Interview with James Forman
Interview with James Forman


Production Team: C

Interview Date: December 11, 1985
Interview Place: New York, New York
Camera Rolls: 589-593
Sound Rolls: 1539-1540

Interview gathered as part of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with James Forman, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 11, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.

INTERVIEW
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

CAMERA ROLL 589, INTERVIEW WITH JAMES FORMAN. REFERENCE TONE.

QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

OK, WHY DONT YOU TELL ME A MIN—THAT IS INTERESTING TO ME THAT UM THE LEADERSHIP FELT THAT SNCC'S INVOLVEMENT WOULD PRELIM ROY WILKINS, CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THAT?

James Forman:

Well, yes when the uh, Bay Rustin first conceived a march on Washington he asked John Lewis and myself to a meeting and we met with him and A. Philip Randolph and he wanted to wake sure that we were in agreement with the proposed march on Washington and we certainly, we certainly were and based upon that meeting a, we then went and talked to Roy Wilkins along with some other people to make sure that he would also agree and he did agree uh, and then was taken to the civil rights leadership conference and they agreed on the uh concept of the march on Washington and then it began to involve other people including some of the religious leaders.

QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

JOHN LEWIS'S SPEECH. UM, WHAT DID HE WRITE AND WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT SPEECH?

James Forman:

Well, the, there were two speeches actually. We, we prepared a speech in, in Atlanta um, for him to deliver and you know on, in the march on Washington, we all worked on the speech and then, then we got to Washington DC apparently there was, there was a meeting the night before the march and some of the people were objecting to some of the uh, various statements in the speech and the next morning just before the uh march on Washington, this discussion was still going on and some, I think it was basically it was the catholic bishop that objected mainly to we cannot support wholeheartedly was the first phrase that was uh, um, in contention. And so after discussion, you know I mean we felt that it was, that it would not be very much to say, we support with reservations uh, because I really now, I didn't think that it frankly made that much difference between saying we support wholeheartedly or we support with reservations, but there you know we did rewrite the speech, there's no question about that, I mean but, and that you know we submitted the speech, but we felt that the speech was much stronger you know after the rewriting process and that it was really of course, in the words you know and that there were no substantive compromises or anything like that that we made with regard to the speech, um but you know the, the uh, I guess perhaps you know semantics is a very, very interesting subject and the different people, different words mean different things to different people and so perhaps some of the alterations that we made, you know uh, meant more to some people than they meant to us. I mean, but to us it was a stronger you know. There was no, there were no compromises.

QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

TELL ME THE STORY OF, UH, REWRITING THAT SPEECH, BECAUSE THIS WAS DONE SORT OF UNDER THE GUN, I MEAN THE CEREMONIES WERE GOING ON AND WE HAVE A PICTURE OF YOU BEING VERY INVOLVED BUSILY REWRITING…

James Forman:

Right, well we, you know the rewriting took place at the uh Lincoln Memorial, and you know the and it was done out of a spirit of unity, you know, we wanted the March on Washington to go forward, and we wanted you know the SNCC's participation to be very visible and we certainly weren't interested in withdrawing from the March on Washington.** And when we were trying to resolve these conflicts, these differences I mean they mainly were coming from the um the Roman Catholic uh, participation, I think, I don't recall the name you know of the uh Roman Catholic representative at that particular time. So you know, we asked them to explain what were their objections to the speech, you know and then decide that we, those, those things could be met. You know and so the three of us John Lewis, Courtland Cox and myself, you know, we huddled and sat together and** um, and I was mainly the person responsible for redrafting the speech which I did, and I certainly don't think that there were any compromises. As far as I'm concerned the speech was much stronger you know in the, in the redrafting of it and it was done out of a spirit of unity, you know to try to make sure that, that we had the cooperation of the Roman Catholic church I mean, they were the ones as I understand it who was threatening that well if the speech was not changed, we would leave. You know, but these were processes of negotiations, I mean that's not, you know we didn't see it as anything major.

QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

I WANT YOU TO GIVE ME A LITTLE MORE OF THE COLOR OF REWRITING THAT SPEECH, I MEAN WE SEE THAT PICTURE AND BECAUSE THE CROWD'S OUT HERE, PEOPLE ARE AT THE PODIUM, I MEAN YOU'RE BACK THERE LOOKING LIKE YOU'RE SWEATING, I MEAN I'D LIKE TO KNOW I MEAN WERE YOU SITTING THERE AND COURTLAND COX SAID NO MAN TAKE THAT OUT OR YOU KNOW GIVE ME A LITTLE BIT MORE OF WHAT, WHAT ACTUALLY THAT WAS…

James Forman:

Well OK then, in order to understand that you have to understand that John Lewis was elected as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963. And the March on Washington was the first major event in which he participated as a chairperson and that he wanted me to speak at the March on Washington as the Executive Secretary and I felt that he should speak as the new chairperson. I mean he had just been elected as a part of the uh, Nashville student movement and we were attempting to try to project Southern young black leadership in the organization and so we felt that you know, that he should be the one, who should, you know, accept the invitation and give the speech, and that was something that he and I worked out together which was legitimate and uh, so when we got to Washington he along with some of the other civil rights leaders um, had a meeting with the President, so they went off to see the President and the rest of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were assembling here in Washington and we were participating in a very orderly fashion, that's why I don't, I don't agree with anyone's uh statement that we had plans to come to Washington to disrupt Washington and not to participate because we were a very integral part of the March on Washington, and very much involved in its planning. And John Lewis participated as a chairperson in many, many planning meetings, but anyway on this particular day he was uh, uh, meeting with President Kennedy along with other leaders and so when we got to the March on Washington, um, we got to the Lincoln Memorial, I mean I was told that there had been a lot of trouble that the you know some people were objecting to John, you know delivering his speech. Now it's important to understand that there were sort of like two approaches to the March on Washington, there was the official approach you know of negotiations that John was, in which he was involved and then there was the official approach of the organization, that we didn't want the March on Washington to, to uh, in any way kill the student protests and the protests of community organizations. And so we felt that during the summer of ‘63 it was necessary to intensify the local protests and… I'm sorry.

QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

WE'LL STOP YOU, BECAUSE YOU'RE HEADING TOWARD IT BUT… I REALLY WANT, FOR A PERSON WHO HAS NO IDEA… WOULD YOU STOP? I'M SORRY.

James Forman:

Well, the representatives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were attempting to make the march work. We wanted to make sure that no one left the march, especially the uh, Roman Catholic representatives. We wanted to try to meet whatever objections that they had to the speech. And as we were attempting to do this, A. Philip Randolph was there, I mean for instance someone to give you, uh, uh, someone objected to say, he has in his speech, he has the word masses and revolutions so A. Philip Randolph said there's nothing wrong with those two words, I mean he does not have to you know, those words don't have to be changed, because I used them myself. Now we didn't feel in any way, intimidated. I mean we, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee always operated from a position of strength. And we you know we always felt very secure about what we were doing and we knew we were right so that we didn't in any way uh feel that uh you know we were being compromised or anything uh, uh or that we were under the gun or we had to do this. Now one of the things that we know happened is that the speech had already been released to the press galley, I mean uh and so that the um, that these distortions, I mean you know a lot of people, lot of people you know talked about how we had to change these things, but these things were not, I mean they were not that, I mean they were not great changes to us… I mean like you know it really, you know was a question of unity for us and that and what we changed we felt that the speech was stronger, and I'm very serious about that, we felt that the speech was much stronger after meeting the objections and its rewriting.

QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

OK. CAN WE STOP NOW?

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

OK, THAT WAS A ROLLOUT. WE'RE CHANGING TO CAMERA ROLL 590.

QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

WE'RE UM, ASKING SOME SELMA QUESTIONS NOW.

James Forman:

OK.

QUESTION 8
INTERVIEWER:

WHY DID SNCC GO TO SELMA IN 1963?

James Forman:

We went to Selma in 1963 because Selma, working in Selma, uh, which is the capital of, of, uh Lowndes county, I mean um, um, Dallas county, was a part of our original plan to work in the black belt areas of the deep South. We had decided that voter registration in the rural black belt counties was very important because of the enormous amount of power that the counties had in the, in, in politics in the United States. And we were working in Albany, Georgia and we opened up a base in Selma, Alabama.

QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

NOW PRIOR, BETWEEN 63 AND 65, PRIOR TO 65, WE'RE GOING TO MOVE TO SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THAT IN A MINUTE, WHAT WAS THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DOING OR NOT DOING TO ADDRESS VOTER REGISTRATION FOR BLACKS UM, IN DALLAS COUNTY, IN ALABAMA, LETS PUT IT THAT WAY?

James Forman:

Well, in Alabama the Federal Government didn't have any program hardly at all in terms of voter registration. Unlike say, like in Mississippi, where there was some attention of the Federal Government to voter registration programs. And when we went into uh, Selma, Alabama um, we didn't uh uh hardly have any uh, um, backup support but we you know that support began to uh come more after two or three years of work, and that we had a tremendous struggle with the Federal Government uh, especially with the Federal Bureau of Investigation about protection of people who were attempting to register to vote.

QUESTION 10
INTERVIEWER:

WHAT ABOUT LAWSUITS THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAD FILED? WERE THESE IN ANY WAY EFFECTIVE IN UH MOVING ANYTHING ALONG TO REDUCE THE DISCRIMINATION, AGAINST BLACKS WHO WERE TRYING TO VOTE, REGISTER TO VOTE?

James Forman:

Well, yes. The Selma to Montgomery march has a person whose name is John Doar um, who was one of the key people for the federal government in prosecuting uh um voting rights suits throughout the south. I had met him uh in uh, I knew of him in Fayette county and I'd met some people on his team, or met a person on his team and that he came up to me at the Selma and the Montgomery march and he said, well Jim I know you must be feeling very bad so I said well why. He said because uh the uh fifth circuit court of appeals is about to hand down all of these court decisions uh which are going to make a tremendous difference in voting you know throughout the south and in Selma. And this is your work I said and see here Dr. King is getting all the credit. I said well don't worry about that I mean you know we never worry about credit. The main thing is to have the fifth circuit court of appeals to hand down the decisions. So well I just want to say that to you because I know how hard you've been working here in Alabama.

QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

LET MET BACK UP, THAT'S VERY INTERESTING AND I'M, AND I'M HAPPY FOR THAT RESPONSE. PRE ‘65 THE LAWSUITS THAT WERE, THAT WERE UM GOING ON FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT? WERE THEY DOING ANYTHING?

