“Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
-Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
A walking tour through Montgomery’s shame: Start on Commerce Avenue, where the name says it all. A main thoroughfare through downtown Montgomery, the street was central to the American slave trade. It provided a route for land owners to march their enslaved from the riverfront and railroad to slave depots throughout the city.
Follow this street today to the intersection of Dexter Avenue and you will find a historical marker indicating the exact spot where Rosa Parks boarded a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott and subsequent Civil Rights Movement. This bus stop sits adjacent to Court Square, once a central hub for slave auctions and public lynchings that attracted thousands of bystanders. Towering from a hilltop around the corner is the Alabama State Capitol building, birthplace of the Confederacy and ending point of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.
In Montgomery, Alabama, glaring reminders of injustice and glimmers of reconciliation converge. It’s where contradictory icons seem to wrestle each other for attention, where the Confederate flag still flies next to Civil Rights historical markers. Yet it’s also where God may be quietly weaving a painful history into a redemptive narrative.
The year was 1985 when Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law, packed up his weathered 1975 Honda Civic and moved to Montgomery to become a public defender for the poor, accused, and condemned. While his Harvard peers went on to secure lucrative and high-powered jobs, Stevenson accepted $14,000 a year and a front row seat to the racial bias that disproportionately affects people of color in our nation’s criminal justice system.
According to a 2015 study on race and punishment, 58 percent of the prison population is black and Latino, despite those groups comprising just 30 percent of the population. Another study found that “people of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 and 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution.” Stevenson’s proximity to the people behind these statistics instilled two beliefs that would define his life’s work: that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Just four years after graduating from law school, Stevenson founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. EJI would go on to challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment, as well as advocate for the alleviation of bias in the United States criminal justice system. To date, the organization has relieved over a hundred men from the death penalty and has overturned a multitude of wrongful convictions.
It’s been over thirty years since Stevenson made the move to Montgomery, home of the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing. He’s been coined “America’s Nelson Mandela,” but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in the praise—he keeps his head down, more committed than ever to the arduous, unglamorous work of reforming the United States criminal justice system. Most recently, Stevenson led the charge to build a memorial dedicated to the thousands of victims terrorized by America’s historical practice of lynching. The first landmark of its kind, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April 2018 in Montgomery and has galvanized the nation to confront an evil, often-unspoken chapter of its past.
This February we paid a visit to the EJI office, a converted slave warehouse on Commerce Avenue nestled between a sandwich shop and a Hank Williams museum. With dozens of staff knee-deep in memorial preparations, the air was electric with reform on the mind. At the heartbeat of it all is Stevenson, who despite his increasing fame and recognition continues to involve himself in the day-to-day minutiae of eradicating injustice. Speaking with his trademark clarity and precision, Stevenson conversed with us about the importance of storytelling for reform, confronting the silence of history, and sustaining justice work through faith.
Nations: Why is it important for people who are “on the inside” to listen to the stories of people “on the margins”? What do stories told from the margins have to teach us?
Stevenson: Telling stories is an important way to get people to step outside themselves, to think beyond their own limitations and experiences. We’ve seen what’s happened with issues like domestic violence, where 50 years ago, we were not very sensitive or attentive to women who were being abused in their homes. The dominant narrative was if you make a bad choice and marry or get into relationship with someone who is abusive, then that’s your fault. And society didn’t actually accept any responsibility for that. Through storytelling, through hearing the stories of women who had been abused, and the pain and horror of that, by getting intimate with those stories, we actually began to think differently about the kind of problem that domestic violence represents. And we’ve moved as a result of that.
The same can be true for how we think about our criminal justice system. If we reduce people to their worst act and say, “That’s just a drug dealer,” or “just a thief” then it’s very easy to feel like any cruelty, any abuse, any mistreatment that person is experiencing in a jail or prison is not a concern. But it’s through story that we can help people understand that, even if you sold drugs, you’re not just a drug dealer—[you’re] more than that. [Story is] the strategy behind a lot of what we’re trying to do for both criminal justice reform and changing the way we think about poverty and race. You have to use narrative to get people to step into a space that they otherwise wouldn’t step into.
EJI has given a substantial effort to advocating for and constructing historical markers indicating points of slavery and lynching. Why are they a necessary part of our national reckoning?
For me, the memorials and the markers are cultural responses to a more fundamental problem, which is that we are burdened by our history of racial inequality in this country. When European settlers came to this continent, we killed millions of native people. We pushed them off their lands and through famine, war, and disease, we destroyed a culture, decimated a population and in contemporary parlance, it was a genocide. In that sense, we are a post-genocide society. There are things you have to do to get healthy, to recover if you are a post-genocide society. And we haven’t done them.
I think the reason we haven’t done them is we haven’t talked honestly about our history. If that was the only problem, that would be a pretty substantial problem. But of course that history and narrative of racial difference we created to justify how we dealt with native populations is what then made us vulnerable to justifying centuries of enslavement. To me, the problem with the American slavery experience wasn’t just that we kidnapped people and brought them into this country, [then] forced them into bondage and involuntary servitude and forced labor. That’s a huge problem. But the even bigger problem in my mind is that we created this narrative that black people are different than white people, that they’re not the same, that they’re not as smart, that they’re not as capable, that they’re not fully human. We allowed a society to develop with the idea that these people aren’t fully human because their color makes them inferior. And that narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white supremacy damaged everybody, not just the enslaved black people, but all of the people around them who were socialized into accepting that narrative.
