Feb 7, 2005
On January 10, 76-year-old James Forman, longtime civil rights activist and former organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, died in Washington D.C. And on February 4, newspapers reported the death of writer, actor and social activist Ossie Davis at age 87.
Ossie Davis was born in 1917 in rural Georgia under the shadow of Jim Crow segregation enforced by the institutionalized terror of the police and the Klan. He studied writing and acting at Howard University in 1935. When he went to Harlem in the late 1930s, he spoke out against the lynchings of blacks in the South. He also associated with the Communist Party, denounced the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe and joined fights by workers in this country to organize unions. After World War II, he fiercely opposed the rise of McCarthyism. At the risk of his own career, he stood by both Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and intellectual, and W.E.B. DuBois, the writer and founder of the NAACP, when they were hounded and smeared for their memberships in the Communist Party.
Throughout his long career as an actor on screen and stage, an award-winning writer and director of films, Davis used his prominence to continue his political fights on every front. "We always knew that struggle and the arts came as a package," Davis said, speaking of himself and his wife, actress Ruby Dee. Starting in the late 1950s, he was involved in the fight by hospital workers in the New York region to organize a union. In 1963, Davis and Ruby Dee were the hosts of the ceremonies at the March on Washington.
After Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, in the middle of the campaign by the entire establishment to smear Malcolm as a black racist who advocated hate and violence, Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy for Malcolm. He called him "our own shining black prince."
Three years later, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Davis once again delivered a powerful eulogy, this time in New York's Central Park. Davis called attention to the fact that King was killed in the middle of the Memphis sanitation strike, a fight by black workers to free themselves from the poverty to which this system condemned them.
Davis also was an active opponent of the Viet Nam and Persian Gulf Wars, and served as the co-chairman of Mumia Abu Jamal's defense committee.
James Forman, who was 11 years younger than Davis, also grew up in the middle of the Jim Crow South, in Mississippi. After serving four years in the Air Force in the early 1950s, Forman also experienced the "hospitality" of the north as a student at the University of Southern California, when the Los Angeles Police Department arrested him on trumped up charges. They threw him in jail and beat him for three days before releasing him.
During the late 1950s, Forman gradually became involved in the Civil Rights movement. His militancy brought him to the heart of the struggle by tens of thousands who fought in the South in the late 50s and early 1960s.
Even though he was somewhat older, Forman aligned himself with the younger generation and began to look for ways to go beyond the more traditional civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King and the other black ministers of SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
In 1961, for example, Forman objected to King's involvement in the movement in Albany, Georgia. Forman explained years later, "A strong people's movement was in progress, the people were feeling their own strength grow. I knew how much harm could be done by interjecting the Messiah complex – people would feel that only a particular individual could save them and would not move on their own to fight racism and exploitation."
Forman was an integral part of the political evolution of that younger generation. He helped organize the freedom riders, sit-in protesters and voter registration activists of SNCC. Forman was its executive secretary in its early period. As historian Taylor Branch described him, "To the people scattered down in Mississippi going to jail for tiny projects, he was the one who made sure somebody would get you out."
Forman left SNCC later when Stokely Carmichael and then H. Rap Brown became its heads, but he remained a militant, traveling abroad for the Black Panther Party and writing on revolutionary politics. Like many other militants, he connected the fight against violence and injustice at home with imperialist wars abroad. In 1982, he also helped to organize a new March on Washington.
Perhaps Davis and Forman would not have seen eye to eye politically, or would have had disagreements about what direction was necessary to change the country and the world. But both said the fight against racism was a part of larger social struggles. They saw that fight as a fight against the exploitation and violence of a class society – even if they didn't take a position that openly called for the overthrow of the capitalist system. In a country without a working class party, they stood up as individuals and neither one of them ever stopped fighting.