Featured photo: Bryan Stevenson in 2012 (photo by James Duncan Davidson, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
This story was originally published by NC Newsline, story by Ted Vaden
Bryan Stevenson learned early on about the rule of law. As a young African American boy growing up in a mostly white county in rural Delaware, he started out attending “colored” schools.
That changed after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, when civil rights attorneys came into Delaware seeking to force public schools to integrate.
“If you had a vote in this county — which was 80 percent white — about letting kids into public schools, we would have lost the vote,” Stevenson recalled in an interview. “But these lawyers came into the county and had the power to enforce the rule of law and make something happen that even the majority did not want to have happen. I was very struck by that power.’’
So the young Stevenson went on to college, then to Harvard Law School to collect the credentials that enabled him to advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised and marginalized. He moved to Alabama and threw himself into representing Death Row inmates and victims of mass incarceration.
Stevenson founded in Montgomery a legal clinic, the Equal Justice Initiative, which made strides on prisoners’ behalf. His legal team won the release of 135 wrongly condemned inmates on death rows and hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. He won landmark rulings before the U.S. Supreme Court barring life imprisonment of children 17 or younger and extending new protections to mentally ill prisoners.
But, beginning in the 2010s, Stevenson began to sense that the rule of law upon which he had built his work was losing its power.
In North Carolina, for instance, the Republican General Assembly in 2013 repealed the Racial Justice Act, which had removed four Black defendants from death row because their convictions had resulted from racial bias.
“There was a fatigue that was getting in the way of achieving justice for the clients that I was trying to assist,” Stevenson said. “I began to fear that we might not be able to win a Brown v. Board of Education today — that today, our courts would not do something so disruptive on behalf of a disempowered, disfavored group of people.
“That made me realize that we were going to have to get outside of the courts and do narrative work to build a new understanding about our history that would motivate us to want to confront these problems, repair these challenges, remedy these long-standing issues.”
The Equal Justice Initiative has continued litigating racial justice issues in court. But Stevenson broadened the organization’s focus to include educating the public about why the rule of law is important to addressing the issues of fairness and equity upon which the court cases are built.
His organization began conducting research into the history of racial justice and the narrative of white supremacy. Over the next 10 years, EJI published reports on topics such as mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, and segregation in America. There is an interactive website, with videos, fact sheets and school education kits to engage the public on the issues behind racial injustice.
In 2014, Stevenson published a New York Times bestseller, “Just Mercy,” chronicling his advocacy work for prisoners, followed by a movie based on the book. Along the way, Stevenson collected recognition for his work in the form of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award,” and, last year, a National Humanities Medal awarded by President Biden. In May 2023, he was the commencement speaker at the University of North Carolina’s graduation.
His most recent achievements are two new cultural sites in Montgomery opened in 2018. One, the Legacy Museum, traces the history of minority mistreatment from the Transatlantic Slave Trade through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, education segregation, mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
Nearby is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a six-acre remembrance space highlighting the racial terrorism campaign that saw the lynching of over 6,500 victims, including women and children. The names of every victim and locations of their lynchings are memorialized with 800 six-foot monuments hanging scaffold-like upon a hilltop overlooking downtown Montgomery.
In a recent visit to Montgomery, I had the opportunity to view the sites, then spend an hour in conversation with Stevenson. Rather than writing a narrative of our visit, I’ve decided to let Stevenson tell the story himself through extended excerpts of our interview, edited for clarity and length.
After decades of success representing marginalized people in prisons, Bryan Stevenson around 2010 begins noticing a new reluctance in the courts to take on matters such as bias in jury selection and other criminal justice issues.
Stevenson: We were seeing a broad retreat nationwide with jury selection and that sort of thing. We were still winning some cases. But we were doing a lot of litigating around racial bias in jury selection and other things, and you could just tell that the courts were tiring of having to wrestle with these issues.