So then we get to abolition, we get to the Civil War, we try to end enslavement through the 13th Amendment without recognizing that if we don’t talk about this ideology of white supremacy—if we don’t deal with this narrative of racial difference—our people are still going to be bound, they’re still going to be burdened, they’re still going to be living this lie that is organized around this false idea that your color can make you less human. We allowed that to happen through our silence; the church was silent, political institutions were silent, social institutions were silent, and that silence created the modern society that you and I live in where there is still this narrative of racial difference, and it is evident in all kinds of ways. It’s evident on Sunday mornings and where people worship, it’s evident where people go to school, it’s evident in the way we think about politics, all of it.
What is the first step toward breaking this silence?
If we’re going to be free from this huge burden we have inherited, we’ve got to confront the silence of this history, we’ve got to talk about the fact that we’re a post-genocide society. We’ve got to talk about slavery, lynching, segregation, the presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to black and brown people. We’ve got to talk about the way we think about issues like immigration and how racialized our thinking can sometimes be. We have to talk about the implicit bias that we have created because we’ve digested all of this stuff. These projects—the memorial and the markers—are a way of facilitating these conversations.
What I want is the identity of people in this country and region to shift so that we are not still proudly embracing this era where we enslaved, terrorized, excluded other people because of their color. I think on the other side of that, if we can achieve it, is something that could feel like freedom. It will actually create an environment where we can love one another and connect with one another and be comfortable with one another in ways that just don’t exist right now.
In the midst of the constant injustice to which you bear witness, how do you not grow weary?
I say to people all the time, justice is a constant struggle. I think you have to expect a certain level of weariness, you just have to have a strategy for managing it. I feel really fortunate to be in some ways well-trained because I was surrounded by people growing up who had so much to make them weary, who had to deal with so much that could push them down. And yet they persisted, and yet they prevailed. That witness has been really important to me.
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved; she had 10 children. And yet she was fearless and resilient and loving in the face of so much tragedy and heartbreak. My grandfather was murdered and it didn’t take away her capacity to love or forgive or share. My parents couldn’t go to college and my mom in particular believed so much in education that she went into debt so that she could put the World Book Encyclopedia in our home. She believed in the power of information. Even here in Montgomery where I work, I think about the people who are trying to do what I’m trying to do now. I think about the people who were trying to do that 60 years ago. The people 60 years ago had to frequently say, “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” They had to deal with the physical torment of standing up for their rights. I’ve never had to say, “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” It just gives me perspective on the nature of the struggle that we are engaged in.
I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of people who had to do so much more with so much less that it challenges me and pushes me to not give in to the inevitable weariness, the sense that this is too much. I do believe that all of those people—the enslaved who paraded up this street, the communities of color who were terrorized by lynchings, the brave men, women, and children who had to deal with the pain and humiliation of segregation—I do believe all of those folks are watching; they are witnesses to what we are trying to do to create more justice, more opportunity. When you feel surrounded by that kind of community, it encourages you, affirms you, sustains you, empowers you to keep on pushing when you sometimes get tired.
How does your faith inform your justice work?
For me, the church was a sanctuary from all the challenges that were surrounding me. Particularly growing up in a segregated community, it was the only place where you could have your voice heard. I couldn’t get the opportunities to do the things I wanted to do in school and community, but the church actually responded to that. So it was a really important part of my development.
And of course as a person of faith it was important for me to believe things I hadn’t seen. I had that theology in my head, but sometimes we hear the theology, we hear the scripture, but we don’t actually understand how to apply it. I felt really fortunate that in my circumstance, I had to apply it; I had to believe things I hadn’t seen to achieve anything I wanted to. I had never met a lawyer until I got to law school. So [I had] to believe I could be one even though I hadn’t seen one that looks like me.
I think of much of what I do as ministry. I don’t think we can actually be attentive to people’s desires, people’s need for redemption and recovery, if we don’t understand the barrier created by injustice and inequality and unfairness. And you can fight inequality, you can fight injustice, you can fight unfairness without that same commitment to redemption and recovery and restoration, but when you can do it with that commitment it represents, at least for me, something much more integrated, much more complete.
I’m proud to stand with condemned people, I’m proud to stand with people who have been rejected and disfavored and excluded. I’m proud to assert that I can make that stand because of what I believe as a Christian about redemption and transformation. In fact I think the church is called to stand with the disfavored and condemned and excluded. It is only when we stand with those who have been pushed aside that we understand and reflect what it means to be servants and agents of change.
What spiritual practices sustain you?
I grew up playing music, and so music has been a real important space to me to recover and find comfort. As a young musician in the church, I used to play for testimonial services. What I remember most about that that has continued to shape me is when people would come in and would give testimony to really painful experiences they had had during the week. Sometimes there’d be these mothers who would talk about a child who didn’t come home, or a loss that seemed unbearable, or some injury or grief that they had to navigate. They would tell these heartbreaking testimonies, then they would stop and they would start singing, “Wouldn’t take nothin’ from my journey now.” Because they understood that their redemption and recovery wasn’t rooted in their sorrow; it was in their capacity to overcome that sorrow with this hope, this faith, this belief.
That has sustained me, oriented me, so that even when we’re in these moments of great angst because somebody’s about to be executed, or someone is threatening us, or someone is saying something really menacing and difficult, I’ve come to believe that doesn’t define my existence, my relationship to these topics. It creates that opportunity to say, “Wouldn’t take nothin’ from my journey now.” As a person of faith, as long as I can say that I feel like there is going to be this joy, this power, this hope that can animate what I’m trying to do. That’s all you can ask for.
Learn more about Bryan Stevenson and the work of Equal Justice Initiative at eji.org.
All photos courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative.