John (Jack) Bordley Rawls was born on February 21, 1921, in Baltimore, MD. His father, William Lee Rawls, was a self-taught lawyer who had managed a successful career and achieved some political inluence. His mother, Anna Abell Stump Rawls, though primarily a homemaker, was politically active on her own as well. She was also an artist. Of the two parents, Rawls was closer to his mother.
Rawls had four brothers, one older and three younger. Two of his younger brothers died in childhood, both from infectious diseases that then claimedmany more lives than today. In 1928, Rawls was ill with diphtheria.His closest younger brother and “great companion” Bobby contracted the disease from him and died. Only a year later, Rawls was ill with pneumonia after having his tonsils removed. His next youngest brother Tommy then came down with pneumonia and did not survive. Very shortly after, Rawls developed a stutter that would be with him to one degree or another for the rest of his life. The stutter forced him as a university professor meticulously to handwrite out and then read his lectures, a discipline that, especially when conjoined with constant and wide reading and an inability to resist the temptation to revise lectures in the light thereof, contributed to his immense and deep learning. All too cognizant of the risks of error when it comes to self-understanding, Rawls neither afirmed nor denied claims linking his stutter to a sense of guilt over his brothers’ deaths, though he allowed that their deaths no doubt affected him profoundly.