After many years of following Bryan Stevenson’s writing and work, I met him a few years ago when he came to speak with some folks in L.A. about his newest project, the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. As the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan lifted the veil on unfair sentencing, abuse of mentally ill incarcerated people, and the prosecution of children as adults. He also dedicated years to working on the exoneration of innocent death row prisoners, winning reversals on over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row — a story dramatized in the moving film, “Just Mercy.”
He and I spoke just prior to Yom Kippur, 2020. In a time of so much trauma and upheaval, Bryan was exactly the person I wanted to be in dialogue with. His words have even greater relevance as we mark Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in this particularly fraught moment for our nation. Our conversation has been edited for length. For the full conversation, click here. — Rabbi Sharon Brous.
“I’ve heard you say many times that the South lost the Civil War but won the narrative war.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous I’ve heard you say many times that the South lost the Civil War but won the narrative war. What is the danger of the perpetuation of the narrative of the Confederacy? And is there a way for America to extract itself from that foundational narrative, so that we can begin to build something new and different?
Bryan Stevenson The narratives that we’ve inherited in this country are narratives that have set up a racial hierarchy. We allowed this narrative of racial difference to emerge when Europeans first came to this continent.
We had a genocide on this land. We killed millions of Native people to famine, war and disease. It was a genocide that slaughtered Native populations. But we tried to justify that by saying no, those Native people— they’re different. They’re savages. And the narrative of racial differences was created to justify the formation of a nation that talked about equality and justice for all, while doing this destructive, horrible thing to indigenous people.
The narrative of racial differences is what we relied on to then get comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery. And the people who owned slaves, the enslavers, didn’t want to think of themselves as immoral. They didn’t want to think of themselves as non-religious, as unholy. So they had to create a narrative that justified enslavement.
They said these Black people are not like white people. They’re not fully human. They’re not fully evolved. They’re less deserving, less capable, less human. That narrative of racial difference became the true evil of American slavery. It wasn’t the involuntary servitude. It wasn’t forced labor.
Those things were horrific. But the real evil was this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy. That just infested everything. Even many abolitionists believed in the abolition of slavery, but they didn’t believe in racial equality.
So when we end the Civil War, and we pass the 13th Amendment, it talks about ending involuntary servitude and ending forced labor, but it says nothing about ending racial hierarchy, being white supremacy. We don’t effectively end slavery. I’ve argued: slavery doesn’t end in 1865, it evolves. Because the narrative struggle over what equality means, about what justice means, does not succeed. That’s why the North wins the Civil War, but the South wins the narrative war. The North ultimately embraces that narrative of racial hierarchy and white supremacy, and they allow a collapse after emancipation. They allow the collapse of reconstruction.
We pass the 15th Amendment to give Black people the right to vote. We pass the 14th Amendment to give Black people equal protection. And then we don’t enforce those amendments for over a century.
And that drives to this era of terror and violence, of Black people being pulled out of their homes and beaten and drowned and lynched and tortured— sometimes on the courthouse lawn!— for a democracy that claims to be governed by the rule of law, to allow terrorism and violence. Mob violence to actually be played out on the courthouse lawn tells you everything you need to know about a narrative failure.
And when courageous people in the 50s and 60s find the strength to push back against that and to protest, they’re beaten and battered. And we still get the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but the narrative persists. That narrative of racial difference seems compromised, and so after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, you still have resistance to integration. And that narrative of racial difference continues with us today.
Today what breaks my heart is here we are in 2020, and I have to go places and tell young college students: you can be hardworking, you can be kind, you can be skilled. I tell professionals, you can be a doctor or lawyer or a teacher. I tell researchers, you can be very, very skilled in your craft, but if you’re Black or brown, you will go places in this country where you have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt.
I’ve been pulled out of my car by the police. When I was a young lawyer, I had police officers point a gun at me and say, “Move and I’ll blow your brains out!” And the burden was on me to say, “It’s all right, it’s okay.” To take that situation and calm down this young white officer with a gun pointed at my head. And that’s not right… And it’s dangerous in that setting. It’s less lethal in other settings, but it’s not any less painful.
