Remembering King in Westport

Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr. – winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” – will be the keynote speaker at the 13th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse.

 “For several years, our annual interfaith celebration has tapped the knowledge of renowned scholars engaged in the critical work of unpacking and dismantling racism,” Rev. Alison J. Buttrick, pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC, said in a statement on behalf of the Westport/Weston Interfaith Clergy and Interfaith Council. “This year, we welcome Professor Forman to offer the keynote on the continuing impact of racism in our society.”

Added Harold Bailey Jr., chairman of TEAM Westport, a multicultural advocacy group: “Since the 1970s, the meteoric rise of incarceration in the U.S. has left us with a per-person incarceration rate that is the world’s largest, with black male incarceration five times larger than its white counterpart.  In his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Forman brings a unique perspective to a largely uncovered but undeniably critical aspect of this story.

“Steeped in legal experience and grounded in the civil rights heritage into which he was born, Forman’s insights are key to both how we got where we are and how we should most effectively move forward to remedy it.”

Forman attended public schools in Detroit and New York City before graduating from the Atlanta public schools. After attending Brown University and Yale Law School, he worked as a law clerk for Judge William Norris of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court. After clerking, he joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where for six years he represented both juveniles and adults charged with crimes.

Forman loved being a public defender, but he quickly became frustrated with the lack of education and job training opportunities for his clients. In 1997, along with David Domenici, he started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, an alternative school for dropouts and youth who had previously been arrested. A decade later, in 2007, Maya Angelou School expanded and agreed to run the school inside D.C.’s juvenile prison. That school, which had long been an abysmal failure, has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff. The court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround “extraordinary.”

At Yale Law School, where he has taught since 2011, Forman teaches constitutional law and a course called “Race, Class and Punishment.” Last year he took his teaching behind prison walls, offering a seminar called “Inside-Out Prison Exchange: Issues in Criminal Justice,” which brought together, in the same classroom 10 Yale law students and 10 men incarcerated in a Connecticut prison.

Forman has written many law review articles in addition to op-eds and essays for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation and The Washington Post. “Locking Up Our Own” is his first bookHe lives in New Haven.

Bill Harmer, executive director, The Westport Library, added, “In celebrating Dr. King’s legacy, we are pleased to collaborate with our community partners for Professor Forman’s candid, thought-provoking discussion of mass incarceration and its consequences on communities of color.” 

Forman’s address will be followed by a moderated audience Q&A and a book-signing. In addition, there will be performances by the Serendipity Choir and students from the Regional Center for the Arts. Complimentary refreshments will be served in the playhouse lobby after the presentation.

The celebration is co-sponsored by the Westport/Weston Interfaith Clergy, The Westport Library, Westport Country Playhouse, the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and TEAM Westport.  The playhouse is at 25 Powers Court.  Advance registration is encouraged through the playhouse box office at 203-227-4177 or by email at  Registration is required to take advantage of free childcare for children ages 12 and under, provided by the Westport/Weston Family YMCA in the Lucille Lortel White Barn, Sheffer Studio, adjacent to the theater. 

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– By Georgette Gouveia

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