Bryan Stevenson’s Monumental Task
HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE, DEATH PENALTY ADVERSARY, BRYAN STEVENSONSees healing on the horizon but not before we do the hard work of remembrance and. repentance
Lord, How Come We Here?
Election night, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. Sports bars, restaurants and hotels flickered with scrolling results on television’s Fox News. Downtown streets were quiet except for a lounge singer covering 80s hits on a hotel patio.
Confederate statues and the Confederate White House sat just a block away. Gentrified buildings and swank food joints inhabit the spaces under Montgomery’s famous archways and over its tunnels that used to accommodate slave trafficking. But, in the city where Rosa Parks sat down to take a stand, and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, the lights at Equal Justice Initiative were on.
Working for Progress
That night, Coloradans voted to outlaw slavery—under any circumstance— the first such protection against vestiges of slavery that linger in the Constitution’s 13th Amendment. Other old issues hung in the air, too. Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s campaign supporters applauded when she said she would be on the front row for a “public hanging.” In a state with a history of more than 650 public hangings, lynchings, according to the Mississippi Civil Rights Project, the statement must have gone over well. They re-elected her that day.
In spite of the 218 times the United States Congress tried to outlaw lynching, it never passed Congress. It wasn’t until late 2018 when Senators Cory Booker (New Jersey), Kamala Harris (California), and Tim Scott (South Carolina) initiated a unanimous vote in the senate to make lynching a federal crime. Another bipartisan bill to overhaul the criminal justice system just creaked through Congress in December 2018 as well.
No wonder the light is on.
It was an act of Congress in 1994 that propelled EJI founder Bryan Stevenson to open the organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama was the only state that failed to provide legal defense for people with death sentences.
Since then the Harvard Law School graduate successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to give children 17 years-old and under life without parole—basically a sentence to die in prison. And, in 2016, the court decided it should apply the rule retroactively, giving more than 2000 people who grew up in prison, a chance at review and release.
The organization’s most lauded cases helped spring innocent men, at least 125 of them, from death row. He captured his life story and early work with EJI in the acclaimed 2014 bestseller, Just Mercy, which makes it to the big screen in 2020 starring Michael B. Jordan.
Like the mythical Sisyphus, Stevenson finds himself in a punishing, uphill struggle for justice. Because systemic problems such as policing bias and lack of representation result in mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting black and brown people, he has found it necessary to address the myth of racial differences, white supremacy and the enduring effects of enslavement. To do this, he sought funding for and built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
The memorial’s visually arresting and massive iron monuments, suspended from the rafters, “bleed” in the rain. The museum in a small, but powerful U-shaped exhibit, hammers the point home: this isn’t over yet.
“Even in our communities we haven’t wanted to talk about it,” Stevenson said for an exclusive interview with Message. “We felt as if our survival required us to be silent in our coping with this. That’s where our fore parents made the biggest difference. They taught us to stand up, when people said sit down. Speak up when people say be quiet. You have to find the courage to tell our truths.”
From the time one walks into the Legacy museum, Stevenson’s point is easy to access. The museum starts with a short walk down a dark hallway, the end of which confronts the spirit with ghostlike figures whose eyes peer through history and whose voices sing the question on everyone’s mind: “Lord, How Come We Here?”
Stevenson draws a straight line from genocide of Native peoples to our history of enslavement, racial terror, Jim Crow, voter suppression, the “war on drugs” to today’s racial profiling and racially imbalanced mass incarceration. We’re here because we haven’t dealt with the consuming disease and public health threat of racism.
“We gotta talk about the fact that we live in a post-genocide society: that what happened to native people when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide. And we didn’t deal with it as if it was genocide. We said ‘no, those Native people are savages.’ We used this rhetoric, that’s rooted in race, to justify that violence. And that’s why, for me, the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude. It wasn’t forced labor. It was this ideology that we created that black people weren’t like white people. It was this myth, this narrative of racial difference.”
Old South Romanticism
The corrupt narrative makes romanticizing Old South history possible, while ignoring the effects of domestic terror, and the Great Migration of black people away from it. The narrative ignores the trauma and humiliation of “White” and “Colored” iconography that cemented the ideas of racial differences in the psyche.
“And today, we still live in a country [where] this infection, this disorder, this disease continues to manifest itself,” said Stevenson. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a person of faith, doesn’t matter whether you’re a bishop, minister or elder, a kind person. [It] doesn’t matter if you’re a great student; doesn’t matter if you’re an architect; doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer or doctor. If you’re black or brown, you go places in this country, and you’re going to have to navigate presumptions of danger and guilt. We unconsciously are doing things all the time to manage these presumptions that we have to overcome, and it’s exhausting.”
Observe the 59 markers to the confederacy in Montgomery, two high schools named for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., shared with Lee. This is a far cry from the remembrance and attempts at healing, visible across the landscapes in South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany. One cannot be there without being confronted by chilling, shameful results of hatred.
