The Special Libraries Association

Notes on a Bio-Bibliography: James Forman and the Civil Rights Archive at CUNY-Queens College

Andy McCarthy |

Andy McCarthy is a Special Collections Fellow for the CUNY-Queens College Civil Rights Archive. A private researcher and former New York City double-decker bus tour guide, McCarthy was a project assistant intern for the New York Times “morgue” collection of news clippings and photos (1905-1995), and a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Historical Society, processing a collection of illustrated antiquarian bookplates. Blog writings include New York special collections, ideas and information science, and movies.

The Civil Rights Archive at CUNY-Queens College recently acquired the personal library collection of 1960’s activist James Forman, comprised of four thousand books, periodicals and pamphlets. The materials are not library books, but bio-bibliographical, proof of the active and scholarly life of James Forman. “Bio-bibliography” is the study of the history of the mind by the evidence of reading. Traces are found in marginalia, inscriptions, bookmarks, and common subjects. The books which show relevant use by Forman would oblige preservation for future researchers, while other books may be weeded out for the sake of space, and simply cataloged in a sustainable, user-friendly database for the collection.

James Forman was a highly active writer and book collector, whose reading followed a philosophy of self-education, suspicion of authority, and the enforcement of thought to action. Forman made jots in his books, but shopped at used book stores and might have acquired books with markings made by previous readers. He wrote a lengthy memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), which features the texts of numerous sources involved in the civil rights movement, including oral histories, speeches, Klu Klux Klan propaganda and sworn affidavits taken on paper towels in a Georgia jail. “My best skills,” wrote Forman, are “agitating, field organizing, and writing.”

The roles of special libraries and archives find kinship in such a personal library collection. The organization of the Forman collection might follow the approach of a special library, since the books are collected under a unique subject – civil rights history – while access to the books would follow the protocol of an archive, given that the books are not collected as rare, do not belong in the lending stacks for check-out, and are collected less for individual content than for what they communicate about the life and history of James Forman.

Forman’s copy of The River of No Return (1973) by SNCC activist Cleveland Sellers, shows an intimate inscription by the author to Forman. In the book, Sellers is moved by a speech given by Forman after the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic Convention with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who sought representation as delegates. Forman’s closing words inspire the title of Sellers’ memoir: “…we are all a boat afloat… on a river of no return.”

Forman’s reading reflected an interest in the traces of American espionage allied with Nazi activity. The Occult and the Third Reich (1971), by Jean-Michel Angebert, seems to be inscribed by Forman to “Mr. Kissinger,” an intended presentation copy to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, where Forman, with sardonic innocence, is “horrified” to read of America’s alleged relationship with Axis powers, and speaks on behalf of all classes to be “very tired of the invasion of our privacy in this country.”

Years later, Forman would write a letter to President George W. Bush and Congress suggesting three books in Forman’s library regarding dubious American government activity to consider in light of government response to 9/11. Forman’s letter to Bush is printed on the back with an article copied from the Washington Post about a “psychological warfare campaign” by the FBI and CIA against student protest movements. As founding president of the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee (UPAC), Forman often made a collage of his correspondence using news clips to connote the message, and the inscribed copy of The Occult and the Third Reich is likewise dispatched toward a political purpose.

Voter Registration pamphlet, ca.1962, James Forman Library, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Queens College, City University of New York.

Much of Forman’s work for SNCC focused on voter registration for African-Americans disenfranchised by southern racism. Voter Registration: A Handbook for Local Organizing is a mimeographed, stapled pamphlet circulated in the early 60s by the Voter Education Project in Atlanta, where activist groups assumed the responsibilities of the absent Department of Justice by enforcing constitutional voting rights. FBI reports portrayed Forman as “one of the most militant black nationalists in the country.” Voter Registration demonstrates the tactics of the civil rights movement as peaceful where the FBI perceived such action as invidious.

As a seasoned organizer, Forman researched the correlations between the government’s suppression of the civil rights movement and the mafia. In Black Mafia (1974), Forman underlines a passage highlighting class issues between mob organization and community organization. In 1969, Forman was investigated by the FBI as a threat to “domestic security” because of involvement with the “Black Manifesto,” which called for $500 million from religious groups as payback for slavery, because “America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor.” Forman was surveilled for racketeering and extortion, which are typical mafia crimes, and his methods as both a revolutionary and a fundraiser were cast as threats to the government.

The James Forman Library yields many opportunities toward a bio-bibliography of Forman, revealing how Forman’s private reading impacted his public life. The fields of special librarianship and archives converge in the organization of the collection and access to the materials. The classic early 20th century American writer Sherwood Anderson is said to have done all his book reading on streetcars, and so, to reduce the bulk of his pockets, tore out sections he read and threw them away at the end of the ride. The special librarian might measure the extent of Sherwood Anderson’s book reading by how empty the writer’s library, and the archivist by how dense the collection of streetcar ticket stubs.

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