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The FBI’s Failed Plan to Make Black Activist James Forman an Informant

The FBI was able to place informants into the top layers of organizations deemed threats.

Integration leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the James Forman of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee announced at a news conference that their respective organizations would begin working together on civil rights projects. Singer Harry Belafonte presided over the meetings that brought the two leaders together. (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

Integration leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) and the James Forman of SNCC (left), announced at a news conference that their respective organizations would begin working together on civil rights projects. Singer Harry Belafonte (right), presided over the meetings that brought the two leaders together. (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)Integration leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the James Forman of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee announced at a news conference that their respective organizations would begin working together on civil rights projects. Singer Harry Belafonte presided over the meetings that brought the two leaders together. (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

In their new book, A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union — 1962-1974, Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher explore the ways in which the FBI was able to place informants into the top layers of organizations deemed threats to the US internal security. While these efforts — in the example of the Communist Party USA and the Maoist, Revolutionary Union — were successful, another initiative, an attempt to “flip” prominent Black activist James Forman was not. The following excerpt from Chapter 7: “The Never-Ending Campaign Against James Forman” explains.

There was an odd moment during the testimony of Gerald Kirk — an FBI Communist Party informant — when he appeared before Congress in 1970. Kirk was recounting what he learned when he attended the National Conference of New Politics held Labor Day weekend in 1967, when the following exchange occurred:

Mr. Norpel: Would you continue on then with what happened in the convention, as you recall it?
Mr. Kirk: Well, there were several speeches amply covered by all the press. The one speech that struck me was by James Forman, who had been an informant — off the record please.
Senator Thurmond: Off the Record
(Discussion Off the record.)

This was an astonishing comment, stating that James Forman, a widely known and respected activist, was some type of informant. It was highly provocative to say the least, yet it remained, unexplained, in the public record. Whether Kirk was giving voice to rumor, had been deliberately fed or was feeding misinformation, or was simply confused, is a matter for speculation. His statement however, was not an outlier. It fit a pattern of the government’s efforts aimed at Forman that carried through to his interactions with the RU (Revolutionary Union) and Don Wright (an RU leader).

James Rufus Forman was an internationally famous African-American activist whose notoriety came from his work with the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and that organization’s efforts against the white-supremacist power structure in the South in the early 1960s — Forman himself had been the group’s Executive Secretary in the critical years of 1964-1966. He was also for a short while, aligned with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPPSD), but by the early 1970s his radicalism had transformed toward an exploration of Maoism and communism, and in this regard he was instrumental in the creation of the International Black Workers Congress.

Given all this, he was deemed by the FBI to be a “Key Black Extremist.” Just what that meant can be seen in a 1968 memo scolding the New York Bureau office when they temporarily lost track of Forman:

The Bureau recognizes the fact that there will be instances when subject will travel without your sources knowing of his plans in advance. However, the goal of your intensified investigation and coverage of Forman should be to place sources close enough to him to insure that you will constantly be apprised of his contacts, activities and travel plans.

As the FBI explained, “[S]ubject is a key black extremist and is to be afforded coverage pursuant to this status,” in other words, Forman was not to be let out of their sight.

As part of this they aggressively monitored, and apparently intervened, in Forman’s relationship with the Black Panther Party. Specifically they seem to have had a hand in a highly influential article in the New York Times in the fall of 1968:

Members of the Black Panthers walked into James Forman’s office at the committee on Fifth Avenue in late July, according to Federal Authorities. One of them produced a pistol and put it into Mr. Forman’s mouth. He squeezed the trigger three times.

The article went on to say that Forman suffered from a “nervous stomach” and was “so upset” after the incident that he had to go on vacation. This would be the basis for a standing myth on why Forman parted company from the BPP.

What is interesting is that the FBI reports on Forman from the time of this incident offer a different, more ambiguous picture. The reports on Forman, who was under non-stop FBI surveillance, suggest heated, even threatening meetings between Forman and the Panthers, but nothing like the Times version. Here is the FBI chronology:

On July 19, 1968, JAMES FORMAN, together with a person believed to be ELDRIDGE CLEAVER of the BPP, were observed arriving at SNCC Headquarters, 100 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, by Special Agent (SAS) of’ the Federal Bureau of’ Investigation (FBI)

Two days later it is reported:

JAMES FORMAN announced July 22, 1968, that he was resigning from BPP and severing all association with that group.

And finally there is an account that seems compiled based on an informant report:

On or about July 23, 1968, JAMES FORMAN, while at SNCC Headquarters, was confronted by a number of BPP members. The members and FORMAN disagreed and they decided to split up. One BPP member became quite angry and tried to attack FORMAN, but he was restrained. Later, FORMAN advised that some BPP members had “jammed” him in an elevator the previous day. There has been a definite split between FORMAN of SNCC and the BPP.