“There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. There are no swastikas. But, in this country, we haven’t talked about slavery. We haven’t talked about lynching. We haven’t talked about segregation. We have confederate symbols everywhere.”
Confession—not punishment, not guilt-mongering—leads to repentance and redemption.
“There’s something that comes after that—that is cleansing, that is emerging. That’s how redemption happens. And we haven’t done that as a society. So yes, we want to talk honestly, directly, about the pain, shame, and the heartache and the brutality of enslavement. We want people to see these monuments and understand the trauma and terror and the taunting and the menacing that people of color had to go through. And then we want them to tell the truth. I really do believe after truth comes redemption, comes reconciliation.”
Old Rugged Cross
Speaking of a “come to Jesus moment,” it is time for the faithful to revisit the “fixation and fascination with the death penalty.” And, though the Bible permitted capital punishment, Stevenson argues, Biblical principles of fairness and humility must also be applied, and in doing so, people of conscience cannot support the death penalty today.
“For me, it’s not about the morality of the death penalty, the propriety of the death penalty. I think, at least in this country, the threshold question is not do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed; I think the threshold question is do we deserve to kill?”
Fact: for every 10 people sentenced to die in the United States, one of them is innocent, Stevenson said. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty clarified this statistic a few years ago. “As of October 2015, we have executed over 1,414 individuals in this country since 1976. 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row—that is, found to be innocent and released —since 1973. In other words, for every 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free.” ( http://www.ncadp.org/pages/innocence )
What Does The Lord Require?
Such a high error rate leading to death would not be tolerated in any other setting. Further, the historical track record of racially motivated policing and prosecutions, and a lack of access to sound representation also creates unfairness. “And,” said Stevenson, “we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty, then if you’re poor and innocent.”
What does the Lord require? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God, (Micah 6:8). Yet, in a system of justice that fails so often, it is arrogance to continue to exact life as a penalty, Stevenson argues.
Of Hymns and Hypocrites
Further, and better, the prophet’s message supports lives of the vulnerable and at-risk populations if the faithful internalized it. That’s what Stevenson thought while listening to strains of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross,” while sitting across the table from a condemned man. The man was completely shaved and prepared for the electric chair.
I couldn’t help but think, ‘yeah, where were they when you were three and your mom died? Where were they when you were six and you were being abused? Where were they when you were nine and you were being sexually assaulted? Where were they when you were 13 and you were experimenting with drugs? Where were they when you came back from Vietnam and were traumatized from that injury? I know where they were when you were accused—they were lined up to execute you.
Not only does mercy say, ‘No,” mercy understands that each individual—including those condemned in the system—is worth more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.
Bryan Stevenson doesn’t look like what he’s been through. Fit and trim, youthful and well-rested just isn’t how one pictures a tireless, overworked CEO and legal advocate. It is not how one imagines a person burdened with the task of saving people from death row, and uplifting humanity. As Rosa Parks once told him, “You’re going to be tired, tired, tired.”
Stevenson grew up in poor, rural Delaware, and attended “colored” schools until Brown v. Board of Education made it possible for him to access public school education. He excelled in his academics and sports, even playing the organ and singing with the church choir. Yet, to Stevenson, his social consciousness—developed partly through hearing the constant struggle of the men and women during testimony time at their African Methodist Episcopal Church—found no outlet in his Harvard Law School experience.
Stevenson turned to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and resigned himself to being a policy wonk, or, yet another unfulfilled dreamer in a dreary law career. It was when he worked as an intern for the Georgia Southern Prisoners Defense Committee that Stevenson met a man condemned to die. Nervous, and fearing he could only disappoint his client with his inexperience, he sat down for what would have been an hour interview. That hour turned into a three-hour life-changing experience.
Seeing himself in that young black man, Stevenson bonded over the conversation, learning about the case, the man’s family, and his life. When guards burst in to end the session, angry because it had gone on so long, they grabbed his client. They pushed and shoved, chained and shackled, and pinched his flesh with handcuffs, leaving Stevenson stunned at the violence.
“Bryan,” said his client, “don’t worry about this. You just come back.”
“And that young man closed his eyes, just put his head back and started singing: “I’m pressing on, the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, and he said, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. . .”
Stevenson knew then he found his mission, one he says now animates his life and engages his heart, and that is to help condemned people to find higher ground.
“When you are mission-aligned, when you actually get to do the thing that fulfills you and makes you feel like you’re serving the way you’re supposed to serve, you wrestle, but you don’t wrestle with God. You wrestle with the challenges, the obstacles and complexities of what it means to be as effective as you possibly can.”
Walk with Me
- Order the Equal Justice Initiative Calendar for 2019 to learn about the history of racial injustice and its impact in the United States.
- Go to the Equal Justice Initiative website to learn about upcoming events and the work of justice. https://eji.org/
- Tour the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
- Remembrance: bring a marker and memorial to a county near you.
- Watch for the movie Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan
Carmela Monk Crawford, editor of Message, with David Person the owner of David Person Media, LLC. Since 1986, he has been working as a broadcaster, journalist, documentary director, and media consultant.