Truth-Telling Before Reconciliation: A Conversation with Bryan Stevenson
Meet Bryan Stevenson. Bryan graces our cover and we are thrilled to report that he will be the closing keynote speaker at AFP’s International Fundraising Conference in New Orleans, April 15–17.
Founded and led by Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, in addition to challenging racial and economic injustice and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
Stevenson has successfully argued against life imprisonment for minors before the Supreme Court, successfully defended more than 115 prisoners facing execution, and launched a movement to memorialize victims of lynching and other forms of brutality.
Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls Bryan Stevenson “America’s Mandela.” “Justice needs champions,” he says, “and Bryan Stevenson is such a champion.”
This conversation between Bryan Stevenson and Michael Nilsen, AFP’s vice president for communications and public policy, took place on Aug. 31, 2017.
Michael: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. We really appreciate the time. I have just a few questions for an article we would like to write about some of your work and get out to our members ahead of our conference … So I will dive right in.
We had just received the agreement that you would talk to our conference coming up next year when I saw you on “The Daily Show.” I was really struck by some of the things you said there. In particular, you were talking about the difference between Germany and the U.S.—how Germany wants people to see their history and be reminded of what happened, while here in the U.S., we still have statues of the Confederacy and all of these issues we are not talking about. And I’m curious: Do you see [the recent events in] Charlottesville as a potential start for us accelerating discussions here in the U.S. about coming to grips with our past and our background, and being able to reach toward reconciliation?
Bryan: Well, I don’t believe we will make the progress we need to make until we all commit ourselves in a proactive way to address these problems. I think we’ve learned that reaction hasn’t helped us very much. Before Charlottesville, there was Charleston, South Carolina. There was Ferguson, Missouri, and then Baltimore and Baton Rouge. Throughout our history, we’ve seen manifestations of our failure to address our history of racial inequality create moments of crisis—in Los Angeles in 1992 and Detroit in 1967. It’s been a part of our history forever. So I think we have to address our history proactively.
We haven’t talked about what it means to be a post-genocide society, where millions of native people were slaughtered by famine, war, and disease by white settlers.
I’ve always believed that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.
We haven’t talked about the legacy of slavery—or the ideology of white supremacy that justified the enslavement of black people—where we said black people were not fully human or not like other people. We haven’t talked about that.
We lived through this era of racial terror when we allowed thousands of people to gather in public spaces and cheer the torture, murder, and brutal execution of black men, women, and children who were burned alive and hanged in these spaces.
We allowed it to happen with no conversation. We never asked people to talk about that or to be accountable for that.
Even in the civil rights space—the heroic struggle to end disenfranchisement and end segregation and all the humiliating practices that demonized people of color—we haven’t required much truth-telling about that. I think we’ve got to commit ourselves to this.
In South Africa, you do see a commitment for people never to forget the damage done by apartheid. There is an apartheid museum. There are narratives everywhere.
In Rwanda, no one who comes there is allowed to spend time there without hearing about the genocide.
In Germany, there is a commitment to remind people about the pain and suffering of the Holocaust.
In the United States, it is the opposite. Not only are we not committed to telling [the] truth about slavery, lynching, and segregation, we have actually erected an iconography about a false story: how grand and glorious the 19th century was; how honorable the architects and defenders of slavery were; how fantastic it was to live in the first half of the 20th century; and how noble these elected leaders were while preaching segregation forever, or war.
It means we have a political moment where we are talking about making America great again without defining what is this era that was so great that we want African-Americans and people of color to relive.
I think that our failure to tell truthfully about our history has left us vulnerable to the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville and the kind of division that still seems to plague us and compromise our ability to get to a more just place.
Michael: You mentioned we have to have truth, then reconciliation. Are those ideas, those principles, a way to look at what EJI does, its mission? You’re engaged
in so many different issues that seem to be related to these ideas.
Bryan: Yes, it is. I think we all want reconciliation. We want peace, we want understanding, we want redemption—all of these wonderful things. But we haven’t committed ourselves to truth-telling. Truth and reconciliation are not simultaneous. They are sequential. Tell the truth first, and it’s the truth that motivates you to understand what it will take to recover, repair, endure—to reconcile.
I do think we haven’t done the hard part, truth-telling, which is a predicate, the precondition to the reformation and reconciliation that follows.
Michael: One of the major projects EJI focuses on is working with prisoners on death row and the exoneration of innocent, wrongly accused individuals. How did you get started doing that with EJI?
Bryan: I was in law school, really struggling for a career path that was going to resonate with my life experience and my hopes and ambitions. I took an internship that brought me to Atlanta, Georgia.
That’s where I first met the community of lawyers representing people on death row who were deeply engaged by that work. I was inspired by their level of commitment and passion.
They asked me to go to death row and meet someone who had not met any lawyers yet just to explain to him that he wasn’t at risk of execution. That experience of going to death row, and of meeting a condemned person whose humanity was so palpable and so tangible, whose value was so evident to me, was deeply transformative.
