- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

As the nation prepares to commemorate the contributions of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, the civil rights community mourns the loss of two faded but not forgotten stalwarts: James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and former New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for U.S. president.

Although Mr. Forman and Mrs. Chisholm are not household names, their tireless, heroic work to advance the cause of civil rights in this nation and in the world was no less formidable than those who stood in the spotlight.

Mr. Forman, 76, who had lived in the District since 1981, died Monday after a battle with colon cancer, surrounded by family and friends at the Washington House hospice. Mrs. Chisholm, 80, died in Florida on New Year’s Day.

Mrs. Chisholm’s lasting impact on impressionable young black women, including yours truly, was immeasurable. From this feisty, intelligent role model, we got the idea that a black woman no longer had to stay in her place. Her courageous penchant to “speak truth to power” made an indelible mark on me, and for that encouragement alone, I will be eternally grateful.

Mr. Forman’s personal prodding was no less inspirational. A Chicago native raised in Mississippi, he was a prolific journalist, author and historian, getting his start covering the integration of Little Rock, Ark., schools for the Chicago Defender and eventually publishing a small paper, a different Washington Times, for a brief run.

Whenever I came in contact with him, either standing in the shadows at a rally, handing out leaflets at community events or running into him on the streets of Adams Morgan, this fatherly figure never failed to offer encouragement or say, “Keep up the good work, sister.” By the time I met Mr. Forman in the early 1980s, he was physically half his former self and a much quieter, gentler man, though no less erudite. Others, such as Dorie Ladner, whom he led at SNCC in “freedom rides” and “freedom schools” to organize voters in the South in the ‘60s and to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, remember him as “a robust, very energetic, outspoken man.”

“He was always ushering us into new areas of endeavor … and he was the glue that held us all together,” she said, the person who made it possible for young SNCC workers to go out into the difficult field to do some very difficult work by building an organizational infrastructure. Some of those workers are local notables, including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, writer Charlie Cobb Jr. and community activist Lawrence Guyot.

Mr. Forman’s unmistakable intellect and passion for equality and justice remained vibrant to the end. Last summer, he went to Boston to participate in the District’s “Tea Party” to demonstrate against the nonvoting status of D.C. residents.

Mr. Forman, who penned “The Black Manifesto and “The Making of Black Revolutionaries,” was indeed “fearless,” as Ms. Ladner said. This week, WPFW-FM replayed his memorable speech when he interrupted a 1969 service at New York’s Riverside Church to call for $500 million in reparations for black Americans.

Ms. Ladner said Mr. Forman’s son, Chaka, insisted on playing all sorts of music his father loved, from Diana Ross to gospels, and that his hospice room was “lively” with old friends visiting constantly. She said he took his last breaths listening to the final chorus of “Peace be Still.”

Chaka Forman, a California actor who Ms. Ladner says “has Jim’s spirit,” pledges to catalog his father’s extensive papers to donate to the Library of Congress. James Forman’s eldest son, James Jr., is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a founder of the Maya Angelou Charter School in the District.

“He was always telling us to ‘write it down, we need a record,’” Ms. Ladner said.

Mrs. Norton, along with countless D.C. residents who are members of the tight-knit community of former SNCC workers, also is mourning the passing of her longtime friend.

“James Forman, at the zenith of his powers, was a one-man virtuoso, who brought to bear each and every skill that made it possible for men like him to change America,” Mrs. Norton said. “We were often transient students … but Jim was the stable rock, just as militant, but older, with a level head and a strong, strategic intellect. Jim performed an organizational miracle in holding together a loose band of nonviolent revolutionaries who simply wanted to act together to eliminate racial discrimination and terror. As a result, SNCC had an equal place at the table with all the major civil rights organizations of the 1960s.

“Americans may not know Jim’s name … but if they look around them at the racial change in our country, they will know Jim by his work,” she said.

Although the names of Shirley Chisolm and James Forman are not etched on the minds of Americans as is that of Martin Luther King, we should never forget their considerable contributions to the cause of bringing equality and justice for all.

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