A Window Into Activism

LOC Inherits Civil Rights Activist’s Papers

Posted January 29, 2008 at 4:36pm

James Forman Jr. said he vividly remembers walking up the white marble stairs of the Library of Congress with his father, the late civil rights activist James Forman, who taught him about the importance of the Library.

“He always said, ‘This is our history, and it will always be

here for us,’” James Forman Jr. recalled on Monday during an event to mark the donation of his father’s papers to the Library. The elder Forman passed away in January 2005 after battling colon cancer.

The donation, made by James Forman Jr. and his brother, Chaka, in fulfillment of their late father’s wishes, will add about 70,000 documents from Forman’s involvement in the civil rights movement to the Library’s collection. These include letters, sound recordings, speeches and an unpublished novel called “A Long, White Line.”

About 25 people gathered in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress Monday to celebrate the addition. Among them were Librarian of Congress James Billington and Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Curator Adrienne Cannon, who specializes in black history, said that when the Library’s staff began sorting through the items, they found the collection to be much larger than they had expected. There might be as many as 105,000 documents, she estimated.

The documents provide Forman’s first-hand account of his life as a civil rights activist, Cannon said.

She said Forman first got involved with the civil rights movement after covering the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas for the Chicago Defender. The story escalated into a national one when nine black students were denied entrance to the school after the U.S. Supreme Court called for integration in 1954 in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.

The conflict resulted in a showdown between Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and then-President Dwight Eisenhower.

Forman became the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1961 and held that position until 1966. He helped orchestrate many major campaigns during the civil rights movement, including the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. His papers cover these roles as well as his participation in the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and the Black Panther Party.

Because the papers are so voluminous and disorganized, they still face a long process before they will be accessible to the public.

Cannon said an archivist is sorting through all the documents, and when that is finished, a team will be assembled to decide how to organize them. She said the whole process would take about a year.

James Forman Jr. said the items were stacked from floor to ceiling in a large office, filling it. That’s why he hasn’t read any of the documents, he said, adding that he’s very excited for the Library of Congress to finish the process.

“When they’re done, I’ll be the first one signing up to learn about my father,” he said with a laugh.

NAACP Chairman Bond said he was glad the Library ended up with the documents.

“It’s great to know James Forman’s life will be preserved,” Bond said. “This is an invaluable collection for people to know about 20th-century civil rights. He is not as well-known as he should be, but he was one of those people who made the movement.”