Living here in Montgomery, it was very evident to me that race was at the center of that. I moved here in the 1980s. There were 59 markers to the Confederacy in this city. A lot of romanticized thinking about the confederacy. Jefferson Davis’ birthday is still a state holiday. The high schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Sydney Lanier, and they all were 98 percent black. They just this past September changed those names. Confederate Memorial Day is still a state holiday, Jefferson Davis’ birthday is still a state holiday. We don’t have MLK Day, we have MLK/Robert E. Lee Day. And you could not find the words “slave” or “slavery” anywhere in the city.
So in 2013 we started working on this narrative work. We put out our first report on “Slavery in America,” learned some things about the domestic slave trade, learned things about the city that no one had actually documented — that this Commerce Street where we are sitting was the most active slave trading place in America from about 1852 until the end of the Civil War. Thousands of enslaved people were being brought up the street in couples from the boat dock and the rail yard where the train stopped. This building is on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved people were held. None of this was acknowledged.
When we did this report, we also decided to put up some markers to end the silence in the cultural landscape that these markers document. When we did that, I was really struck by the power they had. Public history, memorialization seemed to really have an impact on people, and that’s not something I fully appreciated. We continued doing our research and work. People were really emotional to finally see this history acknowledged. This was a majority Black city where there is not a large immigrant population. These were the descendants of people who were enslaved. But no one had acknowledged the history of slavery in the public space.
When we did the next research, on lynching, and compiled all the data, it was my thought to use markers to identify the lynching sites, to put a marker at every lynching site in America just to disrupt the silence and get people to engage and think about this history. We saw really powerful things happening through that process.
As part of revisiting America’s racial history, Stevenson travels to other countries that had experienced apartheid or racial brutality – South Africa, Rwanda, Germany. He notices that truth and reconciliation efforts in those countries acknowledge their past race history with public markers and remembrance spaces.
Stevenson: In Germany, There were no Adolph Hitler statues. There were no markers of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Here, the landscape is littered with Confederate iconography. And it just made me realize that truth-telling about history has to become a priority.
I thought we really have to start doing narrative work, we’ve got to engage people outside the courts into understanding these issues, or the courts will retreat from enforcing the rule of law the way they should.
That’s happened in our history before. After the Civil War, we had the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection for formerly enslaved people, and the 15th Amendment which guaranteed the right to vote. But the (Supreme) Court refused to prioritize the rule of law over the narrative of racial difference, the ideology of white supremacy that still prevailed. The court in the 1870s and 1880s largely abandoned enforcement of these two constitutional rights which guaranteed all of the civil rights protections that we ended up fighting about a century later. That led to a century of violence and terror and displacement for millions of African Americans.
So we have seen this relationship between enforcement of law, commitment to the rule of law, being pushed aside in service of the politics of fear and anger, and it seemed like that was beginning to rage.
I felt that way a decade ago and it’s certainly even more evident today. So we began the narrative work, the cultural work, building this museum, creating the memorial trying to engage people into a different relationship with our history that motivates them to think differently about these issues.
We don’t have a lot of narrative museums in the United States. Probably the only one is the Holocaust Museum (in Washington, D.C.). No matter what your background is, when you get to the end of the Holocaust Museum, you are motivated to say, “Never again.” I think that’s an important commitment to make. We’ve never really made that commitment in the United States when it comes to our history of racial injustice. We haven’t helped people recognize the multiple ways in which continuing to tolerate bigotry and discrimination and racial animosity undermines our quest to be a just democracy. And I do think cultural institutions have a role to play in advancing that.
With some of the same attention to storytelling and narrative work, I want to try to reach people where they are and kind of move them along, and that’s making a difference with different people. The number-one reaction we get when people leave our memorial is: “I just didn’t know.”
We just haven’t been very attentive to the narrative forces at play. And because we haven’t been attentive to that, we keep seeing a resurgence of that same sort of bigotry, that same kind of non-progress and injustice for this group that has been marginalized is a defeat for us. I do think it’s hard because we’ve been practicing silence for so long that when somebody says “let’s end the silence,” it disrupts things. It makes things uncomfortable.
