3 minute read

James Forman

Awakened To Racial Discrimination

Outside the classroom, Forman sold the Chicago Defender, one of the most prominent black newspapers in the country. The stories of lynching, discrimination, and injustices awakened him to the need for people of color to struggle against white racist oppression. By reading the works of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Forman became aware of the two leading ideologies guiding the progress of African Americans. Opposed to Washington's conciliatory program, Forman embraced Du Bois's call for black people to seek political power and higher education in order to adapt to the rapid changes of industrial society.

After graduating from high school in 1947 as a Chicago Tribune-sponsored honor student, Forman attended Wilson Junior College, where he studied English, French, and world history. Disillusioned by the lack of employment opportunities available to educated African Americans, Forman joined the U.S. Air Force. He explained in his book The Making of Black Revolutionaries that while stationed at segregated military bases in the Deep South and on the Pacific island of Okinawa, he "came to see the Armed Forces in broad terms, as a dehumanizing machine which destroys thought and creativity in order to preserve the economic system and political myths of the United States."

Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1952, Forman lived in Oakland, California. To escape the pressure of his military experience, he periodically supported himself by gambling in pool halls and betting on card games. While attending the University of Southern California that same year, Forman was arrested by two white policemen who falsely accused him of participating in a robbery. Forman was taken to the police station, incarcerated, and then beaten; after several days of questioning he was finally freed without charges. Unable to deal with the shock of this experience, he suffered a breakdown and was placed in a state hospital.

Back in Chicago in 1954, Forman enrolled at Roosevelt University. Unlike his earlier college experiences, Roosevelt turned out to be an exciting and stimulating learning institution that helped to shape Forman's worldview. He became president of the "brotherhood," a small student group that gathered to discuss politics, racism, and the merits of integration. He spent many hours studying anthropology, sociology, history, and economics, and aside from the assigned textbooks, he read works by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and novelist John Steinbeck. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 further heightened Forman's growing concern about the advancement of civil rights. As he related in The Making of Black Revolutionaries, "The boycott woke me to the real—not the merely theoretical—possibility of building a nonviolent mass movement of southern black people to fight segregation."

Soon after his graduation from Roosevelt in 1957, Forman received a grant to attend the African Research and Studies Program at Boston University. The next year, he obtained a press assignment from the Chicago Defender to cover the civil rights struggle in Little Rock, Arkansas. Inspired by his trip to Little Rock, Forman began a novel based upon the exploits of northern civil rights workers in the South. Finishing the final draft in the fall of 1959, Forman subsequently took education courses at Chicago's Teachers College and, by the spring of 1960, began to teach in the Chicago public schools.

At a Glance...

Born on October 4, 1928, in Chicago, IL; died on January 10, 2005, Washington, DC; son of Jackson and Octavia (Allen) Forman; married Mary Forman (date unknown, divorced); Mildred Thompson (date unknown, divorced); married Constancia Ramilly (date unknown, divorced); children: Chaka (son), James. Education: Attended Wilson Junior College and University of Southern California; Roosevelt University, BA, 1957; attended African Research and Studies Program, Boston University, 1958, and Chicago Teachers College, 1959-60; Cornell University, MA, African-American studies, 1980; Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities with the Institute for Policy Studies, PhD, 1982. Military: U.S. Air Force, early 1950s.

Career: Chicago Defender, journalist covering events in Little Rock, AR, 1958-59; Chicago Public Schools, teacher, 1960; Chicago Defender, reported while working with the Emergency Relief Committee, Fayette County, TN, 1960; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), executive secretary, 1961-66, SNCC, administrator of the national office, Atlanta, GA, 1967; SNCC, director of International Affairs Commission, New York City, 1967; Black Panther Party, minister of foreign affairs, 1968; Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee, Washington, DC, president, mid-1970s-1980s; Washington Times, founder, 1981; Black American News Service, founder, early 1980s(?).

Awards: National Conference of Black Mayors' Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom Award, 1990.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Trevor Edwards Biography - Accepted Wisdom from His Mother to Francisco Franco (1892–1975) BiographyJames Forman Biography - Awakened To Racial Discrimination, Dedicated Life To Fighting Oppression, Worked As Sncc Organizer, Traveled To Washington And Selma - Selected writings