Black Manifesto
The late James Forman, a former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, introduced his “Black Manifesto” document in April 1969 at a conference in Detroit. The manifesto demanded $500 million in reparations from white church organizations to make up for the crimes and injustices suffered by Black Americans.
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The Black Economic Development Conference, formed by business and religious leaders in caucuses with predominantly white Christian denominations, was held in Detroit from April 25-27, 1969. During the conference, Forman, then loosely associated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in the wake of a failed merger with the Black Panthers, introduced the terms of his manifesto.
Known for his fiery politics and ability to mobilize, Forman would see his manifesto adopted by the BEDC group. Forman demanded that white churches and synagogues pay the reparations to fund Black companies, schools, a Southern land bank, and a publishing company to absolve generations of racism against African-Americans.
While the BEDC, and other groups like the NAACP, were initially on board with Forman’s approach, they began to distance themselves when he began interrupting Sunday church services with loud protests and readings of the manifesto. Although he successfully raised $500K, by May of 1969 more than a few church and community leaders felt that Forman’s tactics were too forceful and borderline disrespectful.
Some white churches actually agreed with the manifesto’s overall aims, but most elected to instead boost funds in already existing services and programs for the less fortunate. New York City’s Riverside Church donated the most money, $200,000, and agreed to donate a fixed portion of its yearly income to anti-poverty programs.
The FBI and the Justice Department began investigating the BEDC, even though Forman was never a member of the group. The BEDC eventually dissolved, but the funds raised by the manifesto went on to fund programs by the Inter-religious Committee for Community Organizing.
The programs started by the ICOC included the funding of Black Star Publications, a publishing house connected to Forman and several other community programs.
How did we get here?
After the Civil War, first you had black freedom and black emancipation. But right away, especially in the South, but not exclusively in the South, white Americans saw newly freed black Americans as a threat. They saw them as an economic threat. They saw them as a political threat. Again, imagine people that you had kept as slaves and all of the sudden you’re told that they’re supposed to be your equals. They’re supposed to be your political equals. They’re supposed to be able to walk freely.
That wasn’t something that most people were able to tolerate. And so they devised a whole set of laws and set up policing regimes to enforce those laws. So you had situations where African Americans would be stopped for the most minor offenses. The classic one back then was vagrancy. Was just being around, loitering or vagrancy. Being around with no apparent purpose. And they would get taken in and in lots of jurisdictions, the only way you could get released was if somebody came to pay your bond.
And the way then you worked off the money that you owed for the bond was by working for that person. So especially in the South, you had lots of former plantation owners who needed labor. So the police would round up black people for no good reason. The former plantation owner, now landowner, would come and bail them out, bond them out. And then, the black person would owe the plantation owner 100 hours, 200 hours, 300 hours of labor for the privilege of having been bonded out for a crime that wasn’t even a crime.
And so you see there the sort of direct ways in which slavery and the need for black labor produced a style of policing, an approach to policing and a legal system that, in essence, reconstituted the old system but with new language and with new legal justifications.
Black American views on policing and criminal justice
It’s almost impossible to understand or believe in this moment that we live in now. But for most of American history, or for a big chunk of American history, one of the truths of policing in black communities was underpolicing and underprotection. My parents are mixed race. My dad is black, my mom is white. So my dad is from the south side of Chicago, which is a large historically black neighborhood in Chicago. It’s sort of like Harlem in terms of its cultural significance in black America.
And he would tell me that in his neighborhood, when he was a kid, when there was something going on, if a crime was committed… I mean not homicide, but a lot of crimes, they didn’t call the police. And why didn’t they call the police? He said the police weren’t going to come. They weren’t going to come respond to the complaint of a black victim who said they’d been victimized by crime. And if they did come, they were only going to make things worse.
So right there in his comment you see the tensions. They’re not going to respond to us and if they show up they’re going to be brutal.
And so there’s a long tradition and history in this country of white racist police chiefs and sheriffs saying things like… If they were asked about a homicide in a black community they would say, “Well that’s not a homicide. That’s not a murder. That’s another dead black person”. And I’m only using the word black person to cover for the word that they did in fact use, which is not one that I choose to repeat.
So against that history, against that backdrop, you then have a civil rights generation of black elected officials and black police chiefs who came with them. Black police officers first and then later some of them rose up to be heads of the forces. And black legislators, black prosecutors and they viewed it as their mandate and their mission to actually make law enforcement respond to black citizens. To provide the protection that for 100 years had been deprived. The 14th amendment to our constitution guarantees the equal protection of the laws. That goes back to reconstruction. And there’s this idea that black people are not getting protected by the state. So they viewed that protection as being police officers being present. Police officers caring. And in some instances, police officers being aggressive.
