Bryan Stevenson in front of social collection jars, Equal Justice Initiative, 2018Photo: Nick Frontiero ((Courtesy of HBO)
Montgomery, Alabama, exists as a paradox. It is here that slavers sold other human beings at market, and where a young Rosa Parks set off a campaign that eventually desegregated a nation. In Montgomery, in the shadow of the state capitol building, there is a haggard monument to Robert E. Lee sitting directly across the street from Martin King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist church. It is proudly “the heart of Dixie” and the “birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” It is America in all of its gore and glory.
Montgomery is also the site of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson, a lawyer and activist, opened a memorial to the more than 4,400 African American lynching victims as well as a legacy museum that tells the tale of the African American sojourn here. He is also the subject of a narrative documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which airs on HBO tonight, Wednesday, June 26.
I spoke to Stevenson (who also is the subject of a film, Just Mercy, starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan, to be released in 2020) while he was driving from a lynching marker erected at Orlando’s City Hall. We talked faith, the Exonerated Five, reparations, the narrative of race, and more. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
The Root: At the very beginning of True Justice, you recount a time when you and your sister were children and jumped into a pool in South Carolina. Your glee turned to tears when you realized that all the white folks snatched their kids out of the water. What does one do with memories like that?
Bryan Stevenson: I think it’s a really important profound question that we really haven’t committed enough time to answer; I think many African Americans carry with them these memories of indignation and humiliation. I grew up in a community where there were signs of segregation everywhere; and those signs … they weren’t directions, they were assaults and injuries. You know people were humiliated on a regular basis, and I think many of us have been encouraged to not talk about that.
It was a hard memory to carry, and my sister and I, we joked, when we were teenagers, we’d say, remember when we made those white people get out of that swimming pool? And when we were around our friends, our sister would embellish the story, saying, “Hey y’all, I went down there to South Carolina and said, ‘All y’all white people get out of the swimming pool.” And of course, we would laugh. But it was a way of altering the memory to make it easier to carry. African Americans have had to find other ways to relate to these [kinds] of bizarre, challenging, painful realities.
I also think it’s important that white people to remember. Black people have billions of stories like that but the question is, do white people remember? And if they don’t remember, then they’re not actually motivated to address this legacy, and they’re going to replicate bigotry and discrimination. That’s the urgent challenge—is how we end this violence for all of this damage and destruction and trauma that need repair? I don’t think we’re going to be healthy or get free until we address this problem. But to get there we’re going to have to be willing to tell the truth.
TR: You have said several times that we may have won the Civil War, but we lost the narrative war. Does the lynching memorial and museum begin to use culture to reframe or reshape the narrative?
BS: Yeah. You go to South Africa, there’s an apartheid museum; there’s a very powerful, it’s a narrative museum. You go to Germany, there’s a Holocaust memorial; they have all these spaces are designed to make sure people confront that legacy. In Washington, there is a Holocaust Museum and when you go through it, you’re motivated to say never again.
We haven’t created sufficient spaces in America that challenge all Americans to confront this history. We’ve never put people in places where they have to deal with the brutality of slavery or the violence of lynching. Or the degradation of segregation [that] motivate them to say “never again.” If anything, we’ve done the opposite … we sugarcoat it. In the South, we try to make it benign. In the South, we have these plantations, where people go to get a tour of the slave owner’s home, with no discussion of the lives of the enslaved people. And that’s the kind of negative, false education that perpetuates this problem.
The New Lynching Memorial and Legacy Museum Force Us to Bear Witness to Our Whole American Truth
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BS: It’s just striking that in 2018 [when the lynching memorial opened], we were 150 years away from the formal end of legal slavery and yet, we’re just beginning to create the kind of cultural space to talk honestly about it.
And I think if we’re honest about it, it causes us to re-shift. We can’t be romantic, we can’t glorify things that aren’t glory; we can’t be silent about this history. The damage is too significant. And it’s not just damage to black people, it’s damage to everybody. To teach young white kids that they’re better than anybody else to me is kind of child abuse; you’re never going to see the kind of full humanity that I think we’re entitled to if you’re blinded by that kind of bigotry and racism.
We haven’t created sufficient spaces in America that challenge all Americans to confront this history. We’ve never put people in places where they have to deal with the brutality of slavery or the violence of lynching. Or the degradation of segregation and motivate them to say “never again.”
TR: How do reparations fit into truth and reconciliation?
BS: I think we do have to do a better job of articulating what we mean when we say reparations. When I talk about reparations, what I’m talking about is repair. I want to repair the legacy of the damage that has been done by slavery and lynching and segregation, and that will have many forms. You can say the Civil Rights Act is a form of reparations; you can say that the Voting Rights Act is repairing the violence and tyranny that was preventing black people from voting.
I think too many people when they hear “reparations,” they think something monetary and I think that’s way too narrow. I think it’s way too easy if it were achievable. I think we have to do something harder. We have to talk about the cultures and the systems and the structures and the practices and the traditions that have been made to create racial hierarchy. I think it’s an incredibly important effort, and the time is now to take that seriously. But we’re going to have to be a lot more coherent in defining what this is really about. It’s about overcoming this legacy, addressing this talk of redemption and reconciliation and reparation.
TR: From the film, we find out you’re from Delaware. Recently, the Senator from your home state said he was comfortable being friends with segregationists. What do you think that says about where we are?
BS: I do think it’s something that we need to be talking about. But I also think everybody in the U.S. Senate was complicit in accommodating this bigotry. After these senators had said, “Segregation Forever!” and organized gatherings to resist the rule of law; after they preach racial hierarchy, they were elected to leadership positions in the entire Senate.
