George Mason University

News at Mason

Inaugural Wilkins Lecture carries on namesake's legacy of civil rights activism

October 26, 2018   /   by Preston Williams

Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr. says he considers advocating for criminal justice system reform to be the "civil rights work of my generation." Photo by Lathan Goumas.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Forman Jr. witnessed an act of bullying in high school, he reported the incident to his civil rights activist mother, expecting her to take swift action. Instead, she turned his query around: “What are you going to do?”

Forman posed that same question to about 250 George Mason University community members Thursday afternoon at the inaugural Roger Wilkins Lecture in the Mason Innovation Exchange on the Fairfax Campus. Forman challenged students to serve on juries, vote in local and national elections and educate others about social causes important to them.

The practice of mass incarceration is what motivated former public defender Forman to write “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” He considers advocating for criminal justice system reform to be the “civil rights work of my generation.”

Now a Yale Law School professor, Forman reminded Mason students that, if not for citizen activism, there might not have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964, a Voting Rights Act of 1965 or a Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“In school, they’ll teach you that Congress passed those laws and the president signed them, and that’s true,” Forman said. “But don’t kid yourself. The only reason those laws got passed is because people marched, and people fought, people got active. And people voted. That generation made it possible for me to have a life that was not imaginable to my parents’ generation.”

Forman noted his involvement with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which professors teach courses in jails and prisons, with half of the class made up of prisoners and the other half being college students.

“I see the way it transforms the law students, because one of the ways in which we sustain mass incarceration is by completely distancing everybody from the reality of what is happening in prison, so it remains an abstract,” Forman said. “When you go inside, when you are there, you realize the humanity, and then you realize the injustice of what we are doing.”

During a question-and-answer session, Mason associate professor of psychology Lauren Cattaneo said that Mason is exploring involvement in the Inside-Out Program to coincide with the possibility of offering a minor in social justice in mass incarceration.

That caught the attention of several students attending, including prospective lawyers influenced by Forman’s call for social reform.

“I want to be an attorney, so this is right in my field,” junior Gabriella Lopez, an integrative studies major from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, said as she emerged from taking a photo with Forman after the lecture. “I think that’s what makes [Mason] exceptional, is that we have this type of interactive lecture.”

Forman was an inspired, handpicked choice to deliver the inaugural Roger Wilkins Lecture, named for the civil rights activist who was the first black assistant attorney general in U.S. history, and who served under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The late Wilkins also was a Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at Mason for almost 20 years. The Johnson Center North Plaza was renamed in his honor last year.

Forman, a friend of the Wilkins family, recalled campaigning door to door with Wilkins when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate. He referenced Wilkins’ impact and influence several times during his talk.

“It’s about as good a launch for this series as I think we could have had,” said Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein, who raised $75,000 to host the first Wilkins Lecture. “James was the perfect choice because he knew Roger.”

In introducing the lecture, sponsored by Mason’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics program, Mason President Ángel Cabrera read from Wilkins’ work and cited his importance to Mason as both an educator and a prominent intellectual who helped raise the university’s profile nationally.

One of Wilkins’ daughters, Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in her introduction of Forman that the gathering was a most appropriate tribute to her father.

“Looking at you, I can’t imagine much that would delight him more than seeing your diversity, your curiosity, your willingness to come and hear James,” she said. “This is the kind of the thing that would just lift him and light him up.”

James Forman Jr. signed his book, "Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America," and interacted with Mason students after the inaugural Roger Wilkins Lecture. Photo by Lathan Goumas.