I was in a courtroom in the Midwest during a hearing a few years ago, after I had just argued a case at the US Supreme Court. I sat down at the defense council’s table, I had gotten there early. When the judge walked in, he saw me sitting there and he got angry. He said, “Hey, you get back out there in the hallway you wait until your lawyer gets here!” And I stood up and said, “I’m sorry, Your Honor. I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Bryan Stevenson. I am the lawyer.” And the judge started laughing and the prosecutor started laughing, and I made myself laugh, because I didn’t want to disadvantage my client who was much more vulnerable than I was. The client came in. We did the hearing but afterward, I’m sitting in my car thinking, I’m a middle-aged Black man. I’ve got a law degree from Harvard. I’ve got all these other things, and still I’m required to laugh at my own humiliation to try to get justice for someone, and it’s not right. That is the immorality of inequality and injustice. It’s the threat to a just society that emerges when we do not respond, when we do not speak out.
It’s incredibly important for those of us of faith who feel an obligation to stand against injustice. Because that’s the only way we can change these narratives into an understanding of who we are and what our obligations are.
“We’re going to have to talk honestly about what this country has done to create inequality and injustice.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous Do you think it’s possible, in light of everything that you’ve experienced personally and what you’ve witnessed on death row, for a new American narrative to emerge in which we all find ourselves on the same side of history?
Bryan Stevenson I think there is. To me, the powerful thing about faith is once you have the capacity to believe things you haven’t seen you have the capacity to do great things. The greatest scientists, the greatest innovators, the greatest athletes all believed they could achieve things that no one else had achieved.
Think about what Dr. King and Rosa Parks and so many others did in the 1950s. They believed enough in America to put aside any weapon of violence, to put aside any enmity, to put aside hate and put on their Sunday best and beg and implore and push this nation to do justice or they got battered and beaten. Dr. King was assassinated, and yet there was still this belief.
I’m a product of Brown v. Board of Education. I grew up in a community where black kids couldn’t go to the public schools. I started my education in a colored school. There were no high schools for Black kids when my dad was a teenager. He was smart, he was hard-working, but he couldn’t go to high school in our county. And so his opportunities were limited behind that barrier. But I got to go to high school, and I got to go to college. I got to go to law school. And all of that is evidence of this capacity, this ability to create a new America.
But to do that, we are going to have to engage in a kind of truth-telling that we have not engaged in before. We’re going to have to tell the truth about the native genocide. We’re going to have to talk honestly about slavery. We’re going to have to talk honestly about what this country has done to create inequality and injustice. The new America that emerges from that will be the kind of America that is— yes, bruised and scarred a little bit— but stronger as a result. And in my faith tradition, we teach that that is a process of overcoming. That’s how we get to redemption.
“There are so many institutions that need to…tell the truth about their past.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous I believe that it’s human nature to be reactive when we’re in pain. But we don’t often investigate to see what the deeper illness is in the system. What I’m so moved by, but with both the Museum and the Memorial, is that you’re challenging us to have a conversation about the deeper illness in the system. But there’s anguish in the truth. Agony in the truth. And yet, we can’t be free until we get there.
Do you believe that America will be able to reckon with the truth? Or will we just run and hide when confronted by it, because it’s so ugly and so vast, the wounds are so deep? Will we actually be able to do the work that we need to do in order for this healing to happen?
Bryan Stevenson Well, you know, it’s a really important question. I think it depends on whether we find the courage it takes to tell the truth. You know, we’ve actually made progress on some long-standing vexing issues by shifting narratives.
Years ago, we didn’t respond well to domestic violence. We tended to marginalize that issue. For those who are old enough to remember “The Jackie Gleason Show,” you’ll remember that he used to end the show with this threat… he’d say: “To the moon, Alice!” This threat of violence would be a source of laughter.
Then we started shifting the narrative. Farrah Fawcett made a movie, “The Burning Bed,” where she took on the role of a woman who was being abused. And that narrative started to shift. We started listening to these perspectives, hearing stories of abuse and menace, of threat and violence that began to shift our comfort level. And I look at where we are— and we’re still nowhere near where we need to be—but today, even our most celebrated athletes when they’re credibly accused of domestic violence, there are consequences. That did not exist sixty years ago.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving inhabited that identity and began teaching this nation that we cannot be indifferent to the hazards created by people who drive while intoxicated. It was a very powerful emotional personal truth-telling campaign, where people would talk about the loss of a child, they would talk about the loss of a loved one, and that truth-telling caused our nation to reflect and then change. And we’ve gotten to a very different place when it comes to holding accountable people who drive while intoxicated.
We’ve been doing some truth-telling about love and relationship and love is love. And the stories of same-sex couples that were undeniably stories about love have caused us to reflect and to shift. And it was that narrative that gave rise to marriage equality at the Court.
