October 4, 1928 – January 10, 2005
Raised in Chicago, Illinois
Upon arriving at the SNCC office in Atlanta, new volunteers would typically be greeted by James “Jim” Forman. After introductions, he was apt to hand the new recruit a broom, telling them, “Here, man, it’s your day on the broom.” Forman himself could often be found cleaning the office and liked to say that he wouldn’t ask anyone else to do work that he wouldn’t do himself.
As SNCC’s executive secretary between 1961-1966, Forman applied this philosophy and his considerable talents as an administrator to ensure that the SNCC field workers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia were able to do their jobs. With his fellow SNCC office workers in Atlanta, he put in long hours coordinating projects, raising money, and communicating with the media to make sure that SNCC could function where it was needed most. At the same time, he invested great faith in SNCC’s field staff, always making it clear that he believed they could do whatever job they took on.
He was born in Chicago, Illinois but spent much of his childhood in Marshall County, Mississippi at his grandmother’s home, a farmhouse that lacked running water and other basic facilities. He attributed much of his political development to the experience of growing up in the face of grinding rural poverty and Jim Crow.
After a short stint in the military, he earned a BA at Roosevelt University, and in 1960 he returned to Fayette County with CORE to aid in a voter registration drive. Part of his job included transporting donated food from Chicago to Fayette County by car. During this program, he became painfully aware of how difficult organizing was when organizers came in from the outside. The most important lesson he brought into SNCC was a “hands-off” approach to SNCC’s organizing work in the field. Forman was also actively involved in the on-the-ground organizing with NAACP leader Robert Williams and his grassroots organization in Monroe, North Carolina.
Forman recognized that the central office could not direct the day-to-day activities of local movements. “There should be a projection and an organization of indigenous leadership, I mean leadership from the community,” he explained. Local struggles depended on the actions and the engagement with the people on the ground. The job of the administrative office was to help them by communicating their efforts as broadly as possible and by giving them the money and the tools to get the work done. As such, Forman’s constant admonition to SNCC field workers was to “Write it down!” so that he could share their stories. These reports were also necessary for counteracting the local white media, which was likely to portray events differently. Forman argued that while SNCC was small, it could have an enormous impact with just a small number of people on a shoestring budget. “That was the purpose of SNCC,” he argued, “to create tremors in icebergs. And we were succeeding.”
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and Black Awakenings of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).
Faith S. Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).