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A revolutionary forged through struggle

By Lance Selfa | Janury 21, 2005 | Page 13

"WE ARE not born revolutionary. Revolutionaries are forged through constant struggle and the study of revolutionary ideas and experiences," wrote James Forman in the introduction to his 1972 book The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Forman's life, which ended last week at 76 following a battle with cancer, illustrated this very point.

Like many activists of his era, Forman had become involved in the civil rights movement aiming to win simple demands like an end to segregation and Black voting rights. But the opposition that civil rights activists faced at the hands of racists and the state--as well as other political issues of the day, such as the war in Vietnam and demands for women's liberation--pushed Forman to adopt more radical politics.

Born in and raised in Chicago, Forman spent part of his early years working on his grandparents' farm in Mississippi. He faced the realities of American apartheid when, at age 8, he was threatened with lynching after he failed to say "yes, ma'am" to a white sales clerk.

After a stint in the segregated Air Force in the 1950s, he faced racism in the North, too. While attending the University of Southern California, he was falsely accused of robbery and beaten by police. He was never charged with a crime, but the trauma forced him out of USC.

He joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as executive secretary from 1961 to 1966. Clayborne Carson, the historian of SNCC, credited Forman with the group's survival--as Forman oversaw organizational details for members who considered themselves roving shock troops of the civil rights movement.

Always interested in political ideas and philosophy, he encouraged SNCC members to read the writings of Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon and Mao Zedong. Though personally interested in radical ideas, he acquiesced to the expulsion of two Communist Party members, including Angela Davis, from SNCC--an action he later said he regretted.

In the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement had won legislative changes like the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But clearly, racism and inequality still existed. These factors, plus the radicalizing impact of the movement on activists, provoked internal debate and a leadership change in SNCC, as advocates of racial separatism gained support.

Although Forman also declared himself in favor of Black Power, he criticized racial separatism. "Are the problems we face only ones of color?" he asked. "Why is there a Black banker in one town and a starving Negro in the same?...Do the problems of a Black welfare mother arise only from her blackness? If not, then what are the other causes?"

Forman resigned as executive secretary of SNCC, but headed the organization's international affairs bureau for years afterward. While one wing of SNCC coalesced around Stokely Carmichael moved more sharply to racial separatism, a wing of SNCC grouped around Forman remained open to working with other radicals, including whites. These activists incorporated a class analysis into their ideological outlook.

As internal conflicts and government repression took its toll on SNCC in the late 1960s, Forman moved on to organizations outside of SNCC. He briefly worked as minister of foreign affairs with the Black Panther Party.

In 1969, he announced the Black Manifesto, a demand for billions in reparations from leading churches for their complicity with slavery. He gained national attention in May 1969, when he interrupted a service at New York's Riverside Church to make his demands. While his campaign didn't really last, the Black Manifesto helped to popularize the idea of reparations.

Later, he lent his organizing talents to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers--a revolutionary organization that grew up in the Detroit auto plants in the late 1960s. The League represented one of the high points of the struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, as the demands for Black Power fused with working-class organization.

With the decline of the radical movement, Forman moved onto other pursuits, earning a doctorate and heading up the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee in Washington, D.C. And in his later years, he left radical politics behind to become active in the Democratic Party.

This later course reflected some of the weaknesses of the 1960s movements--the lack of organizational continuity and strategy that could build a genuine revolutionary challenge to the system. But Forman's life is also a testament to the depth of radicalization in those struggles--which led thousands to declare themselves revolutionaries.

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