One of the reasons my book is a tragedy is that a lot of these black actors that I write about I think had good motivations for the things they were trying to achieve but it happened at a moment where there were other people who had bad motivations. So there were other people who wanted to surveil and harass and oppress black communities. And they seized on the fact that there was black support for some of these things. And then they said, “Aha, aha, black people want it too? All right. Well now let’s double down and let’s triple down on some of these very, very harsh measures”.
So part of my story is how people can want things for different reasons. And one group of people, the black actors in my story for the most part I think sort of wanted this protection with the intention of helping black communities. They were pushing for it unfortunately at exactly the time when people like President Richard Nixon and later people like President Ronald Reagan were pushing for things. And those people did not have the interest of black America at heart.
The role that class divisions played in forming current legal system
I mean there’s so many ways in which this plays out. But maybe at kind of the first level, black Americans who have been in control politically, people who are sort of more likely to come into elected office or to run aspects of government are either, by birth or even if not by birth, have gotten to the point where they are middle class or, even in some instances, may be upper middle class. And what happens then is some of the same instincts towards property possession, protection, a desire for neighborhoods to look a particular way. Some of those same instincts which we know help to make white citizens… I described my block earlier, they would make white citizens call the police force and say, “Hey listen, there’s groups of kids that are gathering and they’re walking up the hill and could you keep and eye on them”? That sort of thing.
So black citizens have some of those same concerns. And so there’s then attention, because on the one hand, there’s a sense of racial identification with the people that are being overpoliced, but on the other hand, there’s a class dis-identification. People are aware that at least from the standpoint of the socioeconomic status, that those people that are being overpoliced really aren’t you.
And so that plays itself out and you see that especially in cities like Washington DC or Atlanta or Chicago or New York where you have substantial African American presence and you have a big black middle class. Again, not big compared to whites but big compared to other black neighborhoods.
And so there’s a thing that writers, political scientists, and others talk about is this idea of respectability politics. So there’s this idea that I’ve made it, and your acting out is a threat to the collective us. And it’s a threat to my status. Because I’ve made it by performing and talking and behaving in a particular way and when you act out you are going to cause white people to look at all of us in a less generous way. And so you talked about good motives earlier and how a lot of the people in the book do have good motives and I think that’s right.
The probably one area where I distrust or am somewhat critical of the motives are the people that are practicing this brand of respectability politics. Because that is very divisive in the black community in a way that I think isn’t helpful.
What are the biggest problems with policing today?
I think there are two central flaws. And I think the remedies have to be directed to these two central flaws. Central flaw number one is that we have too many police and related to that, this is still part of the first one, is that police have too many responsibilities. We use police for all sorts of things that we do not need to use police for. And so we use police to deal with drug addiction, to take one example. And there’s lots of examples of this we see in everyday society. There’s examples of this we see in my book where elected officials… I write about a guy named David Clark who’s a very progressive elected official in Washington DC completely against the war on drugs. But when heroin is surging in the city, he gets inundated with letters from citizens about heroin addicts in public space and dirty syringes and people sleeping on park benches and people gathering on stoops and nodding off and making people feel unsafe. And what does he do with those letters when he gets those letters? Who does he send them to? He forwards them each and every time, not to the department of mental health, not to addiction services, not to counseling and recovery, he sends them to the police chief.
And he does that because he, like many Americans then and today, lacks the imagination to think of the problem of heroin addicts in public space as a problem to which we should send addiction counselors and social workers, and also the government lacks the funding and the resources and the infrastructure for that. So some of those departments that I just mentioned don’t even exist. But more money goes to the police department and more requests go to the police department to solve that problem. So number one is we have too many police and we have police doing too many things. And then the second central problem at a high level is that there is too little accountability for police misbehavior and for… Whether you want to call them… I don’t like the term “bad apples” particularly because I think it suggests that it’s too limited a number. But whoever the individuals are who are violating people’s rights and who are being too aggressive and at some times being brutal. It’s too hard to get anybody fired. It’s too hard to get anybody prosecuted and it’s too hard to keep those people off the force of another department.
In the rare instances when people are terminated, then they often just get rehired by a neighborhood department. So those two things: too many police doing too many things and too little accountability for police violence and police abuse of citizens, I think, are the central problems we face in this country.
Having a positive impact as a public prosecutor
I became a public defender after law school because I wanted to fight mass incarceration. And I thought that the best way to do that was to represent individual people charged with crimes and make sure that they got the best possible defense possible. And I still believe, I think if I were graduating from law school today, that’s still the job that I would take. So when I made the case for becoming public prosecutors, it wasn’t to say instead of being public defenders, but just rather that, 25 years ago, I think it would have been extremely hard to become a prosecutor and do anything other than follow the most kind of punitive, lock them up sort of approaches because the political pressures and the cultural forces, everything was so powerfully running in that direction. But today we’re in a moment where there are, in some cities around the country, there are prosecutors who have run on campaigns of ending or reducing the ferocity of the drug war, of ending mandatory minimums, of not asking for people to be locked up before trial, just because they’re too poor to post bail.
