Jim Forman and the Liberal-Labor Syndrome

Jan. 20, 2005
“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