When pundits described President Obama as “professorial,” they could have been talking about author, activist and educator James Forman Jr. For another day in his family business—civil rights advocacy—the clean-shaven Yale law professor with manila skin and loose, graying curls wears a black blazer over a pastel, striped shirt. He forgoes a tie, a good look for where he’s headed—to San Quentin State Prison. On this day, he will talk about what he calls the second civil rights movement with the people it impacts the most, those who are incarcerated.

Forman has civil rights in his blood. His father, the late James Forman Sr., served as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1961 to 1966, raising money, paying bills and generally keeping the growing youth organization on track. A lot has changed in the movement since his dad marched for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Not all of it good.

Forman grew up in a neighborhood in Atlanta where the biggest buildings on the skyline belonged to Ford Motors and the Department of Corrections. The automotive plant closed in 2006 taking nearly 2,000 jobs with it. The prison is still there, one of nine lockups in the Atlanta metro area alone. 

In the mid-‘90s, after serving as a Washington, D.C., public defender for six years, Forman co-founded Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools to educate teens ensnared in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. In April he released a groundbreaking debut book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” which challenges the prevailing civil rights framing of mass incarceration. 

The most prominent work on the topic, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” defines the American criminal justice system as a continuation of historical Black oppression in support of White privilege. Forman says this frame doesn’t explain what he saw as a public defender in what was once considered The Chocolate City where mostly Black decision makers and residents were in favor of the harsh sentencing policies that eventually decimated Black communities. In “Locking Up Our Own,” he examines the thinking of the Black judges, prosecutors and officers who fought for this punitive version of civil rights. 

This is what brings Forman to San Quentin’s Catholic chapel on this day in May, one of the few spaces available for public events in California’s oldest prison facility. “The civil rights movement today is about identifying the legal regimes oppressing Black people the most, and then resisting and changing them,” he says, standing on a lecturn in front of a porcelain Christ painted brown. “In the ‘60s, that legal regime was Jim Crow. Today, it’s over punishment and criminalization.”

The Audience

In the audience gathered to hear Forman are 50 incarcerated college students and 15 students from Stanford University. The incarcerated audience members are predominately Black men who’ve been in prison for decades. They attend courses via the San Quentin-based Prison University Project where they’re earning associate’s degrees in General Studies. In addition to weekly classes, the men work 40 hours a week in the kitchen, the machine shop and on other details. They also attend rehabilitative programs for restorative justice, addiction recovery and peer education for six to 12 hours a week. They do a lot, but prison is a place of determination—determination to do well or to do poorly. 

The determination of these men, which gathers in hard lines between their brows and around their mouths, could easily be mistaken for grimness. But those hard lines will soften when Forman tells them that their Black lives are worth a movement. 

And not all of the incarcerated students start off wearing their determination in hard lines; some are, in fact, conspicuously relaxed. They sling arms along the backs of pews and cross their legs. A few smile; others nod as if this is any talk at just any venue. They are aware that, whether they want it or not, they are the ambassadors for the incarcerated people who aren’t as educated, aren’t as social, aren’t as “presentable” as their Stanford counterparts. They hope that if they’re relaxed, their guests will relax enough themselves to see past the stereotypes about so-called convicts popular in media. 

The Talk

“I want to tell you about Brandon,” Forman says of the client that motivated him to write “Locking Up Our Own.” At 15, Brandon suffered his first arrest and pled guilty to possessing a handgun and a small amount of marijuana. Forman says he argued for probation and a community program for at-risk youth before a Black judge who was both angry and despondent about the number of Black youth streaming in and out of his courtroom. The judge gave Brandon a speech about Martin Luther King Jr. and encouraged the boy to turn his life around. He then sentenced Brandon to six months in Oak Hill, a juvenile detention facility notorious for growing nonviolent kids into violent adults. 

Forman says that during his time as a public defender he believed his role was to defend poor people from zealous prosecutors. “The judge used my same motivation for being a public defender but flipped it. I knew I wasn’t alone, but I knew the judge wasn’t alone either.”

Blacks, he says, had a divided approach to civil rights— they advocated for “tough on crime” policies on the one hand and pushed to decriminalize Black poverty on the other. What it came down to was whether concerned citizens could see the social problems poor Black people faced outside of the lens of the criminal justice system. Many couldn’t. This is how he explains a 2014 report by the Sentencing Project, that found 64 percent of Black people believed courts weren’t harsh enough on criminals. A close 73 percent of White participants held this view.

