In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section James Forman

  • Introduction
  • Video Appearances and Interviews
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African American Studies James Forman
Vanessa Carlisle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0057


Author, journalist, scholar, and lifelong civil rights activist James Rufus Forman was born to Octavia Allen and Jackson Forman in Chicago on 4 October 1928. He spent his early childhood with his grandmother in Marshall County, Mississippi, where he first experienced the effects of poverty and Jim Crow. After high school graduation, a stint in the Air Force, his first encounter with police brutality, and the completion of his college degree, Forman obtained a press credential from the Chicago Defender in 1957 and traveled south to cover the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. From then on, he devoted himself full time to the struggle for civil rights, racial equality, and an end to United States imperialism. Forman led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as executive secretary and director of international affairs, briefly served as minister of foreign affairs for the Black Panther Party (BPP), and he founded the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee (UPAC). He also earned a master’s degree in African and Afro-American affairs from Cornell University in 1977, and a PhD in political history from the Union University Institute in 1982. Described by fellow civil rights–era activists as a brilliant tactician, a powerful orator, a skilled organizer, and a seasoned ground soldier, Forman was instrumental to many of the seminal events of the 1960s civil rights movement, especially in the South. Forman’s leadership helped shape the Mississippi Freedom Rides, the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, the marches in Selma, a 1969 demand for reparations (the “Black Manifesto”), and, later, the movement for expanded voting rights and an end to poverty in Washington, DC. Although he never received the same level of media coverage as Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and other legendary civil rights activists, Forman worked closely with these leaders. Remembered as one of the most influential organizations in the southern arm of the civil rights movement, SNCC derived its organizational structure and remarkable record keeping from Forman’s leadership. He wrote prolifically while working with SNCC, authoring many essays and position papers that displayed his and the organization’s increasing radicalization and political depth. Shortly after resigning from SNCC, Forman published his most widely read book: The Making of Black Revolutionaries. This text provides a detailed and passionate autobiographical account of the events that shaped both Forman the person and the scene of activism for racial justice in the 1960s. Forman provides careful descriptions of how grassroots organizing can address local, national, and international issues while never losing sight of himself as an individual among many. Forman died of colon cancer in 2005, surrounded by friends and family in Washington, DC. He was married three times, was divorced three times, and is survived by two children: Chaka Forman and James Forman Jr.

Primary Works by Forman

Forman published seven books and contributed to many periodicals, including regular reporting for the Chicago Defender. Much of his writing was printed or published by small presses or grassroots organizations, including position papers, speeches, pamphlets, and statements from the various organizations he worked with and led. These writings are now dispersed throughout libraries, archives, and private collections of civil rights literature and history. He wrote two unpublished books; the first was a novel called the “Thin White Line,” the other a biography of Franz Fanon. Both manuscripts can be viewed in the James Forman Collection at the Library of Congress. Forman’s other writings, including pamphlets, unpublished essays, letters, SNCC materials, and his work on voting rights in Washington, DC, are collected primarily at the Library of Congress, the Queens College Civil Rights Archive, and the King Center.

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