Stevenson observes that racial reconciliation efforts in South Africa and Germany occurred after transfers of power in government – election of the Nelson Mandela government in South Africa, the defeat of Hitler in Germany.
Stevenson: The problem we have in the U.S. is that there has been no shift in power. The people who benefited from enslavement remained in power after the Civil War. The people who benefited from terrorism and lynching retained their power. There was no accountability for all that mob violence. No one was ever prosecuted. The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The ideology that sustained and gave meaning to the Confederacy, which was this narrative of racial difference, it prevailed.
I often argue that the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude, it wasn’t enforced labor. The greatest evil of American slavery was the narrative that was created to justify enslavement. Because white enslavers did not want to feel immoral or unjust. Or unchristian. They needed something to help them reconcile screaming mothers being pulled away from their infant children when they were sold, the anguish and heartbreak and mourning created by separating families – half of enslaved families were separated during the era.
You need a narrative, and so they made up a false narrative. They said that Black people were not as good as white people, Black people were not as evolved, they were not as human, they were not as capable. And that narrative allowed them to feel justified in this racial hierarchy and it did create this ideology of white supremacy, and that prevailed even after the Civil War.
That’s why the Supreme Court was unwilling to enforce the Ku Klux Klan Act, which should have stopped terror violence. They were unwilling to enforce the Civil Rights Act. They created this idea of states’ rights, that between protecting the rights of formerly enslaved people through the federal government and advancing rights of states who are not going to do these things, we’re going to side with the states. That shaped the inability of law to protect millions of formerly enslaved African Americans for a century, which is why we went back into the streets in the 1950s and 60s. We were trying to enforce rights that had been created a century earlier.
In that regard, there was no shift in power, and in fact there was an effort to create a new narrative about the Civil War for those insurrectionists. Those who sought to rebel were romanticized and made heroic, and we named schools after them and we named counties after them.
Stevenson notes that the narrative of difference between the races, fostered by people of European descent, enabled the Jim Crow era and legitimized segregation in the 20th Century.
Stevenson: When I talk about the problems of segregation, I don’t talk about just the burdens it created for Black people. I talk about the harms it created for white people too. We have these images of white moms taking their children to watch a man be tortured at a lynching to brutalize someone, to castrate someone, to cut off their limbs. You don’t have to be a PhD in psychology to know that that’s going to have horrific consequences for an adolescent, a child. You have to believe that a Black person is not really a person if your parent is telling you, it’s a good thing they’re doing.
By teaching children that you’re better than other people because of your color, you’re not only not doing something right and just for people of color, but I think of that as a kind of child abuse. You’re not allowing your child to actually move through the world without a true understanding of their capacity. They’re not going to be able to love everybody. They’re not going to be able to see the beauty of other people. They’re not going to be able to acknowledge the things that they can learn because you have told them that their racial identity requires them to be better, to be above all these other ethnicities. For generations we allowed people to live with that fiction — which I think constrained their life.
Stevenson cites college football in Alabama – championship teams stocked with African American athletes – as an effect of desegregation that whites still don’t acknowledge.
Stevenson: College football is a perfect example. At least in Alabama, it’s like a religion. You don’t have professional teams, but Alabama and Auburn are the most powerful cultural forces in the state. It defines the state. It’s the one source of legitimate pride that we can point to, when Alabama is winning all these games.
It would not have happened without integration. And yet people don’t want to talk about that. They were so resistant to it. George Wallace stands in the schoolhouse door, and yet now it is the source of the single most significant achievement and accomplishment for the state. We don’t talk about how, ‘O thank God we allowed racial integration in our schools.’ We don’t say that. In fact, we just kind of ignore that, because we want to win.