“We have a class division [in the Black community],” Forman tells the San Quentin audience before describing a 1990s Washington D.C. where light-skinned Black people looked down on their dark-skinned neighbors and where middle-class, educated Black people segregated themselves from poor, uneducated Black people. “The statistics are straightforward. For Blacks that graduate from college there has been no increase in incarceration rates since the 1960s. But if you’re a Black man who dropped out of high school, you’re 10 times as likely to go to prison. That’s a class division.” He argues that class distinctions explain how Black communities came to embrace the tough-on-crime trend that by 1990 would target and incarcerate one in four Black men.

Listening to Forman speak is one of these targets, a small Black man in his 50s wearing a yarmulke. His name is Ernest Woods but he identifies by his religious name, Ben-shuah. And he’s hurt. “I’m really disappointed that my heroes betrayed me,” he says of decision-makers who joined the tough-on-crime wave of the 1980s and ‘90s. “They weren’t looking past the moment, and that moment has resulted in millions of us incarcerated. It feels like when our ancestors sold us in Africa.”

Centering Incarcerated Voices

Imagine a civil rights movement where all the Black people stayed home while the rest of America developed the strategy and did all of the marching. Such a strategy may sound absurd, but some argue that that’s exactly how the movement against mass incarceration operates. Forman, for example, believes a fundamental problem with criminal justice activism is that people aren’t listening to those who know the system best: incarcerated people.

He’s talking about proximity, a term popularized by Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson. Proximity means that effective action against legal injustice requires people to get closer to the problem to understand its nuances. 

“As new strategies are forged in the ongoing civil rights movement, it’s important to note which frameworks aren’t working and what models can replace them,” says James King, an incarcerated student. He’s 47 years old and his think tank partners with Initiate Justice to involve incarcerated people in drafting policies aimed at meaningful prison reform. King doesn’t evince the pain Ben-shuah showed. He seems energized by the Forman dialogue and he’s eager to find models that include incarcerated people in the movement in a system designed to exclude them.

Initiate Justice is part of a growing effort to center the voices of incarcerated people. UCLA law student Tara Brown is also working to develop models that include more incarcerated people in discussions about themselves. In service to this goal, she is partnering with Prison Renaissance, a small non-profit organization co-founded by incarcerated artist-activists, and she has started a chapter on her campus. Working with incarcerated community organizers, law students and a UCLA professor, Sharon Dolovich, Brown is assembling legal scholars and incarcerated activists for a panel about prison reform. Incarcerated people will be able to call collect from prison and participate through telephones connected to sound systems. Brown is also advocating for the funding of telecommunication networks that bring incarcerated activists to the table, and holding management meetings inside prison visiting rooms. “It wouldn’t make sense to talk about women’s liberation without involving women,” Brown says in an interview. “And it doesn’t make sense to talk about prison reform without involving incarcerated people.” 

The venerable San Francisco Bay View newspaper is also making efforts to center incarcerated voices. Troy Williams, a formerly incarcerated Black journalist, became its editor in June and he is actively seeking out the work of incarcerated writers whose insights he wants to share with subscribers in 32 states. “It’s always someone else who interprets our solutions through their lens,” Williams says in a phone interview. “I want people to hear the solutions directly from us.”

Back at the Catholic Chapel in San Quentin, 47-year-old incarcerated student James King calls for an honest look at where the movement is going. “As new strategies are forged in the ongoing civil rights movement, it’s important to note which frameworks aren’t working and what models can replace them,” he says during a break in Forman’s speaking event.

As the discussion draws to a close, Forman notes that more effective models don’t require millions to be successful. “The biggest myth about the ‘60s civil rights movement is that everybody was in it,” he says of a converstation he regularly had with his activist father. “But it was a small minority of people who brought down Jim Crow. For this civil rights movement, I want more people, but I’m not afraid if it’s just a few. What it means to be a Black American with opportunity in this time is to fight in this civil rights movement. We all have an obligation to dismantle this system together because we all built it together.”

Emile DeWeaver is a Black community organizer who’s been incarcerated for 20 years. He cofounded Prison Renaissance, a nonprofit organization that uses arts, media and technology to connect incarcerated people to the communities that need them. He has written for Easy Street, The Mercury News and TruthOut, among other publications.