Bryan Stevenson does not have the booming baritone of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His tone is softer, his pitch higher. But his words were remarkably reminiscent of King as they reverberated through the Montgomery Convention Center.
“We are not free in America,” he said to the thousands attending the opening ceremony of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Summit. The April 26th ceremony came at the end of the first day of EJI’s summit, which featured best-selling author Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate the Rev. Dr. William Barber, legendary feminist Gloria Steinem and Ava DeVernay, the lauded director of films such as Selma and 13th.
But that night it was Stevenson, EJI’s founder and executive director, who had the crowd’s rapt attention. And that was no small feat, considering that he followed moving musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bebe Winans, Chrystal Rucker and Brandie Sutton.
Stevenson has developed a loyal following as a best-selling author and sought-after speaker. But it is probably his work with EJI that has earned him the most notoriety. EJI, a small non-profit based in Montgomery, has built its reputation by providing free legal representation to prisoners on death row, children being prosecuted as adults, people with intellectual disabilities, and incarcerated persons who have been abused. Stevenson himself has argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to give life-without-parole sentences to children 17 or younger.
His combined commitment to juris prudence and social justice gives his soaring words an irresistible transcendence.
“Our criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” Stevenson said. “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”
Cold, Heavy Reminders
Heavy blocks of metal hang from the ceiling of the National Memorial for Peace & Justice. Some dangle high above the heads of visitors, like strange fruit from unseen trees. Others are low enough to touch, rusting brutal blocks, inscribed with the names of people – most likely black, broken by bigotry and poverty, killed by criminal mobs out of racist spite.
These lynchings were public spectacles, designed to terrorize the generations after slavery. They were the bloody line in the sand between the races, an evil method to ensure that former slaves and their descendants remained in their place, subservient to white supremacy.
EJI reports that 4,075 lynchings of African-Americans occurred in southern states between 1877 and 1950. These were callously, sometimes gleefully, documented in newspapers, postcards and photographs. Many others are believed to have gone unreported, rendering their victims unknown.
Link to Hope
The Legacy Museum, walking distance from the Memorial, chronicles this history in painstaking, multi-media detail. In fact, it puts lynching on the same continuum as slavery and mass incarceration, in the same context as Jim Crow segregation. But it also provides a way to
emerge from this dark history with faith, hope and love.
We need that Biblical triumvirate now more than ever, due to the reappearance of alleged lynchings in recent years and confrontations with police and law enforcement that threaten the very existence of black people.
Three years ago, the family of Otis James Byrd believed his body, found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi, was evidence of a lynching. The U.S. Justice Department disagreed and closed its investigation.
“It was ruled a suicide and we’ve accepted what they said,” said Florence Byrd, one of Otis Byrd’s relatives, in an interview with the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss. “We are on our own and asking God to strengthen us and lead us in the direction we should go.”
Since the early 2000s, a small but steady and conspicuous number of hangings have left other African-American families with the same questions the Byrd family faced. While law enforcement may conclude otherwise, many others see a pattern eerily reminiscent of the Jim Crow-era lynchings that terrorized southern blacks for decades.
Pilgrimage to be Taken
The opening ceremony ended with the legendary Ms. Patti LaBelle walking barefoot off stage, many of the thousands in attendance standing and cheering, her soaring 73-year-old vocals still ringing in their ears. But the next morning was quiet at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice. Many people stood alone or in small groups, reading the names of the lynched.
Lynne Hyerle, a white psychotherapist from Seattle, sat quietly, tears running down her cheeks. “I was becoming more and more moved by everything,” she said a couple of weeks later during a phone interview. “It really felt like I was on a pilgrimage.”
Hyerle and her friend Mary decided to make the cross-country trip down South after hearing Bryan Stevenson speak in Seattle. “I just knew it felt right,” she said. “It felt like this is one way to stand up for racial justice.”
Hyerle attributes her deep sense of justice to her practice of Buddhism and her upbringing. Her parents raised her to revere Dr. King. “I really deeply believe that none of us are free until all of us are free,” she said.
Grace in this Place?
In a nook a few yards from the Legacy Museum’s exit, a huge video screen plays Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk. Like King, his comments reflect a relentless pursuit of justice, undergirded by love, hope and a recognition of our humanity – no matter who we are or what we believe.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done,” Stevenson said. His unspoken suggestion: Grace is available to everyone, no exceptions – the lynched and even those who did the lynching.