He was educated at Achimota School where he obtained his General Certificate of Education 'O' Level in 1966. He enlisted as a Flight Cadet in the Ghana Air Force in August, 1967, and was subsequently selected for officer cadet training at the Ghana Military Academy and Training School, Teshie, in Accra.
In March, 1968, he was posted to Takoradi in the Western Region to continue his course. He passed out in January, 1969, as a commissioned Pilot Officer. He won the coveted "Speed Bird Trophy" as the best cadet in flying and airmanship. He earned the rank of Flight-Lieutenant in April, 1978. He was an efficient officer with a close rapport with his men.
During his service with the Ghana Air Force, he witnessed the deterioration of discipline and morale, reflecting the corruption of the regime of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at that time. As promotion brought him into contact with the privileged classes and their social values, his awareness of the injustices in society was sharpened. He was thus regarded with some unease by the SMC.
He read widely and discussed social and political ideas with a growing circle of like-minded friends and colleagues.
On May 28, 1979, Flt.-Lt. Rawlings, together with six others, appeared before a General Court Martial in Accra, charged with leading a mutiny of junior officers and men of the Ghana Armed Forces on 15th May, 1979. There was strong public reaction, especially after his statement had been read in court, explaining the social injustices that had prompted him to act. The ranks of the Armed Forces, in particular, expressed deep sympathy with his stated aims.
When he was scheduled for another court appearance on 4th June, 1979, Flt.-Lt. Rawlings was sprung from custody. With the support of both military and civilians, he led a revolt, which decisively ousted the Supreme Military Council from office and brought the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) into being.
The AFRC, under the chairmanship of Flt.Lt. Rawlings, carried out a "house-cleaning exercise" aimed at purging the Armed Forces and society at large of corruption and graft as well as restoring a sense of moral responsibility and the principles of accountability and probity in public life.
Meanwhile, following the programme already set in motion before the 4th June Uprising for civilian administration, general elections were held. On 24th September, 1979, the AFRC handed over to the civilian Government of the People's National Party (PNP) under President Hilla Limann.
On 31st December, 1981, Flt. Lt. Rawlings led a section of the Armed Forces to overthrow the PNP administration. A Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), composed of both civilian and military members, was established, with Flt-Lt. J.J. Rawlings as the Chairman.
His interests include reading, building model aircraft, horse-riding and swimming. He is married to Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings with whom he has four children - three girls and a boy.
Flt-Lt. Rawlings ceased to be a member of the Ghana Armed Forces with effect from September 14, 1992. He formed the National Democratic Congress, which contested and won the 1992 Presidential and Parliamentary elections. He and the party again won the 1996 elections. His term of office ends in the year 2000.
He is the joint recipient of the 1993 World Hunger Prize. He holds an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from Medgar Evers College, City University of New York and Lincoln University Doctorate Degree for Diplomacy and Development.