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James Forman Biography

Awakened To Racial Discrimination, Dedicated Life To Fighting Oppression, Worked As Sncc Organizer, Traveled To Washington And SelmaSelected writings


Civil rights leader

James Forman was "a strong pillar of the modern-day civil rights movement," his former colleague Rep. John Lewis told the Sacramento Observer. In April of 1969, when James Forman presented the Black Manifesto, a public call for reparations to the African-American community for years of oppression, he made national headlines as an outspoken black radical. This moment captured why Forman was eulogized in Jet as "the most independent and fearless in his desire to promote ideas fostering black equality."

As executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; often pronounced "snick") from 1961 to 1966, Forman worked as a frontline organizer in nearly every major civil rights campaign of the era. His revolutionary vision, based upon socialist doctrine and militant black nationalism, had a profound influence on the structure and philosophical outlook of SNCC, which was one of the most significant civil rights organizations of the 1960s. Forman espoused more vigorous protest tactics than Martin Luther King, Jr., but his legacy would be bringing "down one of the most violent and dehumanizing systems without firing a shot," Ruby Nell Sales, civil rights leader and director of SpiritHouse, related to Sojourners.

Forman was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 4, 1928. When he was only eleven months old, his parents took him to live on his grandmother's 180-acre farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. Though he lived in a state of severe poverty, Forman enjoyed the company of his grandparents, two subsistence farmers who worked their "poor and hilly" land by a mule-drawn plow. Receiving his education at home from his Aunt Thelma, a schoolteacher, Forman developed an early interest in books.

Upon returning to Chicago to live with his parents, Forman attended St. Anselm's Catholic School. A member of the Protestant faith, he was torn by the clash between his own beliefs and Catholic religious doctrine. At age twelve, Forman enrolled in a public grammar school. As he recalled in his autobiography The Making of Black Revolutionaries, "It was a huge relief to not have to take religion, not to be weighed down by the conflict over Catholicism."

Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement, Open Hand Publishing, 1968.

Liberation viendra d'une chose noir, Maspero, 1968.

The Political Thought of James Forman, Black Star Press, 1970.

The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Open Hand Publishing, 1972.

Self-Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African American People, Open Hand Publishing, 1984.



Ashmore, Harry S., Hearts and Minds: A Personal Chronicle of Race in America, Seven Locks Press, 1988.

Black Protest Thought in the Sixties, edited by August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Quadrangle Books, 1970.

Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by August Meier, Elliott Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick, Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd B. Barbour, Extending Horizon, 1970.

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Chestnut, J. L., Jr., and Julia Cass, Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J. L. Chestnut, Jr.—Politics and Power in a Small American Town, Farrar, Straus, 1990.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990, Viking Press, 1991.

Forman, James, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Open Hand Publishing, 1985.

Haines, Herbert H., Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970, University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

King, Richard H., Civil Rights: The Idea of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lawson, Steven F., Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Marable, Manning, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990, 2nd edition, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Schuchter, Arnold, Reparations: The Black Manifesto and Its Challenge to White America, J. B. Lippincott, 1970.

Sellers, Cleveland, and Robert Terrell, The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Stoper, Emily, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: The Growth of Radicalism in a Civil Rights Organization, Carlson, 1989.

Walter, Mildred Pitts, Mississippi Challenge, Bradbury Press, 1992.

Zinn, Howard, The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, 1964.


Black Issues in Higher Education, January 13, 2005, p. 24.

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June-July 2002, p. 32.

Guardian (London), January 14, 2005, p. 29.

Jet, January 31, 2005, p. 51.

Sacramento Observer, January 22, 2005.

Sojourners, April 2005, p. 10.

Times (London), January 17, 2005, p. 50.

Washington Post, January 11, 2005, p. B6.


"The Case Against Reparations," Progressive, www.progressive.org/reed1200.htm (April 28, 2005).


Additional information for this profile was taken from the PBS video series Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years; segments consulted include "Ain't Scared of Your Jails, 1960-1961" and "No Easy Walk, 1961-1963," both narrated by Julian Bond.

—John Cohassey and Sara Pendergast

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