James C. McMillan was born December 23, 1925, in Sanford, North Carolina. He earned his B.A. in art from Howard University in 1947, and that same year was the first African American to receive a fellowship at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. His studies continued at the Académie Julien in Paris, France; Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he completed his M.F.A. in sculpture in 1952; and later Syracuse University in New York for advanced and doctoral study in painting.
McMillan served in the United States Navy from 1944 until 1946. He later moved to Greensboro and began teaching in the art department of Bennett College. While there, McMillan became involved with the local chapter of CORE, primarily in a faculty liaison capacity. In addition to his advisory role and participation in demonstrations, McMillan also used his artistic skills in the creation of posters and bumper stickers for the group.
McMillan later taught at nearby Guilford College, where he was professor of art until 1988. His other professional accomplishments include directing London and European art seminars during the summers from 1968 to 1972, and appointment as an eminent scholar in fine arts at Virginia State University in 1992.