James Forman and the Liberal-Labor Syndrome


“Any revolutionary movement cannot succeed if the power of that movement is not in the hands of the poor.”

— James Forman

Jim Forman died last week at age 76, the same age Martin Luther King Jr. would have been this week if he had not been assassinated. These two allies and rivals in the most dramatic and effective social movement of this country’s last century still have much to teach us. And, although Forman is much less well known, he in particular may have set an example that we need right now.

Every year during this week, the corporate media treats us to a version of King’s life focused on his eloquence, his religiosity, and his work for racial equality. Every year a few progressive voices point out that King opposed imperialistic violence as well as police brutality, and that he struggled to end poverty and injustice that remain with us today. Rarely does anyone mention that King, while accomplishing amazing things that perhaps no one else could have done, was often a moderate, a diplomat, a public face, and a power broker in a movement being pushed in more aggressive directions by people like Jim Forman.

We still have moderates today. Most of them are not as brilliant, as inspiring, or as dedicated as Martin Luther King Jr. And most of them are MORE moderate. But we’ve got thousands of them. What we do not have is the band of brothers and sisters that was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We do not have a group of people effectively setting the nation’s agenda by laying their lives on the line for complete justice now and nothing less. And we are the weaker for it. The right wing has its extremists who make its moderate positions middle-of-the-road. We only have moderates, who must therefore be dismissed as extreme.

In the past week, we have seen many progressive organizations speak out for election reform and voting rights, denouncing the suppression of black votes that was seen in Ohio and other states last November 2nd. This includes hip new online groups like MoveOn and 527s like ACT. But between November 3rd and January 6th, these organizations made no significant contributions to preventing the theft of an election. From the day that Senator John Kerry conceded to the day Congress certified the vote, members of what Jim Forman used to call the liberal-labor syndrome refused to stick their necks out. Even now, they will not suggest that there is any doubt Bush won. This describes the behavior of every international union and of the AFL-CIO, as well as the 527s, MoveOn (which sent a message to the Ohio region prior to a Jan. 3 rally, but nationally focused on Social Security that week), People for the American Way (which released a report on election problems along with a coalition of groups but did not connect it to any effort to stop the certification of the election or any suggestion that Bush did not win), and – of course – the majority of Democratic senators and representatives. Various small groups did act, and Rev. Jesse Jackson became a leading spokesman for those objecting to a stolen election. The coalition cobbled together was surprisingly successful in moving Congress Members and Senators to at least give lip service to the matter. The seeds of something may have been sown. But a mass movement was not organized. Civil disobedience was not used. (One arrest in the U.S. Senate was not reported on and accomplished nothing.)

Why are there no sit-ins today? Why is nobody going to jail for justice? Why is our culture not in upheaval over the injustices of our laws and practices? Surely it is not because we live in a time lacking in injustice. The illegal aggression against Iraq — and the use of napalm and depleted uranium there — cries out for civil unrest while we snooze or study “issue framing” or work on our graduate degrees. The attacks on our civil rights by the Justice Department, the drastic shifting of wealth and power to a tiny corporate elite, the lowering of wages and increasing of work hours, and the virtual elimination of any real right to organize a union – these things scream at us to sacrifice, to lay our lives down as those before us did to make a better world. But we can’t be bothered, we wouldn’t want people to look at us funny. After all, the television tells us things are looking up. And yet the confinement of a whole generation behind bars and under the gaze of a prison industry, the heedless destruction of our environment, and ever-new forms of discrimination – these things leave a bitter taste in our mouths, which we cover with soda or beer. Maybe we sign a petition on a website just to make sure we’re doing our part. Maybe we push a button on a screen to vote for a candidate and count on the computer to count our vote.

Jim Forman did not wait for the Democratic Party to set an agenda. He gave us a model of aggressive and militant action based on principles of equality, social justice, and non-violence. Toward the late sixties he grew more accepting of the idea of violent struggle, and in doing so I believe he was horribly wrong. But what he showed us through the early and mid sixties was aggressive non-violent organizing. He organized, meaning he reached out to people, figured out what they would fight for, inspired them to fight for it, coordinated their work, found the resources to pay them for it, communicated their work to the world, and bailed them out of jail. One of the reasons Forman is not better known is that he actively sought to avoid stardom, and one of the reasons he did so was that he wanted to develop many leaders in a grassroots movement. Many of those he mentored are still leaders today. Several, including Julian Bond whom Forman made his communications person at SNCC, have spoken fondly of Forman in the past week.