And so those prosecutors, those lead prosecutors, what they need is they need some reform-minded individuals who want to change the system to come in and help them staff up their offices. Because it’s the same thing that we talk about with a reform-minded police chief. You can have whatever ideals you want to have at the top, but unless you have people in your office to implement them, you’re not going to be able to actually create change. So when I talk to my law students now, I encourage them, of course, to become public defenders. But for those that are drawn to become prosecutors, I tell them, “Well, seek out those individuals who are wedded to change. That are committed to an approach to prosecution that reduces incarceration rates rather than increases them, and go do that work”. Because prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the system. There’s no question about that. And so you can, potentially in the right office, under the right circumstances, you can, I think, have a profoundly positive impact. It’s not something that I ever thought I would have said a decade ago.
RevisitED: Choice history, choice policy
One of a series of murals covering the walls of the Center for Pan-African Culture at Kent State University, dedicated to a group of Kent State students called Black United Students, who first proposed the adoption of Black History Month
Editor’s note: This February marks the 43 rd anniversary of Black History Month. redefinED is taking this opportunity to revisit some pieces from our archives appropriate for this annual celebration. The article below originally appeared in redefinED in December 2015.
Credit James Forman Jr. with the best account yet of the center-left roots of the school choice movement. Credit his stint as a public defender for being the spark.
Forman, now a Yale law professor, said the district “alternative” schools serving his juvenile clients in Washington D.C. 20 years ago were giving them the least and worst when they needed the most and best. He began exploring options like charter schools, only to be told by some folks that school choice couldn’t be trusted because of its segregationist past.
Forman knew about the “segregation academies” some white communities formed to evade Brown v. Board of Education. But he knew that wasn’t the whole story. Among other reasons, he was the son of James Forman, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group whose courageous members became known as the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement.
Wait, he thought, recalling stories his parents told him about Mississippi Freedom Schools. Wasn’t that school choice?
“It seemed impossible to me to think that over all of those years, African-Americans had never organized themselves to try to create better (educational) opportunities outside what the state was providing them,” Forman told redefinED in the podcast interview below. “So that was my idea. My thesis was there had to be an alternative history, there had to be a history of African Americans who were not relying on the government and were trying to organize themselves to create schools to educate their children.”
The 2005 paper traces the progressive movement for educational freedom from Reconstruction, to the civil rights movement, to the “free schools” and “community control” movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. A century before many activists were using the term “school choice,” it notes, black churches were making it happen. Decades before conservative Gov. Jeb Bush was pushing America’s first statewide voucher program, liberal intellectuals were promoting the notion in The New York Times Magazine.
A decade later, “The Secret History of School Choice” remains a must-read for anyone who wants a fuller, richer picture of choice’s beginnings. But Forman, who co-founded a charter school named for Maya Angelou, hopes progressives in particular see the light.
They ignore the history of school choice, and their role in shaping it, at their own peril, he said. Believing, wrongly, that it’s right-wing can result in it becoming just that. If progressives aren’t at the table, he suggested, they can’t bring their values to bear in shaping policy. In his view, it’d be good if they did.
Forman, for example, believes per-pupil amounts for many voucher and tax credit scholarship programs are too low for the low-income students they’re intended to help, reflecting conservative positions that education funding as a whole is bloated. (Other left-leaning choice supporters have raised concerns that modern voucher programs are too cheap.) Equity concerns surface in other ways, with few publicly supported, private school choice programs employing the sliding scales for family income and scholarship value that liberal voucher supporters in the ‘60s and ‘70s thought crucial.
“Our understanding of the history influences the direction that the issue goes,” Forman said. “If people who have an equality orientation and a civil rights orientation see themselves as on the outside of the movement for school choice, then the only people who are going to be left are people who have different motivations. … So the question is going to be, who owns the movement? Who directs the movement? Who is dominant? Whose educational vision leads the way?”
Forman said perceptions about choice will change as more and more low-income and minority parents embrace it. But the narrative won’t tack back to fully mesh with the reality of the movement’s diverse roots, he said, unless other things change too. One obvious hurdle, he said, is how the movement’s leadership ranks are “almost lily white.”
“Every time I go to a (school choice) conference, I am appalled by how invisible almost the folks of color can be at the top level of leadership,” Forman said. “That’s a problem.”