In that regard, we have held back the evolution and development of the South for over a century by these irrational restrictions that we placed. Yes, it’s good that we now have athletes on our college football teams, many predominantly Black, that allow us to win. But think about all the other things that we could have had — when it came to agriculture, when it came to business, when it came to education, when it came to development — had we been forced to have the same kind of integration. We haven’t done that, and there is still resentment that Black people want that, and I think that is the great burden of this history.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s narrative work has been occurring for more than a decade now. Has it made a difference?
Stevenson: I think a lot has changed. I feel like if you can meet people where they are and help get them to a different place, ultimately, they begin to see it. We’ve seen enough evidence of this process that I’m encouraged that we just have to make it more explicit.
But I can’t say it’s a changed world. People talk about criminal justice reform a lot more than they did a decade ago, and we’ve seen a leveling off of the prison population. We haven’t seen continued escalation. There are states that have made real progress in bringing down the prison population. But we’re really just in the early stages of the narrative work. And the narrative work is essential work that will shape the next decade.
The politics of fear and anger that created mass incarceration in the 1970s and 1980s are raging today. You have forces that are using fear and anger in the same way to trump the rule of law, to minimize compliance with the rule of law. And it’s the same essential struggle. Being governed by fear and anger will make you tolerate things you shouldn’t ever tolerate, will make you accept things you should never accept. Like storming the Capitol to violently overthrow the government because you’re dissatisfied with the results of an election. Or brutalizing people in a public space and thinking that’s a legitimate way to express your animosity. Or bending the rules of the traditional system to accommodate your outcomes. All of that is a sign of this larger struggle.
I am persuaded that we can prevail because I do think that we have capacity now to engage in narrative work that we haven’t had before. When you’re enslaved, you have to focus on freedom, you can’t focus on narrative work. When you’re terrorized and lynched, you have to focus on security. You can’t focus on narrative work. When you’re excluded from voting and disenfranchised and segregated, you have to focus on civil rights. But we’re now at a point where I do believe that we can do this stuff. I couldn’t have built these sites a decade ago. Just didn’t have the capacity, but also didn’t have the space.
Now as we’ve moved forward, I’ve had to create the space because it’s become as critically important to do this as it is to represent people in a courtroom. That’s what makes me hopeful that we’re in a phase where there are opportunities to think differently about these things. You’re seeing that in the renaming of schools and different conversations.
But we are in the early days of this kind of post-silence truth and justice, truth and reconciliation, truth and restoration, truth and repair era. Early days. And we may see more setbacks before we see progress. This last year was the first year that my book (“Just Mercy”) got banned in school districts, and surprisingly not in the South but Illinois. I think that’s a function of the kind of narrative struggles that are raging. The book’s been out for nine years, and they’ve been using it in schools and nothing bad happened. But that’s the history of our country.
Even with the progress of the Civil Rights era, Stevenson says, society has not been held accountable for past injustices. And so, injustices continue, such as recent efforts to restrict voting rights.
Stevenson: We have to change our relationship to what remedies are needed after decades of harm. We just never think about accountability in the civil rights context. We have just said “stop doing that” and that’s all we said. The states didn’t even say “oh yeah, we’ll stop disenfranchising Black people.” So it shouldn’t be shocking that without ever making a commitment to no longer disenfranchising people, people have been looking for ways to replicate the same power dynamics.
The challenges to voting rights provide a really dramatic example of that. They don’t even think they’re doing something racist by arguing that the Voting Rights Act should be declared unconstitutional because it refers to race. They’ve actually persuaded themselves that the long-developed horrific burdens of history of racial injustice in this country don’t need a remedy that addresses race. They think the remedy is just to act like none of that happened and we can move on. Which you can do if you’re not the one who’s been disempowered, disenfranchised, excluded, marginalized, undereducated.
It’s time to say, “No, we’re going to hold you accountable for that. You don’t get to come in and say, ‘I’m not going to do it anymore,’ without some accountability.” But when it comes to civil rights, that’s exactly what we’ve done. So in the absence of accountability, we now see these manifestations of retreat and resentment and people feeling like it’s moral to undermine the limited progress that has been made.
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