And so we have all kinds of evidence that it is possible for us to recognize and deal with this legacy of racial inequality. We absolutely should believe that we can do this, but it will require that difficult thing that you’re describing. It will require that kind of truth-telling.
I’m saying to newspapers, you need to tell the truth about the multiple ways in which you contributed to lynchings by your coverage, by the way you legitimated that violence.
I want institutions to reckon with the ways in which they facilitated that racial hierarchy by buying into it. I had conversations with members of The Motion Picture Academy because there is a complicity. We have a whole catalog of films about cowboys and Indians that reinforced that narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white supremacy. Banks were complicit in denying loans to Black families and Black veterans after World War II by being unwilling to give mortgages, and that’s the reason why we have a wealth gap.
There are so many institutions that need to, in my view, tell the truth about their past. And when you tell the truth, you have a different relationship to remedy.
For some reason in this country, we hold wrongdoers accountable for corporate violations, tax violations, contract violations. You breach a contract, not only are you going to have to pay damages, you may have to pay punitive and other damages because we understand that that kind of harm cannot be tolerated.
When people are convicted of crimes— if you steal something from someone— you can’t go to court and just say: Oh, you know what, I’m not gonna do that again, and that makes it okay. You’re going to have to be held accountable. You’re going to have to do something that goes beyond the harm.
And we do that everywhere except in the area of racial justice, in the area of civil rights. In the area of civil rights, after one hundred years of disenfranchising Black people, we passed the Voting Rights Act.
And they didn’t say back, “We won’t.” They actually kind of said, “Well, we’ll look for some new ways to do that.”
We weren’t thinking about that harm. We didn’t tell the truth about that harm. I actually think that the states of the American South that disenfranchised people for one hundred years should have been required to automatically register Black people when they come of age. I don’t think Black people should have to register to vote in Alabama. I think the state should do that as a remedy to our roots of disenfranchisement.
I don’t think it would have been wrong for state universities in this region to open up their doors and offer admission at a discounted rate or even free or the children of the folks who have been excluded.
That’s how you repair and remedy, and we don’t have a consciousness that gives rise to that. But if we embrace that, then yes— I think there is something on the other side of this.
Look, I’ve gone to Germany. I wouldn’t go to Berlin, Germany, even if everybody was nice, even if everybody was pleasant. I would not go there if they were silent about the horrors of the Holocaust. If no one acknowledged it, if no one talked about it, it wouldn’t matter how nice people were in the moment— I couldn’t trust a society that did something that horrific and refused to acknowledge the horror of it. The thing that makes me feel okay about going to Berlin is to see all of that iconography, those stones in front of homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust, taken away.
To see the Holocaust Memorial in the center of the city, to hear people, honestly, encouraging me to go to these spaces. What makes me feel like it’s possible there is that there are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany.
The idea that we would honor and celebrate the architects and defenders of the Holocaust is unconscionable. And there are threats and problems there, don’t get me wrong. There’s a white nationalist movement that we have to worry about, but you don’t see that kind of iconography. There has been some reckoning with what happened. And here in the American South, there is none of that.
Here in America, there is none of that.
I live in a place where the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. I live in a state where Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday, where Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday.
We don’t have Martin Luther King Day, we have Martin Luther King/ Robert E. Lee Day. And that narrative isn’t just unique to the American South, it’s everywhere. There wasn’t a reckoning in California which prohibited interracial marriage until almost 1950. There hasn’t been any of that.
It’s achievable, but only if we find the courage to do the things that must be done. You start talking about race and most places in this country, people get nervous. They exit. You started talking about racial justice and people want to close their ears. We have to have the courage to not do that. The powerful thing is that when we have that courage beautiful things happen.
We’ve been doing this project where we have people go to lynching sites and collect soil. We did one not too long ago and there was a middle-aged Black woman who came to the meeting. We give people a jar, a little implement to dig the soil, and we give them a memo that tells them where the lynching took place. We gave this woman her jar, her implement and her memo, and she was sort of nervous, but she said she was going to do it.
She went to a site somewhere in West Alabama and she got out of her car. It was a very remote location on a dirt road, and she went over to where the lynching took place. She told me she got down on her knees to start digging the soil, and as soon as she did, a truck drove by. There was a big white guy in this truck, who stared at her and slowed down, and then he stopped his truck and turned around.
