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James Forman (October 4, 1928 – January 10, 2005) was an American Civil Rights leader active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the International Black Workers Congress.
He received a master’s degree in African and Afro-American studies from Cornell University in 1980 and a Ph.D from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He founded James Forman and Associates, a political consulting group. During the 1990s, he taught at American University, the University of the District of Columbia and Morgan State University in Baltimore. He was also the author of several notable books. The New York Times called him "a civil rights pioneer who brought a fiercely revolutionary vision and masterly organizational skills to virtually every major civil rights battleground in the 1960's."
Forman was born on October 4, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. As an 11-month-old baby he was sent to live with his grandmother, "Mama Jane", on her farm in Marshall County, Mississippi. He was raised in a "dirt poor" environment, it was not uncommon for him to eat dirt because it was believed to have some nutritional value. In his autobiography, he called eating dirt a "staple" of his diet. He recalls being "hungry all the time." His family had no outhouse and no electricity. They used leaves, newspapers, and corncobs for toilet paper and they used twigs off of trees as their toothbrushes. Despite these things, Forman claims to have never questioned his poverty and did not understand it at the time. His Aunt Thelma once caught James reading a shopping catalog in the dark. She, being a school teacher, took an interest in accelerating James' studying and gave him lessons at home. James credits his upbringing for his eventual successes,saying his grandmother gave him a sense for justice while his aunt gave him his "intellectual fire." 
James' first experience with lynching came when a white man showed up on his doorstep, asking for food and asking that they not tell anyone where he was. The next day, news spread that a white man had been lynched although Forman never learned why. When Forman was around the age of six he had his first experience with racial segregation. While visiting an aunt in Tennessee, Forman attempted to buy a Coca-Cola from a local drugstore. He was told that if he wanted to buy one that he would have to drink it in the back and not at the counter. Confused, Forman asked why and was told "Boy, you're a nigger." This was the first time in his life he realized that because of the color of his skin that there were "things [he] could and could not do, and other people had the ‘right’ to tell [him] what [he] could and could not do."
In the summer of 1935, Forman moved to Chicago to live with his mother and step-father. That September he enrolled in St. Anselm's Catholic School, his first official schooling, and was immediately put into the second grade. He adjusted to his new life in Chicago fairly well, when playing with the neighborhood kids he would throw rocks and cans at white pedestrians and threw bricks off of roofs and onto police cars. However, his new school put a lot of pressure on him to convert to Catholicism, with his Protestantism becoming a "great issue" by the 6th grade. Being the only Protestant at an all-Catholic school put James through "great emotional turmoil." He decided to transfer to the local public school, the Betsy Ross Grammar School. He did so well there that he was allowed to skip the first semester of the seventh grade.
From the age of seven onward, James earned a small amount from selling issues of the Chicago Defender. He would often read these papers which helped develop a "strong sense of protest." He read the works of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and was heavily influenced by Du Bois. He called Washington an "apologist" and often quoted Du Bois and his call for advancing blacks through education. He had yet to enter high school but for James the "race issue was on my mind, before my eyes, and in my blood.”
After finishing his primary education, Forman enrolled in Englewood Technical Prep Academy. He started his high school career by taking vocational courses instead of the general, pre-college coursework. This led to a poor performance and eventually a suspension from school. He was sent to a continuation school, Washburne High, he got a job as a paper roller at Cueno Press, and joined a gang known as the "Sixty-first Raiders." His gang activity was very limited in scope and he said he thought using drugs was "a waste of time." Around the age of fourteen James Forman, who had been going under the name of James Rufus, found out that his step-father was not his real father by happening upon his own birth certificate. His real father was a cab driver that Forman coincidentally met and introduced himself to while working at his step-father's gas station.
When Forman returned to high school he returned to general coursework and was an honors student. During school he was influenced by the writings of such figures as Richard Wright and Carl Sandburg. He received ROTC training and the Chicago Tribune Silver and Gold medal for efficiency as a non-commissioned officer, he was a lieutenant upon graduation. He was also the honor student of his graduating class which landed him an interview in the Chicago Tribune. During the interview he said that when he grew up he wanted to become a "humanitarian" and a minister as opposed to a preacher. He graduated high school in January 1947.
Shortly after Forman graduated highschool he was kicked out of his house after an argument with his step-father. He tried to join the United States Army for a two year period but because of a racial quota he had to settle on joining the United States Air Force for a period of three years. Due to the Korean War his stay was extended to four years. Forman would go on to regret this decision and call the armed forces a “dehumanizing machine which destroys thought and creativity in order to preserve the economic system and the political myths of the United States." He met his first wife, Mary, in California two weeks before being shipped off to Okinawa in 1948. They divorced three years later, in 1951. After his discharge the penniless Forman moved to the slums of Oakland. He was eventually able to raise enough money to attend the University of Southern California. During his second semester, after a long night of studying, a police car stopped in front of him. They called him out and said that a robbery had occurred and Forman looked suspicious. Forman denied any wrongdoing but was apprehended anyway. He demanded a phone call and various "rights" but instead was locked up for three days while being beaten and interrogated. This caused him severe trauma and he had to take part in mental therapy.
Forman overcame his trauma and returned to Chicago in 1954. His step-father died that summer and he enrolled at Roosevelt University that fall. He became President of the Student Body at Roosevelt and graduated in three years. Forman then went to graduate school at Boston University where he began to develop the ideas of a successful social movement. He wanted blacks to come together and start a visible movement. He knew the movement had to use nonviolent direct action, students, and it had to be started in the South. He was also against monolithic, charismatic leaders because he wanted whatever was created to not die along with the leader. In 1958 he visited Little Rock, Arkansas because he was tired of being an "armchair revolutionary." He taught in Chicago's public schools and worked with dispossessed tenant farmers in Tennessee before joining SNCC.
In 1961, Forman joined and became the executive secretary of the then newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From 1961 to 1965 Forman, a decade older and more experienced than most of the other members of SNCC, became responsible for providing organizational support to the young, loosely affiliated activists by paying bills, radically expanding the institutional staff and planning the logistics for programs. Under the leadership of Forman and others, SNCC became an important political player at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In an interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Forman laid out many of his ideologies concerning SNCC, commenting that it is "the one movement in this country that has within its spheres of activity room for intellectuals."
In 1964, Forman, expressing his frustration with the gradualist approach of some Civil Rights leaders, made one of his best known quips: "If we can't sit at the table [of democracy], let's knock the fucking legs off!"
During the 1970s and 1980s, Forman completed graduate work at Cornell University in African and African-American Studies and in 1982, he received a Ph.D. from the Union of Experimental Colleges and Universities, in cooperation with the Institute for Policy Studies.
Forman spent the rest of his adult life organizing black and disenfranchised people around issues of progressive economic and social development and equality. He also taught at American University in Washington, D.C. He wrote several books documenting his experiences within the movement and his evolving political philosophy including "Sammy Younge Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement" (1969), "The Making of Black Revolutionaries" (1972 and 1997) and "Self Determination: An Examination of the Question and Its Application to the African American People" (1984).
Forman died on January 10, 2005 of colon cancer, aged 76, at the Washington House, a hospice in Washington, DC.