It wasn’t one Senator, it was the entire Senate. The entire institution. It wasn’t just in the 20th century that these southern leaders in many ways were accommodating lawlessness and violence and lynching and our court said nothing; our collective leaders said nothing. It was an institutional norm. You got buildings named after Senators who were obstructionist when it came to racial integration. I worry sometime in this kind of gotcha media moment, we focus on the individual without realizing that he was representative of an entire institution which didn’t respond to this bigotry and this narrative of white supremacy that was so dominant … I really think that’s the heart of the issue, as far as I’m concerned.
From left: Client Jesse Morrison and Bryan Stevenson, 1995.Photo: Courtesy of HBO
TR: You work a lot with the innocent, and you also work with convicted children and youth. Have you seen When They See Us, and what are your thoughts?
BS: I’ve seen the film. I’m such a big fan of Ava’s; I think she’s done such extraordinarily important work to educate people in this country and she does it in a way that is engaging and perceptive and powerful.
It’s sad. We should have already been asking hard questions about accountability from the police and prosecutors who were responsible for that. And I just think that one of the things that we haven’t done in this country is to hold people accountable. For the wrongful convictions, for the forced confessions, coerced confessions, for police abuse. That culture is still very much our culture. We have laws that provide immunity to judges and police and prosecutors even when they knowingly violate the law, and I think that needs to change. And I’m so grateful when stories emerge that help people understand why that needs to change.
And yes, we’ve done a terrible job protecting our children … we embraced this super-predator narrative and started charging children as adults. We started to talking to children like they could be little criminals and we reduced them to their worst act … and that mindset is what gave rise to the Central Park Five and not just those young men but to thousands of young people of color. I’ve represented 13-year-olds sentenced to life in prison without parole who were wrongly convicted. I think it’s important.
TR: Are you an abolitionist?
BS: I’m a crime abolitionist. I want to eliminate crime. I want to create the type of communities where we don’t have violence, and we don’t have addiction and we don’t have burglary; we don’t have assault. I want to deal with the trauma epidemic in this country that’s birthing too many of our children. I want to provide services, I want to provide the healthcare that people need to avoid the pathologies, the behaviors that give rise to violence. And if we abolish crime, then we can abolish abusive systems of control and … we can abolish institutions/systems that are unjust, or unnecessary, like jails and prisons.
I don’t think it’s credible to say “I just want to abolish prisons” without abolishing crime. I think we put our expectations too low. And if we think what would happen over the next 10 years in this country about how we eliminate crime. So yes, I”m an abolitionist, I’m a crime abolitionist to eliminate the circumstances and behavior; and all the things that follow that can … be eliminated as well.
TR: What are your thoughts on the current make up of the Supreme Court as a tool to maintain the status quo?
BS: Well, I’m worried about increasing the politicization fo the Supreme Court but federal courts generally. I think we’re seeing a lot of judicial nominees that are ideologues and are articulating perspectives that I think are inconsistent with the commitment that being in this work requires.
But judicial nominees … who were unwilling to commit to the principles of Brown v. the Board of Education? What is it about a doctrine in 2019 about racial desegregation that makes you hesitate to say that it’s a doctrine that you cannot support? So, I am worried about our court and it’s motivation. Without a commitment to the rule of law—when it’s unpopular; when the majority doesn’t support it—it won’t be a just society. And if the court retreats from that, we will not be able to sustain a lot of the norms and values that are essential to a lot of the progress we’ve been able to see here in America.
I just think that one of the things that we haven’t done in this country is hold people accountable. For the wrongful convictions, for the forced confessions, coerced confessions, for police abuse.
TR: What about this notion of preaching to the choir? How do you get those people who for generations who just don’t see the humanity of black people? How do you reach them? Have you thought about it?
BS: Yeah. I built the memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and a lot of people said, “why didn’t you build that national museum in Washington? So many more people would have embraced it” and blah, blah, blah. But for me it’s important to do this work in Montgomery, Alabama. A state which, in a lot of ways, proudly identifies as the heart of Dixie; you see it all on the license plates of Alabama. And the heart of the slave trade; the epicenter of racial terror and lynching, the cradle of the Confederacy and resistance to integration. And when you work in a place like this, you are definitely not preaching to the choir.
But for me, it’s important that we build spaces. So, if we can make a difference in Montgomery, if we can challenge some of the silence that has existed here for decades, then there won’t be another community in America that claims that they can’t do it. That’s the power of going into difficult places and pursuing this kind of work. I do worry if we only stay in New York and DC, if we only stay in urban centers, with black populations, that we’re not going to achieve the kind of transformation that our nation desperately needs. But that’s what excites you; we had 400,000 people come to our sites in Montgomery who are from out of state. But a lot of them are local. So many people came in with a very critical, very resistant, mindset. Many white people were indifferent frankly, if not hostile to the conversation around racial reconciliation. And I’ve seen change and I’ve seen transformation.
[I’m] in Orlando, Florida, right now and we just erected a marker at City Hall because July Julius Perry was lynched because he tried to vote. The mob got so angry that they burned down his home and he was killed. We have a diverse downtown audience. And so now, no one who goes to downtown Orlando will stay ignorant of this history. That’s very encouraging; it’s very affirming to see that land literally changing to overcome these decades of silence.
TR: What do you hope people will get from True Justice?
I hope people will come and visit us in Montgomery, I hope they become curious about what we do and come see us. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re going to be putting out there the next year and I hope people will get interested in all of it. We’ve got the feature film, Just Mercy, coming out at the end of the year based on my book; I’m excited about that. We really want to have conversations about these topics. We hope that this is the beginning of what we hope will become a more extensive, wide-spread method of engagement around this history.
TRUE JUSTICE: BRYAN STEVENSON’S FIGHT FOR EQUALITY, premieres on HBO, June 26th at 8pm ET/PT.