He drove back by again. She said that the man stared at her some more and she got very nervous. And then this man parked his truck and got out of his truck and started walking toward her. And we tell people when they do these collections that they don’t have to explain what they’re doing. If they want to say they’re just getting dirt for their garden, they’re allowed to do that. And she said that’s what she was going to do when this big white guy walked up to her and he said, “What are you doing?”
She told me, “Mr. Stevenson, I was going to tell him I was just getting dirt for my garden, but all of a sudden something got a hold of me and I told that man, ‘This is where a Black man was lynched in 1937, and I’m going to honor his life.’”
And she said she got nervous, so she started digging real fast, and the man just stood there. And then she said the man said, “Does that paper talk about the lynching?”
She said, “It does.”
And then he said, “Can I read it?” She said yes. She gave the man the paper and she kept digging. And the man read the paper, and then he put it down. And then he shocked her when he said,
“Excuse me, but would it be okay if I helped you?” She said yes, and then the man got down on his knees. She offered him the implement to dig the soil, and he said, “No, no, no, no. You use that. I’ll just use my hands.”
She said that this man started throwing his hands into the soil with such force and commitment, and picking up the soil and putting it in the jar. She said his hands were black with the soil. There was something about the way he just gave it his all that moved her.
She started crying and the man stopped and he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you.” “No, no, no, you’re blessing me.” She said she kept digging with her implement and he kept digging with his hands, and they were getting near the top of the jar and she looked over at him and she could see his shoulder shaking. Then she saw tears running down his face, and she stopped. She said, “Are you okay?” and he said, “No, ma’am. I just, I’m just so worried that it might have been my grandfather that participated in lynching this man.”
He sat there and cried, and she sat there and cried, and they finished putting the soil and the jar. He said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar.” And she said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar.”
And she said that man insisted on coming back with her to Montgomery, to make sure she was okay.
And then she said, “Come on in!” And he didn’t want to come in, but she finally got him in, and these two people came into our space and put that jar of soil in the exhibit we have in our Museum.
Beautiful things like that don’t always happen when you tell the truth, but until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the possibility of the beauty of justice, the beauty of restoration, the beauty of redemption, the beauty of all those things are waiting for us. But we have to be willing to engage in these courageous acts of truth-telling.
I’ve seen too much of it to believe that it can’t be possible for this nation.
I’ve been lifted up by so many. I live in a community where I stand on the shoulders of people who have been beaten and battered, who did so much more with so much less, and they make it impossible for me to accept that we cannot do better. And that’s the gift we’ve been given by our fore-parents, by those who came out of that exodus. It’s a gift to us if we understand the courage and the strength, the belief, the faith that that represents, and we have to hold on to that.
“There’s a line from Alabama to South Central LA…and we haven’t acknowledged that.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous I love that story so much. Part of my job is standing by the graveside with people as we bury their loved ones. In our Jewish tradition we perform the burial ourselves, we cover the coffin with earth. The image of these two collectively lifting and filling, lifting and filling, it feels like they’re really laying to rest an old story, and building together a new one. And that is such a blessing.
If we could see the redemptive possibility, I think that would combat a lot of the fear that people have about actually telling the truth.
Bryan Stevenson When we do things that are intended to help people see the truth, there’s often pushback.
Part of what I’ve been interested in doing is getting people to understand the trauma, the burden, the the heaviness of having to live in this country that talks so much about democracy and equality while you’re being threatened, while you’re being terrorized, while you’re being lynched.
Older people of color come up to me they say: Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody talking about how we’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.
They say: we grew up with terror— we were worried about being bombed and lynched and menaced.
The Black people in LA, the Black people in Oakland, the Black people in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit did not go to those communities as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South.
There’s a line from Alabama to South Central LA. There’s a line from Mississippi to Chicago, and we haven’t acknowledged that. When we opened this memorial we wanted to try to do something that was healing to all of that trauma because when you suffer, the tears of sorrow that you shed create stains.
When you are menaced, when you’re abused, the tears of anguish that you shed create stains. They create a weight that can wear you down.
That’s why we invite people to come and visit us, and that is the gift that awaits us if we have the courage to do the things that must be done. That’s our hope. That’s what we have to hold on to.
This is a really uncertain time in American history. I’ve never been worried about as many things as I’m worried about right now. But I have this enduring hope, I have this faith that I’m going to hold on to because I still believe that beautiful things are waiting for us.
Racial justice and the path to redemption: A conversation with Bryan Stevenson and Rabbi Sharon Brous