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 in mid-October during 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 lecture series is named for the civil rights activist who was the first black assistant attorney general in U.S. history, serving under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The late Wilkins, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, 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.
The lecture opened with welcoming remarks by Schar School Associate Professor Matthew Scherer, director of the university’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program, which sponsored the event. PPE is a program of the Schar School and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“If Roger Wilkins were a Mason faculty member today, he would be a leading light of the PPE program,” Scherer said following the talk. “We train our students to apply their intelligence and skills to some of the world's most pressing social problems.”
The lectures, Scherer said, are meant to treat “key topics of the day with intellectual seriousness and rigor. They should exemplify some of the best parts of Mason's mission as a public university: elevating the level of engaged, civic discourse. They should highlight our strengths by engaging the modern knowledge producing university with the most important issues in public life today.”
Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein, who teaches in the PPE program and helped raise $75,000 for the series, said afterward that “it’s about as good a launch for this series as I think we could have had…James was the perfect choice because he knew Roger.”
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.
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.”
(writing credit: Preston Williams and Buzz McClain)