James Forman

Brilliant organiser behind the SNCC civil rights movement

James Forman was, literally and figuratively, a towering figure in the US civil rights movement - a big, on occasion physically intimidating man, who was also one of the driving intellects behind the struggle to rid America's deep south of institutionalised racism.

James Forman, civil rights activist: born Chicago 4 October 1928; Executive Secretary, Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee 1961-66; three times married (two sons); died Washington, DC 10 January 2005.

James Forman was, literally and figuratively, a towering figure in the US civil rights movement - a big, on occasion physically intimidating man, who was also one of the driving intellects behind the struggle to rid America's deep south of institutionalised racism.

As executive organiser of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Forman, even more than the movement's spiritual and political leader, Martin Luther King, was on the barricades, repeatedly beaten up and jailed as he led demonstrations in Alabama, Mississippi and the other most dangerous redoubts of segregation in the early 1960s. "He was a tough guy," wrote Charles Cobb, an SNCC volunteer of the period, in The Washington Post:

First impression - maybe a longshoreman or a teamster. A good size to have if you were going to tackle white supremacy in the black-belt south the way Forman did.

Above all, however, Forman was a brilliant organiser. When he arrived in 1961, the SNCC was a ragtag assembly of leftists and idealists operating out of single windowless room in Atlanta. Within a couple of years, Forman had turned its staff into the shock troops of the civil rights campaign, masterminding direct action protests and voter registration drives, and setting up local branches across the south.

In part his authority derived from his age. By the time he came to the civil rights movement, he was in his thirties, half a generation older than most SNCC workers. He was a Korean War air force veteran, a university graduate and a writer who had covered the 1957 school integration crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the black newspaper The Chicago Defender.

Forman had experienced racial prejudice nastily and personally - first in the military and then at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where, just a few months after enrolling in 1958, he was falsely accused of robbery and beaten up in a police station.

Forman read the writings of Mao Tse-tung and other insurrectionary leaders. He visited Africa and studied the liberation movements that were bringing independence to colonies across the continent. He also took a more nuanced view towards non-violence than King and his followers. For Forman, violence, in the form of self-defence, was sometimes unavoidable. He also criticised what he called the "Messiah complex", when people felt that only a particular individual could save them, "and would not move on their own to end racism and exploitation".

Despite his growing militancy, Forman was ousted from the SNCC by the more radical Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. After serving briefly as "foreign minister" for the Black Panthers, he made headlines again in 1969 when he drew up a so-called "Black Manifesto", demanding that Protestant and Jewish groups pay $500m in reparations for slavery.

Rupert Cornwell

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