When I left that space, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground. But I also knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey. If he didn’t get there, I wouldn’t get there. It radicalized my sense of being a lawyer. When I went back to Harvard, I was deeply committed to understanding everything I could about substantive due process, legal due process, federalism, and all of these legal doctrines that were going to be critical to my capacity to help condemned people.
That experience has caused me to understand that our work in human rights, in social justice, and in trying to create equality and opportunity is really dependent on our willingness to get proximate—close to those we serve, close to the poor, close to the incarcerated, close to the excluded, the abused and neglected. What that experience in law school taught me is that proximity is critical in creating the understanding and the power to make a difference in the world, and it has shaped the rest of my career.
Michael: Just hearing you, it feels like such a massive task. How do you get involved with someone on death row and work on those cases? Where do you start with each one?
Bryan: Well, we try to understand their lives. I’ve always believed that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. If you let the crime someone is accused of define them entirely, you’ll miss a lot of things that need to be seen. I think because we are all more than the worst we have ever done, justice requires we understand the other things you are.
So, what we try to do at EJI is investigate the lives of our clients, to understand the lives of our clients, and to contextualize the stories that have taken people to death row. Then we make sure that before someone is judged, and certainly before someone is executed, that we understand that story. We think that when you hear that story, it makes you pause. It cautions you against taking life.
We’ve used the same approach in trying to get people to understand what it means to throw away our children. We are now putting children in adult jails and prisons, condemning 13- and 14-year-old kids to die in prison with sentences of life imprisonment without parole. I think when you reveal the lives of these children, you understand the nature of what it means to be an adolescent in a community shaped by violence. It changes your perspective on how we should punish, how we should intervene, and how we should respond when kids fall down. That is at the heart of what we are trying to do.
We are trying to get this country to be more thoughtful and more informed as it develops criminal justice policies and platforms. With greater insights, we would not be pursuing many of the policies we are. We wouldn’t be throwing people away. We wouldn’t be locking up nonviolent offenders. We wouldn’t be treating drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue, but see it as health issue. And I think we would end up in a very different place than where we have ended up—which is, the nation with the highest incarceration in the world, a nation with more people in jails and prisons than any other per capita.
Michael: I’m sure working on these issues sometimes gets very emotional and a bit overwhelming. I think I recall you saying that nothing was as difficult for you to read as the McCleskey case, where the court basically admitted it didn’t want to deal with the “totality of the truth,” as you put it, and even try to address the issues of racial disparities in sentencing. How do you keep going day to day feeling very optimistic?
Bryan: I have the great fortune to live and work in a place like Montgomery, Alabama. I look backwards and think about people who were trying to do what I am doing 50 years ago.
In Montgomery, I can look out the window and think about people like John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, E.D. Nixon, Johnnie Carr, C.T. Vivian, and so many others who fought to create more justice for marginalized communities.
What they often had to say is, “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” But I have never had to say that. They did so much with so little. I have got so many more resources. We have a community of lawyers. We have so much more security to do what we are doing than those who came before me.
When I look back, it compels me actually to understand there are going to be challenges. But I cannot stop. I stand on the shoulders of people who endured firehoses, violent dogs, brutal police officers, and guardsmen with clubs, just to make progress.
I am standing on the shoulders of people who had to worry about being lynched and burned alive, or tortured or brutalized, simply for organizing sharecroppers or trying to create better economic conditions for African-Americans.
I am standing on the shoulders of my great grandfather, who learned to read as a slave knowing that it could cost him his life—that he could be pulled away from his family if it was discovered that he knew how to read.
Their courage, their commitment, their tenacity, and their resolve makes it impossible for me to get overwhelmed or so discouraged I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I am being watched by this community of witnesses, people who have come before me. When you know you are being watched by the enslaved, by the paralyzed victims of lynching, by those humiliated by segregation, you cannot waver. You cannot slow down. You have got to keep fighting, and that really is what energizes me, what encourages me, and what empowers me to do all that I can do for justice in this country.
Michael: You’ve mentioned your own personal inspirations. Do you have any words or advice, or something for fundraisers to think about as they work on their own particular issues and causes, whatever they might be?
Bryan: I do believe we have to remember that most people in our nation and around the world want to be compassionate. They want to be kind. They want to be generous. They want to be merciful.
They oftentimes get distracted by the politics of fear and anger.
They get disrupted by insecurity and false narratives of bigotry.
As development professionals, our goal is to, yes, create the support our institutions need to do the work. But I also think we should remind people of how affirming compassion can be, of how uplifting it can be when we support one another, when we take on the burden of other people, when we show our love for our brother and sister, our neighbor, for the sick, for the displaced, for the incarcerated, for the oppressed, when we actually show compassion and kindness and mercy and support a call for justice. It does something to uplift all of us.
So, I really do believe that we have the ability to create opportunities for people to live better, to live more connected, and to live in greater awareness of what it means to be just and human. The exciting opportunity development professionals have is to push us away from fear and anger and toward something that is affirming and restorative and uplifting.
Sometimes it feels burdensome and technical and exhausting. But it is ultimately how we make civil rights meaningful, and we definitely need that more and more at this point in our history.