James Forman:

Well, they weren't, they hadn't been decided. I mean we were laying a trap, I mean, I mean we were very conscious about what we were doing in Selma, Alabama, we knew when we went on the federal courthouse, with signs saying register to vote and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation wouldn't protect us that this was further ammunition for a suit, to make sure that people got their rights, because the federal law said that anybody who was registering to vote, or somebody who was assisting someone to register to vote, should have or had to have the protection of the federal government so we were trying to get the government to enforce that. And in order to do that we had you know it took about two or three years, and so the fifth circuit court of appeals handed down a lot of injunctions saying that the government had to enforce you know the civil rights laws and that, that began to open up voting all throughout the south. And part of it of course you know you have to give credit to the Selma to Montgomery march which we participated in but a lot of it was this back up these federal suits that were in preparation for some 2 or 3 years.

QUESTION 12
INTERVIEWER:

NOW YOU MENTIONED CREDIT IN YOUR, IN YOUR RESPONSE. SNCC HAD BEEN THERE SINCE 1963. IN 1965 WHEN SCLC WAS CALLED IN, WHAT'D YOU THINK ABOUT THAT, HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?

James Forman:

Well, the uh, I mean we were you know, you have to, we didn't, we didn't, we didn't object, I mean we had many, many discussions with SCLC but…

QUESTION 13
INTERVIEWER:

I WANT TO STOP YOU RIGHT THERE AND ASK YOU AND TELL YOU—TELL ME WHAT YOU DIDN'T OBJECT TO. REMEMBER NOBODY WOULD HEAR MY QUESTION.

James Forman:

Oh, I see, OK. Well, when the uh, uh, mass marches began in 1965 we were not in opposition, you know, to uh, to their efforts. We didn't, we didn't think that they were necessary but we participated. John Lewis and uh was…

QUESTION 14
INTERVIEWER:

I'M GOING TO STOP YOU AGAIN BECAUSE NOBODY KNOWS WHOSE EFFORTS.

James Forman:

Oh, OK.

QUESTION 15
INTERVIEWER:

OK, IT'S GOING TO BE GREAT THIS TIME! OK, ALL RIGHT.

James Forman:

Ok. When the uh, uh, uh, the Selma, when the marches started in Selma, I mean the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee obviously didn't have any objections; because our chairperson was also participating in that. On the other hand the Selma to Montgomery march, you know crystallized many, many differences between the two organizations even though we worked together. I mean that a lot of the tensions came to a head you know in the uh uh, in the Selma to Montgomery march. Um, I mean for instance uh, um, after the beating at the Pettus bridge, you know we went to a meeting in um, in Montgomery where Dr. King had, was said that Judge Johnson had offered a compromise that if we would call off the march from Montgomery to uh, from Selma to Montgomery that he would hand down an injunction. And you know, it was felt that the uh injunction uh, you know should be accepted. Now people were in in in Montgomery, I mean in Selma at the church and so Dr. King indicated that we would continue to march. I talk about some of this in my book on Sammy Young. I mean there's a whole written business, a big section on it, And that's a very important part of the history in actions. And so we felt that, that, that that the march should go on and that Dr. King should, SNCC, I mean the SNCC representatives should say to the, to the, to the justice department, and to Judge Johnson, that the demonstrations were gonna go forward. And we struggled with him for about four or five hours and he finally conceded you know about 5 o'clock in the morning that the uh march would continue.

QUESTION 16
INTERVIEWER:

NOW WHEN YOU SAY THE MARCH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT…

James Forman:

The Selma to Montgomery march.

QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

BUT YOU MENTIONED AFTER THE BEATINGS, SO YOU'RE TALKING MARCH 7, BLOODY SUNDAY. I JUST HAVE TO BE VERY CLEAR.

James Forman:

This was after the bloody Sunday, after the Pettus, uh, uh, after the beatings at the Pettus bridge.

QUESTION 18
INTERVIEWER:

OK, SO WHAT WE'RE REALLY TALKING ABOUT IS TURNAROUND TUESDAY THEN?

James Forman:

Right.

QUESTION 19
INTERVIEWER:

OK. LET ME ASK YOU SPECIFICALLY ABOUT TURNAROUND TUESDAY, IT SEEMS TO ME THAT YOU WERE DISTRESSED UM, ABOUT HIS DECISION TO TURN AROUND, TO NOT GO FORWARD, GO ALL THE WAY TO MONTGOMERY?

James Forman:

Well, there were a lot of other decisions before turn around. I mean there was, there was uh, the meeting of Monday night, which I talk about in my book on Sammy Young. Where…

QUESTION 20
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME JUST SAY, SEE NOBODY'S GOING TO KNOW ABOUT THIS BOOK, OK?

James Forman:

OK, there was a meeting on Monday night prior to turnaround Tuesday, where we had been informed that the uh, Judge Johnson had offered a compromise that if we, if the march didn't proceed from Selma to Montgomery, that he would issue an injunction and that when we, so we traveled from Montgomery back to Selma, before turnaround Tuesday, this is all Monday night OK? The announcement was made to the people in the audience that the march, that Tuesday would go forward, all right. But some of us also knew that Dr. King had told, I mean Judge Johnson, that he was gonna call off the march. So we had a meeting from about 11 o'clock to 5 o'clock that morning where we were trying to lay out to him the necessity to keep his word to the people that the march would go forward and it would not be called off.** And so about 5 o'clock he called the Attorney General, I think it was Robert Kennedy and said that you know that they were gonna go forward with the march, you know that, that turnaround Tuesday. And that occurred, I mean we had this march' and then we got, we marched across the Pettus bridge and then, uh, you know, the people came back across the bridge.

QUESTION 21
INTERVIEWER:

SO YOU HAD URGED HIM TO DO IT, BUT YOU DID NOT KNOW HE WAS GOING TO TURN AROUND UNTIL HE TURNED AROUND?

James Forman:

No, we didn't know that, we didn't know anything about the decision that that once across the Pettus bridge, the march would be turned around. We didn't know that.

QUESTION 22
INTERVIEWER:

WHEN THAT HAPPENED AND YOU REALIZED THAT HE'D AGREED TO A COMPROMISE WITH LEROY COLLINS, HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?

James Forman:

Well, we didn't, we didn't like it, I mean but it was uh, uh, you know, it was all right, I mean it might have been the best thing under the circumstances because it was, it was a very very difficult scene. I mean you had Sheriff Jim Clark, you know with tremendous uh amount of armed forces, or hostile forces and so forth. I mean we, we did cross the bridge, and we continued, but in that you had no, it was very little help. You know, I think we would have won out, but it very well may have been the best thing in retrospect, I mean because it was a very difficult scene. Um, yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION 23
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU HOW YOU FELT ABOUT KING'S AND HIS LEADERSHIP AFTER THAT?

James Forman:

Well, I mean I have a lot of respect for Dr. King, OK, and I even have a great deal, I have more respect you know now that you know he's one of the long lines of assassinated black leaders, and that I always had respect for him during the course of the struggle. We had differences, but we constantly worked those out, and we had a lot a lot of differences, but we attempted to constantly talk to him and you know most of the, the negotiations and discussions with Dr. King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee are not recorded and you know and they've never been basically revealed. But we didn't agree you know, with the uh uh certain things about the Selma march. But I said we had a meeting with him from 11 o'clock at night to 5 o'clock in the morning. You know, trying to lay out the benefits of continuing with the march on that turnaround Tuesday.

QUESTION 24
INTERVIEWER:

DID YOU FEEL HE WAS UH, BEING WEAK OR NOT HONEST OR WHATEVER AF—AFTER THAT, AFTER THAT DECISION WHEN HE TURNED THE GROUP AROUND AND YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT AND A LOT OF PEOPLE DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT.

James Forman:

Well, Dr. King was very upset with us, I mean because he knew that, that we didn't you know, we felt that the march should go forward. I mean but the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attempted to block uh the double cross if you may use the term. I mean we attempted to always try to make sure that we knew that people would sell you out and that different things wouldn't go your way.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

OK THAT WAS A ROLLOUT ON CAMERA ROLL 590 GOING TO 591.

James Forman:

The uh, um, Dr. King you know, was rather upset, you know with uh, um, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and it probably could have been because you know that he uh um… you know that he went ahead with the march, I'm not sure. But I mean we supported, I mean Dr. King broke with the federal government. I mean this is a thing that you have to understand that with the decision to cross the uh, Pettus bridge, the day that you call Turnaround Tuesday, I mean that there were some very positive things about this, I mean like one he called the Attorney General and said that the people are insisting that I march, OK, and that I'm, I plan to march, and we wanted to support him in that decision because we felt that this was a very important move that he was making that that he was not prepared to, to let any injunction you know stop him or other people you know from participating. And so, uh, you know we felt that he needed you know support. You know in that particular action and we attempted to try to mobilize people you know to to to march across the Pettus Bridge. On the other hand, I mean I think that it's important to understand that that you know, we in in demonstrations, OK, and in public actions, you know a lot of time people won't do what they say that they're gonna do, and so you always have to prepare people and you have to be prepared you know uh… for some, for activity like this. Um, but, you know we didn't, I mean I didn't lose any uh, uh confidence necessarily in Dr. King I mean because we've had these struggles, because, and to illustrate I'd like to give you a little story, OK, I mean, I mean like Dr., or Whitney Young came from the White House and Lyndon B. Johnson uh, asked him to meet with Dr. King and myself and ask him Whitney was asking us for, see, see Lyndon B. Johnson wants to know if we will support him on the Vietnam War, and so we, we pointed out to him that where we felt that he should not continue uh doing what he's doing in Viet—what he was doing in Vietnam. So he said well Lyndon is saying that, that he was with us on civil rights and we should be with him on Vietnam and so we had a long discussion. So I had a lot of respect for Dr. King, I mean but remember his position on Vietnam, and I remember uh, I mean it took a long time because we were constantly trying to educate him and work with him to take a position against the Vietnam War.

QUESTION 25
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME BACK YOU UP TO BLOODY SUNDAY, SNCC DECIDED NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN THAT MARCH, AND JOHN LEWIS DECIDED HE WAS GOING TO ANYWAY.

James Forman:

Well, I don't know if it was like that. But may—maybe it was, I mean, is that how, what, what have you heard, I mean there's a lot—I'm not sure in this interview what, what, what is…

QUESTION 26
INTERVIEWER:

OK LET ME STOP FOR A MINUTE JOHN. OK, GO RIGHT AHEAD.

James Forman:

Well, the uh, we disagreed with the, the character of the demonstrations uh, uh, in Selma, and we disagreed privately with the dally confrontation with the state troopers headed by Al Lingo because we had been up against Al Lingo many, many times before and that this man was extremely brutal in his command to the state troopers of Alabama, I mean that they had cattle prodders being used against people you know, I mean up in Anniston, Alabama this had occurred. And that uh uh we had even some people from Hollywood who came to try to help us out; Marlon Brando, and a couple of other people to try to help us with the state troopers, you know of, of Al Lingo, you know who were brutally uh, uh putting these cattle prodders on individuals. So we felt that there should be some way to break the impasse between the state troopers lining up and saying you can't come any further, and at the same time we had been doing some local organizing at Tuskegee and there were 700 students who wanted to uh participate so we decided to meet the students at Montgomery and to have demonstrations in Montgomery rather than you know to further reinforce a kind of a positional confrontation between the local citizens and the state troopers, uh, and there were you know there were these barricades you know and the state troopers saying you know you can't go, you know you can't cross these barricades, and we didn't feel that that we should participate in that any longer and that's when we began to go to Montgomery and have demonstrations.

QUESTION 27
INTERVIEWER:

NOW WE HAVE SEEN SOME ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF THE VIOLENCE VISITED ON THE DEMONSTRATIONS THAT, THAT TOOK PLACE IN MONTGOMERY, AND THEY SEEM TO BE MUCH WORSE THAN WHAT HAPPENED AT BLOODY SUNDAY, AND I'M WONDERING WHY YOU THINK IT DIDN'T RECEIVE THE KIND OF MEDIA ATTENTION OR ANY OTHER AMOUNT OF ATTENTION THAT BLOODY SUNDAY ATTRACTED?

James Forman:

Well, I'm not sure about that but the uh uh, you know it, Montgomery was a very, very uh difficult situation and that um it could very well be that, that you know the media decided not to play that up but, um, but I think the demonstrations in Montgomery were very very victorious, you know that that um um and it you know again showed to kind of like for the brutality but you know it led to a lot of changes.

QUESTION 28
INTERVIEWER:

UM, WHERE WERE…

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

OK THIS IS THE END OF SOUND ROLL 1539, GOING NEW YORK CITY, 11 DECEMBER, 1985, TEAM C, EYES ON THE PRIZE, SOUND ROLL 1540, CAMERA ROLL 591. INTERVIEW WITH JAMES FORMAN. REFERENCE TONE

QUESTION 29
INTERVIEWER:

OK.

James Forman:

Well, the, the basic disagreement that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was over the question of leadership. And we felt that there should be a projection and an organization of indigenous leadership, I mean leadership from the community, whereas the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took the position that Martin was a charismatic leader who was mainly responsible for, for raising money, and they raised most of the money off of his leadership. But this differences in leadership then led to differences in style or work.** In Albany, Georgia for instances we went in with the express purpose of developing a people's movement, an indigenous people's movement and we did that. And that at the time of the uh uh ride from Atlanta to Albany uh, that everything was in place for this type of projection including press, press from all over the United States was already in place in in in Albany, Georgia, and that as a result of the demonstrations, then Dr. King, who heard about them, felt that he should come in as the charismatic leader, and that there were some even tensions, but I mean people wanted that to happen and so you know we agreed to it. But at the same time, oh, well this, this difference in the leadership carried over into Birmingham and it also carried over into Selma.

QUESTION 30
INTERVIEWER:

TELL ME HOW IT CARRIED OVER INTO SELMA.

James Forman:

Well, because we, you know we went into Selma in 1963 and the way that it carried over into Selma was that Dr. King was asked or it was my understanding you know that that to, to, to participate to try to strengthen the ‘64 Civil Rights Act, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was already, had already decided as a, to hand down a lot of injunctions, you know which would strengthen the ‘65, ‘64 Civil Rights Act. And the key thing that I'm talking about is the literacy requirements. The United States Justice Department wanted a provision that would have some degree of literacy requirements, and in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee we objected to that. We felt that all of these literacy requirements were unconstitutional, unnecessary and that people should just present themselves and once they present themselves, they should be able to vote. Now the conditions for that, I mean of course were certainly heightened by a result of the Selma march, but, but mind you that the differences occurred I mean like uh, the Monday before Bloody Tuesday, uh, when we met with Dr. King in Montgomery, um, and discussed the proposal of Judge Johnson that an injunction would be handed down if we called off the march. And we voted against that. We voted that the march should continue and then when we got to Selma of course, Dr. King said to the people that the march would continue. Well, I mean we, you know, even though we knew that he had agreed to this injunction, so we felt that the thing to do then was to have a meeting with him and to try to get him to be consistent, to keep the march going, I mean the march on Turnaround Tuesday, you know, and not to say to people, that, that the march wouldn't continue.

QUESTION 31
INTERVIEWER:

GO BACK TO WHEN… SELMA WHEN YOU'RE THERE AND SCLC COMES IN AND GIVE ME IN SELMA, GENERICALLY HOW THE DIFFERENCES IN LEADERSHIP UM, UH CAUSED CONFLICT, OR, OR JUST DESCRIBE FOR ME WHAT THE DIFFERENCES IN LEADERSHIP WERE. TRYING TO GET AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SELMA…

James Forman:

Well, I recall definitely a meeting with Dr. King. A lot of us had meetings, and we kept explaining to him the necessity to try to develop this indigenous leadership and we also tried to explain to him the danger, OK, the real danger in trying to project a charismatic leader as the leader of the movement because of a possible assassination. I mean that, this is still a very, that in 1965 conditions were very difficult and that the uh uh uh um people were being, still being killed. You know and if you didn't have broad based movement, the assassination of a leader could lead to a decapitation or a reduction of the movement and we didn't want that, I mean we had, you know we wanted you know a movement that would survive the loss of our lives. And then therefore then, the uh uh, the necessity to build a broad based movement, and not just a charismatic leader.**

QUESTION 32
INTERVIEWER:

[unintelligible]

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

OK THAT'S A ROLLOUT ON 591, WE'RE GOING TO CAMERA ROLL 592.

QUESTION 33
INTERVIEWER:

I'M GOING TO LET YOU PICK RIGHT UP.

James Forman:

Well, in Selma, Alabama, the differences with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference did become acute. And these differences revolved around the nature of the cooperation with the federal government, um, the um, the style of leadership as well as the the the forms of protest, ok. Now, we had been trying to, excuse me, to get people throughout the South not to have a lot of confidence, you know, that the federal government was going, not that the state governments I mean were going to say to them, we, we were operating on two, two levels, I think that to try to make it clear. That inside the states uh, we felt that federal government should be utilized to break the power of the reactionary racist state governments, because people were living in a climate of fear on the, uh, on the, uh, from the state governors and sheriffs and so forth. And that we had to have some fire to break this grip of fear and this torture and terror which it was inflicted throughout the South. And we felt that the federal government was the agency by which to do that. We were fighting for a strong central federal government OK, and we were successful in that. However, we did not agree that people should collaborate and and and cooperate to the detriment of the long range interests of the people and we felt that by agreeing to injunctions, you know, on the part of the federal government or by not fighting those as it happened in in in Albany, Georgia, I mean we explained to Dr. King that, that when the, when the federal courts were handing down injunctions, that those injunctions should be fought. OK, so consequently we did not feel that that that there should be any types of deals worked out with the Justice Department or so forth that you should take, find out what's the principle and fight for the principle. And so therefore then in Selma, Alabama when he was agreeing to various things we were rejecting that but when he picked up the phone at 5 o'clock in the morning and called the United States Justice Department and said I have to go against the injunction, you know we felt that that was a tremendous victory, and that he should be supported, you know and that meant that we should participate actively in the demonstrations you know. And so on the other hand then as a result of Turnaround Tuesday you know the uh uh uh we felt that something, I mean we knew for instance, I mean we had heard all morning you know that, that well the… the march may be called off but so but we felt that people had to be mobilized to continue to march.

QUESTION 34
INTERVIEWER:

NOW, OVERALL AS WE'RE HEADING AFTER THE FINAL MARCH, AFTER ALL THIS, AND WE'RE AT THE END OF… OR PRETTY MUCH TOWARD THE END OF THE SELMA CAMPAIGN DID YOU HAVE A SENSE THEN THAT THINGS WOULD UM, NEVER BE THE SAME IN THE IN WHAT WE CONSIDER THE TRADITIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. IN OTHER WORDS, WOULD THERE NEVER BE SORT OF A TOTAL SPIRIT OF COOPERATION THAT EXISTED THERE BECAUSE OF THE DIFFERING IDEOLOGIES PRIMARILY BETWEEN SNCC AND SCLC? I DON'T WANT TO PUT TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THAT, BUT IT'S, IT'S REAL IMPORTANT THAT WE KNOW THAT THINGS CHANGED LATER. DID YOU FEEL LIKE THIS WAS THE, THIS WAS IT THEN? SELMA?

James Forman:

Well, yeah, for a lot of people, but you have to understand nonviolence as a tactic is how we conceptualized non violence and that, in reality that was probably what Dr. King did, I mean even though he may have said something about as a total way of life, but I mean you know there are a lot indications you know that, that it was probably a tactic also with him, but that you can only sustain nonviolence as a tactic for such a, for a certain period of time, I mean like it's, it's, it's, you can't expect for people you know to continually uh uh participate in demonstrations where you know the state troopers are using cattle prodders on the people and where their lives are are are under constant harassment. I mean there gets to be a limitation as to how long anyone can do that. I mean that's just, that's just reality. Now we felt that, that that so that people you know were becoming very weary of participating in these demonstrations, and Selma was a high point because of the massive amount of power you know that the uh State troopers and the government of of of of Alabama attempted to to uh, uh, uh, pit against people who were trying to get the right to vote because Selma was really a march for the right to vote. It was not a march for public accommodations demonstration, it was a march to strengthen the voting rights section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that the uh, the brutality of the state troopers you know was extreme you know in the uh uh uh, in the Selma campaign of 1965.

QUESTION 35
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU A QUESTION. WHEN UM PRESIDENT JOHNSON USED THE TERM WE SHALL OVERCOME IN CALLING FOR A VOTING RIGHTS ACT, HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?

James Forman:

Well, we felt you know uh, you know we just felt extremely, I mean, alienated and we felt it was insincere because when he, we were, remember when he gave that speech we were in Montgomery, Alabama, surrounded by a, a posse of of of county troopers and and various people from the state. The black community in Alabama uh had been uh uh um invaded by these these these posses. When we were downtown in Montgomery and we, you know listening to the speech, you know in Montgomery in 1965, and that you know the President is saying you know what a great victory this was, you know, and you know Dr. King was there, but we were in Montgomery. OK, and when we got back to the black community began to explain to us how they had been invaded by these posses, uh, armed posse people had, had ridden up on the porches with their horses and so forth so that it was a mockery and it took us quite some time to, to get used to, to singing we shall overcome and I think we shall but it was you know it was like a cooptation of something which was very important and that the uh uh uh… uh it just wasn't real, you know and that, and that and it even now I mean you know we're attempting go back through the the black belt and all of the South you know to try to help people to to to get more rights because even now as I said it's it's there's a lot of terror throughout the Southern part of the United States.

QUESTION 36
INTERVIEWER:

UM…

James Forman:

[overlap] Oh, "Even now" will be eliminated. I'm sorry.

QUESTION 37
INTERVIEWER:

I'M SORRY, IN YOUR BOOK YOU SAID THAT UH, VIOLA LIUZZO DEATH, UM, AS A RESULT OF HER DEATH WAS REALLY THE FORMATION, PROMPTED THE FORMATION OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY. AND I'M WONDERING UM WHY THAT RESPONSE TO HER DEATH.

James Forman:

Yes, the, uh… we were in Montgomery, Alabama right, the night of the Selma to Montgomery march. It was very victorious. We were in Montgomery, we got word that Viola Liuzzo had been killed, and that she was in the car with two other people and I think or rather, um maybe, I, but she had been killed, OK. So we decided that she was killed in Lowndes county…

QUESTION 38
INTERVIEWER:

EXCUSE ME… WHY DON'T YOU START THAT FROM THE BEGINNING? SHE WAS IN THE CAR WITH ONE OTHER PERSON.

James Forman:

She was in the car with one other person, OK. I was thinking about this other, uh…

QUESTION 39
INTERVIEWER:

WHY DON'T YOU START FROM THE BEGINNING THEN?

James Forman:

OK, all right. All right, ok. Ok, Viola Liuzzo was killed in Lowndes County. So we held a meeting to decide what would be our response, and we decided to open up a project in Lowndes county, um, a voting rights project where people had never, you know a lot of people had you know, well most of the people, an overwhelming majority of the people were not permitted to vote, and that Stokely Carmichael would be the project director and that we would try to give the project in Lowndes county as much support as we could and this was our response to the murder of Viola Liuzzo which was consistent to our pattern and that we felt that in these situations where somebody was killed that we should respond with more and more people to let the segregationists know that we were not going to be frightened away. And as a result of that project, the uh, uh symbol of the Panther developed and that developed because we formed an independent political organization in Lowndes county called the uh, uh I forget the exact title right now, a Lowndes county freedom organization.

QUESTION 40
INTERVIEWER:

OF COURSE EVENTUALLY THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY BECAME SYNONOMOUS WITH BLACK POWER AND I'M WONDERING, YOU KNOW, REEB HAD BEEN KILLED, JIMMY LEE JACKSON HAD BEEN KILLED AND I WAS JUST WONDERING WHY TO HER DEATH WAS THIS THE RESPONSE, WAS THIS LIKE THE FINAL STRAW AT THE END OF A VERY TOUGH CAMPAIGN? UM…

James Forman:

Well no, we feel that, I mean you know remember her death came as I recall that I mean was on the eve of the Selma to Montgomery march and that the uh, it was—uh she was uh um, she was from the Teamsters and we felt that that was very important, I mean that, that the trade union movement and that the Teamsters you know were participating in the demonstration and that the uh uh um, a dramatic response was necessary and we were not pitting her against the other two murders I mean we tried to respond you know, to the uh, to the murders of the other two people, um, but… oh, well… you want to cut that? I mean Jimmy Lee Jackson came after, wasn't his, wasn't his death after hers or that was before?

QUESTION 41
INTERVIEWER:

WE NEED TO CUT HERE. YOU READY?

James Forman:

Sure. But are you, do you, do you, are you through with the Viola Liuzzo piece?

QUESTION 42
INTERVIEWER:

YES.

James Forman:

Oh, OK…

QUESTION 43
INTERVIEWER:

OK.

James Forman:

Well, I know concretely that a method by uh, that people attempted to use to, to stop the movement um, for voting rights and the ending of public accommodations segregation in the south was the uh um the red herring, the uh, red baiting, uh, labeling people as communists, um, and attempting to discredit people and this was done on, in on many situations, um, prior to to to Selma it had been attempted in the um Mississippi summer project of 1964, um, and it had even been attempted in in um, Albany, Georgia, people were, people were, attempted to discredit the leadership, you know by saying that this person is a communist and that person is a communist and uh, it attempted to divide the leadership you know, from the base, and I think it had an effect, but I think that the insistence of our organization of open association and the right that anyone. OK.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

THAT WAS A ROLLOUT ON 592. WE'RE GOING TO 593 CAMERA ROLL.

QUESTION 44
INTERVIEWER:

OK, TAKE IT FROM THE BEGINNING AND GIVE IT [unintelligible].

James Forman:

Well, in the civil rights movement there were certainly attempts to discredit the movement by using communist scare, the red scare, labeling people as outside agitators. Segregators, segregationists would try every attempt to do that. They would try to isolate us internally in the, in the community by telling people that this person is a communist, that person is a communist, they would attempt to to stop us from from, um, getting money you know by using these tactics. Um, the, but our organization insisted you know on the right of freedom of association, you know, that we had a right to associate with whomever we wanted to associate and to try to bring people in and not to exclude people. And I think that that overcame the uh um, the attempts to isolate us within the community and from sources of funds too.

QUESTION 45
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU ANOTHER GENERIC QUESTION. UM, WHAT WOULD THE IMPACT OF THE UH, THE FREEDOM GAINED BY AFRICAN COUNTRIES HAVE ON THE MOVEMENT IN ITS PERSPECTIVE AND YOUR PERSPECTIVE FOR THAT MATTER.

James Forman:

Well, I don't think that it has uh um, had the impact that it should have. I mean we were very conscious of always trying to help African countries to get their liberation, um, but I don't think that the African countries uh, um, as of yet, have taken the kind of stand that they should take, although some, you know that they certainly you know…

QUESTION 46
INTERVIEWER:

I'M TALKING ABOUT THE EARLY SIXTIES WHEN I ASK YOU THIS QUESTION, THE IMPACT THAT IT HAD, YOU KNOW, LOOKING ACROSS THE WATER AND SEEING PEOPLE GAIN THEIR INDEPENDENCE AND …

James Forman:

Well, I think that that had an impact. I mean that the uh uh um, some of the uh, conception of the uh student movement uh on the right to vote campaign came as a result of… of examining what many of the African leaders did in their efforts to build a mass movement to build popular support for independent struggles in their countries especially the uh positive nonviolent action campaign of Nkrumah which was very instrumental in attempting, uh, in helping Ghana to win its independence. So that the African liberations movement you know had, had a tremendous impact, there's no question about it. But I still maintain though that that the… that the degree of influence which is possible for African countries to have on the world situation is not being utilized. Africa is the richest continent in the world and that the, the, the, its leadership is not fighting, you know, sufficiently hard enough for, for, for black people throughout the world and even in South Africa.

QUESTION 47
INTERVIEWER:

THAT'S OUTSIDE OF OUR TIME, OUR TIME FRAME, THAT'S WHY I'M NOT DEALING WITH THAT. I WANT TO ASK YOU SORT OF AN INTERESTING QUESTION. WHICH ACTUALLY I DIDN'T KNOW UNTIL, UNTIL THIS MORNING IN THAT YOU WERE ABOUT TEN YEARS OLDER THAN MOST OF THE STUDENTS IN THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE AND DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE IN THE MIDDLE OFTEN OR DID IT CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE. WERE YOU OVER HERE BEING MORE MATURE THAN EVERYBODY ELSE OR, WHAT, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? MAYBE IT HAD NO IMPACT AT ALL, I'M JUST CURIOUS.

James Forman:

Well, I mean I think it didn't have an impact, but I don't, I mean, you know Miss Baker was many years my senior. She was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Dr. Zinn was an advisor. Um, I think that the uh uh um, that it probably you know had uh uh… you know it probably had, I mean it had an effect, I mean it had an effect which may not have necessarily been positive. I mean I may have been more conscious of that than, than, than a lot of the people who were involved you know were and I may have even let it interfere you know with my own development. I mean, not, not my own development, but my own participation because I was attempting consciously to, to try to have the projection of a student movement, but we all grow older, you know, and so, so people nowadays may not feel, I mean no one said that against me although I think you know, that, that, that, you know some people may have uh… um, used it as as as something, I'm, I'm, I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, but what I am trying to say is that I may have been too, more conscious of that than other people, I mean the fact that I was about ten years older than some of the more active people. But uh um, you know I mean it's not, it's not anything that I let interfere, you know I hope I didn't.

QUESTION 48
INTERVIEWER:

I ASKED THAT QUESTION BECAUSE WE ASKED THAT OF ANDY YOUNG AND HE SAID HE WAS THE YOUNG PERSON, YOU KNOW MORE LIKE THE AGES OF THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE AND OFTEN HE FELT IN THE MIDDLE BECAUSE HE WAS PULLED BY THAT, YOU KNOW THAT AGE DIFFERENCE MADE AN, MADE AN IMPACT ON HIM AND I JUST WONDERED IF IT IMPACTED YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE?

James Forman:

No, I was, no I was committed to the development of a southern student movement among black youth. And that I, when I was recruited to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I was in the process of attempting to organize such a movement. And people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee knew of my plans and asked me to join them you know rather than attempting to develop you know another student movement. They felt that they were a vehicle by which I could utilize my energy and that I should come to work with them you know as the, uh, as the people who would build a southern black student youth movement. And I agreed to do that. Um, and that you know I worked unconsc—not, I mean I worked unreservedly. I think that the difference is, is that I had already given my life, when I came with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee you know to the movement. And some people may have given only up a year or two years, and that that might be a, one difference.

QUESTION 49
INTERVIEWER:

WHAT IF THERE HAD NEVER BEEN A MOVEMENT?

James Forman:

Well, we were gonna, we were gonna build one. I mean, we… I mean there were…

QUESTION 50
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME PUT IT DIFFERENTLY, WAS IT INEVITABLE THAT THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN A MOVEMENT IN THIS COUNTRY?

James Forman:

Well, I don't know if, I mean if it was inevitable that they were going to build a movement. A lot of people were very concerned about this question of segregation and, and… in the United States of America you know and that people were and I was one of those individuals, you know, extremely concerned about it and I was attempting to try to study the patterns of movements especially the African movements, and I did that at Boston University, you know, to see if there were any things that could be applied to our situation. So the, but I think that it was of course it was inevitable I mean that there would be a government because segregation was wrong, people had to have the right to vote, a lot of people were working on it, and I'm sure in one way or the other that this was going to take place as it did. But I'm not, but don't misunderstand me, I do not feel and don't believe in the laws of spontaneity, I mean I think that consciously people were going to work on these things.

QUESTION 51
INTERVIEWER:

OK, GOOD. THANK YOU VERY…

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

OK, THIS IS…