The last version suggests some type of confrontation, but not the “gun in the mouth” story leaked to the Times. That version does show up in a later FBI report, but it is based on a third person account. Forman himself claimed that the Times account was false. However he also writes, “There had been serious differences between SNCC and the Panthers, some nearly involving gunplay” — hardly putting the matter to rest.

Missing in all of these telling’s and later analysis are the Bureau’s actual aims against Forman. Specifically, based on the incident at the SNCC office, the Bureau had made plans to approach Forman to become an informant:

FORMAN will be interviewed in accordance with existing instructions relating to interviews of subjects of Bureau investigations. It is noted that FORMAN is subject of Bufile 100-443566. If this individual is cooperative, Bureau authority will he requested for recontact relative to directing his activities.

The basis for their approach was Forman’s fear of the Black Panthers:

The NYO [New York Office] desires to interview FORMAN at this time because of the great pressure being placed on him as the leader of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee by members of the Black Panther Party For Self Defense. The BPPSD members are currently in NY attempting, to force a merger of both groups. Reliable sources have reported that FORMAN is intimidated by the BPPSD and is in fear of his life because of their behavior and attitude. Reliable sources state that FORMAN has recently resigned his position as Foreign Minister of the BPPSD to insure the merger does not occur and to insure his personal safety through disassociation with BPPSD members.

There was however, a wild card. As dedicated as Forman was to the cause of social justice and later to revolutionary Marxism, he did this as he battled emotional problems — which forced him to seek psychiatric help at times — including admission to a psychiatric institution. Forman himself was quite upfront about this; his memoir opens with a riveting and disturbing story of his time as a freshman at the University of Southern California. One evening, exiting the library, he was approached a Los Angeles Police cruiser and accused of being a “robbery suspect.” In short order he was taken into custody, beaten, and interrogated in an effort to get him to confess to something he had no association to whatsoever. In the wake of the rage and humiliation of that incident Forman describes how, “my nerves snapped and those bright white lights [during the interrogation] seared my mind asunder.” In other words he had what was called at the time, a nervous breakdown.

The Bureau appears to have been aware of Forman’s health problems. Specifically in the wake of the fallout with the Panthers, they knew Forman had problems to the point where he was admitted to Gracie Square Hospital in Manhattan — a psychiatric hospital. As a result the Bureau assessed they needed to put the idea of approaching him to be an informant on hold.

In view of the above the NYO does not plan to attempt interview of FORMAN as requested in reNYlet [Recent New York Letter]. Reevaluation of FORMAN’s condition will be secured, his position and influence in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee determined and the possibility of his complete neutralization in the Black Nationalist Movement will be weighed in view of recent developments and prior to again requesting Bureau authority to interview subject.

It is noteworthy that ‘neutralization’ in this context meant the target was no longer politically viable. That aside, the reports the Bureau was getting on Forman’s condition appear to have been quite detailed:

Forman continues his irrational behavior pattern. His speech contains unusual references to cats and he believes that law enforcement agents had wired a cat for sound in Oakland, California during his visit there this past summer in connect with Black Panther Party Business. Currently he exhibits fear of cats.

The memo then concludes that because he appeared to be leaving SNCC and because of his “erratic behavior” it was their feeling that “Forman’s effectiveness has been neutralized.” Further they write that, “His development as a source could add nothing not currently available” through two other sources — whose names were redacted.

Unfortunately for the Bureau that was not the end of James Forman who rebounded and by the beginning of the 1970s was active in the League of Revolutionary Workers and an offshoot organization, the International Black Workers Congress. As a result he again shows up in the FBI files as “a key black extremist” who “is to be afforded coverage pursuant to his status.” This in turn led to renewed efforts to neutralize him.

While the Bureau by then appear to have abandoned efforts to “flip” Forman, they do report trying another tack, suggesting falsely that Forman was already working with government authorities. They did this in the form of drafting a letter indicating Forman was working for the City of New York as a consultant helping quell rebellious activity among Black people. The letter, which was to be written on City of New York stationery with handwriting at the bottom signed by “A black brother,” who worked for the City — was to read in part:

He has provided on a continuing and regular basis current analysis of what might be described as potentially explosive situations in various geographical agreasg [sic] of the City and within certain groups familiar to him. … His assistance in term of control of potentially troublesome elements has been invaluable in our estimation.

The idea was to circulate the letter in advance of the August 1971 meeting of the International Black Workers Congress, though the Bureau later said it should be sent afterward.

It is unclear if that letter was sent, but its construction, along with the earlier proposal of turning Forman into an informant — internal FBI memos on Forman in the Summer of 1968 actually contain the subject line “Probationary Racial Informant” — and the slip of the tongue by Gerald Kirk in front of Congress (and the world), all point to a concerted effort to undermine Forman’s effectiveness by either turning him into an informant or failing that, fraudulently claiming he was already working as one.

Note: Footnotes for this excerpt can be found in the book.

Copyright © Aaron J. Leonard & Conor A. Gallagher 2017. Not to be reprinted without permission from Repeater Books, an Imprint of Watkins Media Ltd.

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