Bond has said that, according to the publisher, he is the only professor who teaches a course using Forman’s “The Making of Black Revolutionaries,” a 553-page book that gives a first person account including Forman’s childhood but focusing on his years at SNCC. The book ends in 1969 and was published in 1972. There is probably no better book to read if you have an interest in organizing a social movement. Forman wrote for the sake of educating those who came next. He wrote what worked and what didn’t, where he thinks he went wrong, and where he thinks his friends and colleagues went wrong or betrayed him. All the infighting and rivalries and comically bad blunders that we see in organizations today were right there in SNCC, and there is much to learn from an account of them. SNCC did not accomplish what it did because it was free of problems, but because it was a movement. What we have today are merely organizations or ethical careers and hobbies, and that goes for the “labor movement” too – it’s not a movement. If it wants to become one between now and the AFL-CIO’s 50th Anniversary Convention this July in Chicago, it would do well to study the making of black revolutionaries.

The labor movement has improved in some ways since the days in which Walter Reuther was a force against which the Civil Rights movement had to push, the days when labor leaders viewed Jim Forman as a communist, something far worse than a racist. On Labor Day weekend 1967, Forman addressed the National Conference for a New Politics convention in Chicago. In the middle of this speech, he said:

“There are more than 15,000 American white Nationals in South Africa and millions of U.S. dollars invested in plants there. Walter Reuther is supposed to have said that the goose gets fatter no matter how much they cut off. The weakness in his analysis is that he fails to realize that General Motors and most other monopoly concerns in the United States are getting fat on the lives of black people in Africa and all over the world. For him and other so-called union leaders to attack the problem of more wages for some but not all American workers, and to participate in the slaughter and murder of our people in South Africa, is in fact for them to make themselves enemies of the people..”

Forman’s criticism of Reuther (as well as the decline of the labor movement!) had begun at least as early as the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and he credited his learning experience there with the aggressive position he took at the 1964 convention. In 1956 the newly formed Leadership Conference on Civil Rights wanted to get a strong civil rights plank into the platform and thought they could do so if it were brought to a vote on the floor. Reuther said that labor delegates would make enough noise to demand a roll-call vote on the resolution. But they did not. There was nothing but silence, and the platform was approved with a weak position on civil rights, but without a fight over a tough civil rights stance.

“I thought,” wrote Forman, “of the trick that had been played on the blacks across the country who could not see what I saw or hear what I heard. What a fake the entire platform hearings must be, I thought. They probably had the resolution already written in the National Committee meeting. They had the hearings only as a pretense of democratic procedure, to let people talk. I learned and I remembered.”

In 1964, when African-Americans from Mississippi sent their own delegation to the DNC in Atlantic City, various leaders spoke to them and urged them to back down and agree to recognize the party’s official delegates, who had been elected in a process that excluded blacks. Those urging this compromise, which would have given the blacks two seats, included Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches; Bayard Rustin, the great organizer of the March on Washington; Joseph Rauh, general council for the UAW, whom Reuther had threatened to fire if there was a floor fight; and King. But Bob Moses and Forman, both of SNCC, urged the delegates to stand firm. And they did so.

“Five years of struggle,” Forman later wrote, “had radically changed the thought processes of many people, changed them from idealistic reformers to fulltime revolutionaries. And the change had come through direct experience.” And in the next four years, blacks in Mississippi substantially gained the right to vote. At the convention of the NAACP in 1966, by which time Forman and others had started shouting “Black Power!”, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced his support for racial integration, the first time a president or vice president had straightforwardly done so.

But did we learn anything? The DNC platform committee meeting in 2004, chaired by a black woman, strung anti-war activists along for days before tossing them a half an incoherent sentence in the platform. And they accepted it. And anti-war delegates at the convention in Boston kept their mouths shut. Their candidate lost, and the war continues. Did we learn anything? Should we not, sometimes, borrow an acronym from the right and ask WWJD, but use the J for Jim?

What Forman learned is encapsulated in the quote at the top of this article. Assistance from the wealthy and powerful is all well and good, but it cannot be counted on. It will not spread into a movement. It will not hold fast when the going gets rough. A poor people’s movement must be controlled by poor people. This lesson was taught by Gandhi and others, and it is a lesson that community organizations like ACORN attempt to build on. But we are back in the 1950s now in terms of the work that it takes to build a movement. Our 1960s will not come until the 2010s, and won’t come even then if we don’t demand it now and organize for it now and dedicate our lives to it now.

Demand what? The right to vote, the right to health care, the right to publicly funded elections, the right to a living wage, the right to organize a union, the right to democratic media, and the right to trade and environmental policies created of, by, and for the people.

We’re up against a well-funded and trained opposition. And we’re up against an even less democratic media than existed in the 1960s. Forman understood the power of the press. He had been a reporter for the Chicago Defender. He became the press agent for SNCC. When news was not covered locally, he would arrange for a friendly subscriber to the AP or UPI wire service to request a story. And he understood the need to produce your own media. He brought on Julian Bond to publish a newsletter, and he insisted on having the news reported from everywhere SNCC worked. Forman endlessly demanded that his staff document their work. In his own words:

“I felt very strongly about the importance of field staff sending in frequent and detailed reports on their activities – so strongly that at one point, we in the Atlanta office took the position of ‘no field report, no subsistence check.’ The point was not to burden the already overworked field secretaries with another task but to strengthen our network of communications.”

Forman smuggled out of the South film of a police dog attacking, and he surprised people when, in the middle of delivering an outraged response to a sudden injustice, he could simultaneously make sure that press photographers were able to get a good picture, not of him, but of the scene. He knew the value of mass communications. His speeches included recommendations to copy the transcript and publish it in local newsletters. He was an incessant organizer. And in 1969, among the expenses for which he and others demanded money in “The Black Manifesto” were: “four major publishing and printing enterprises for black people,” and “four television networks to provide an alternative to racist and capitalistic propaganda.”

But if Forman understood the media so well, why isn’t he better known today? Why did coverage of his death appear as nothing beside the sanctification of Ronald Reagan on all channels all the time? One reason may be that we have been losing the battle for better media all these years. Another important reason is simply that he was not killed. He might be as well known as Malcolm X today, if not King, had he been assassinated. In addition, as noted above, he tried not to become the focus.

But there are a number of other reasons, I think, that Forman is not better known. One reason is that he did not often compromise with those in power, nor did he compromise his rhetoric. He spoke against capitalism and for revolution. He did not always speak strictly for nonviolence. He shouted for Black Power, not only for integration. And he was impolite. At a United Nations Conference in Africa in the summer of 1967, as Newark and Detroit exploded, he read remarks prepared by himself and others in SNCC, which included:

“Our brothers and sisters are dying in the streets of the United States as we utter these words. They are engaged in rebellions and revolts against white people who have denied them their liberty and exploited our labor for centuries. Yet the United States representatives sit at this conference and talk about freedom blowing in the wind. There is indeed something blowing in the wind, Mr. Chairman. It is blowing all over the world and it is a determination by the oppressed black, brown, and colored people who form a world majority that the day of the white man exploiting all of us is over.”

Forman’s impoliteness extended to outspoken opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. In 1969 he carried impoliteness so far as to disrupt a service at Riverside Church in New York to demand that white churches pay $500 million in reparations to African-Americans. If the movement for reparations ever succeeds, Forman may be honored as one of its pioneers. Until then, he’s known – where he’s known at all – as someone who pushed for a change that has not yet come (and must therefore be ridiculed or attacked). We forget how many things he pushed for that are now taken for granted.

In addition, Forman did not appeal to Americans’ religiosity. “This God was supposed to be just,” he wrote of his early thinking about religion, “yet we black people had to pray and pray and hope that justice would come to us one day. This seemed too slow to me. The myth of whites getting their just deserts in hell while we finally got rewarded in heaven was responsible for much of the apathy of black people, I thought.”

And later: “When a people who are poor, suffering with disease and sickness, accept the fact that God has ordained for them to be this way – then they will never do anything about their human condition. In other words, the belief in a supreme being or God weakens the will of a people to change conditions themselves.”

That’s not the kind of talk that will endear you to religious Americans. But I believe it is correct and of immense importance. And I believe more people know it than have the strength of character to say it out loud.

Forman did not have all the answers, and he faults himself plenty even in his own reporting on events of the 60s. But he never lacked the nerve to speak the ugly truth. And because he didn’t, others were able to face it and to believe they could change it. That he developed leaders rather than acting as a public face for the movement should allow us to recognize him as a great leader indeed. The things he fought for and the words he spoke are part of our culture now. When we say “One Man, One Vote” or “One Person, One Vote,” we are quoting Jim Forman. When we talk of an Ohio Freedom Winter or an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, we are echoing the work Forman did putting organizers across the South and black and white activists, himself included, on buses in the face of beatings.

But, like ancient customs that pretend to reenact once deadly rituals, our activism has become in many ways a charade. We imitate the great ones, even as we forget them. We ride buses around the country and give our bus rides grand titles, when the problems we face have nothing whatsoever to do with the freedom to ride buses.

We must return to the place of “The Making of Black Revolutionaries” and recognize that SNCC was a small group of activists, just like we are, but that their dedication built a massive movement. Jim Forman died last month a man who had made this world a better place. May his example live on.

This article originally appeared on the Black Commentator.

DAVID SWANSON is Media Coordinator for The International Labor Communications Association. He can be reached at: dswanson@aflcio.org

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was awarded the 2018 Peace Prize by the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation. Longer bio and photos and videos here. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook, and sign up for: