James Forman died in early 2005 in a hospice in Washington, DC. He was 76.
Born in Chicago, he was one of the major figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. To me he was also perhaps the pivotal figure in a career decision that I now am coming to see as my version of Nietzsche leaving his professorship to become in some respects an exile and a lone voice for an evolving understanding that could only have been the product of exile.
How could Jim Forman have such influence?
I never met him personally. I was around when he was around in Nashville in 1961. The documentary Eyes on The Prize has a brief shot of him in Selma, Alabama, — the second, aborted march, the afternoon before the evening when James Reeb was killed. Standing behind Jim Forman in that documentary picture is me.
The answer to the influence question is that Jim Forman attained his highest public profile not as a Civil Rights activist and administrator, but as a challenger of the American religious establishment.
Whether he would accept that description or not, it was my understanding at the time and remains so now.
This is not the place to tell the story of how the notion of reparations came into my mind or to speculate how it became an agenda which Jim Forman championed. The enduring essence of the matter is that Jim Forman challenged the mainline denominations of the American church to set aside substantial resources as reparations to be used for Black Economic Development.
I welcomed this initiative not merely because I believed the call for reparations was, and remains, just — however we may name it. But, even more, because I was convinced that the U.S. denominations would only be saved from triviality and obsolescence by shedding their hefty endowments and agreeing to work together in unity — a unity I had outlined in detail, not only in my book The Grass Roots Church, but also as an erstwhile representative of my denomination — the Presbyterians — in Church Union negotiations.
The upshot of the Forman campaign was mainly a sad series of confrontations marked by a failure of the major denominations to do more than give lip service to the need for racial justice. The notion that this was an historic opportunity for ecumenism — which is how I saw it then and now — was increasingly just a personal dream and fantasy, having no resonance in the halls of Protestantism.
But that did not stop me from siezing upon Jim Forman’s initiative (Black Economic Development was the initiative of many others at the time) and organizing my own effort to confront the denominations in December of 1969 in Cobo Hall in Detroit.
To make a sad and traumatic story short, my effort was not merely a bust, but a shameful display of denominational intransigence culminating in a vote on a parliamentary point. In essence the assembled churches rejected a proposition that disputes be resolved without recourse to state and police intervention. This was a complete evasion of the fundamental issue which was never understood or brought to a decision.
Ultimately, only one church leader — my friend Avery Post — stepped up and actually accomplished a substantial transfer. $1 million in Boston — a United Church of Christ local gesture in response to Jim’s campaign.
There were other efforts that sprang from the Forman campaign. The Black Manifesto did not get fully implemented by any means, but the effort was not entirely fruitless.
Ironically, recently, I received a flyer from the seminary I attended during the so-called golden age of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich — Union in NYC. They were having a meeting on reparations. There was no reference in the flyer to Jim’s effort or more pertinently to the performance of the churches in Detroit in 1969.
Short memories, “radical irrelevance”, more of the same old.
Jim Forman brought accountability to the Civil Rights movement. And depth. And a commitment to getting things done.
But he became most known though for his battle to make Reparations an issue in the churches.
Today I am sure his name would be unknown to 90 percent or more of today’s seminary educated clergy applicants.