Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality: RaceAhead
Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard-trained lawyer who has spent his career working as a passionate advocate for criminal justice reform and the wrongly convicted, is the subject of a new documentary airing tonight on HBO. You will not want to miss it.
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality is an unprecedented look at one of the most influential, yet unknown figures in modern legal history. “I am persuaded and still am that the criminal justice system reveals the problems of our history of bias against the poor and people of color unlike few systems do,” he says in the film.
Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a legal enterprise which now includes The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial dedicated to the thousands of people who were killed by racial terror violence during segregation and anyone who is “burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” (He also brought the house down at the Fortune CEO Initiative last year.)
His work has been extraordinary. He’s argued five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, one which resulted in a ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole for children under 18. To date, the EJI has won release or relief for more than 135 wrongly convicted death-row inmates — and they’re still working. He’s a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. And his bestselling book, “True Mercy,” is being made into a feature film, starring Michael B. Jordan. “I was just visiting the cast in L.A. yesterday,” Stevenson tells raceAhead. “I told Michael he could keep his Creed and Black Panther body to play me,” he laughs.
It’s a rare bit of levity for a person who up until now has stayed mostly out of the public eye, in part to protect his vulnerable clients. But the visibility the documentary and film will bring is part of a larger strategy, he says. “It will allow people to see and understand things about our justice system that they don’t frequently get to see,” he says.
In True Justice, we learn that Stevenson is himself a product of segregated schools,and he shares quiet but wrenching stories of the Jim Crow cruelty his own family experienced. His professional life was made possible in large part by his ability to move past the eighth grade in his segregated Delaware town, thanks to Brown v. Board of Education – a decision made by the very legal system which continues to maintain white supremacy.
“Bryan’s heart for this work became evident early on,” says his brother Howard in the film. Howard Stevenson had the grim duty of breaking the news to his parents that their other son was not destined to become a wealthy attorney. “But they came around because when they met the folks he was working with and could see how their life changed. That looks like church. They were more familiar with that.”
I asked Stevenson how he was thinking about the rise of hate speech and violence in the U.S., and the crisis at the U.S. border. “When we give in to the politics of fear and anger, we allow things to happen that should never happen,” he says. “Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice, of exclusion of bigotry and oppression,” he says. “We have to see that as a real threat to a democracy that prides itself on just treatment and equal rights.”
He also says that big business has a role to play in the quest for societal equality, particularly as it wrestles with diversity and inclusion. He offers three pieces of advice. “I do think we have to pay attention to the narratives that support the policy decisions that we make,” he says. “If you operate on a model – that women are like this, or people of color are like this — then that model is sustained by a narrative that is false or bigoted, and your efforts around diversity and inclusion are going to be compromised.”
Another part of the work is believing things that you haven’t seen. “This country has been shaped by patriarchy and dominated by white men,” he says. “We haven’t seen the kind of diversity and inclusion and representation of women and people of color in power positions that would have been better to see.” From this point of view, “believing” is an act of imagination and a choice. “I think that’s an explicit commitment we need to make.”
And finally, he says, everyone has to be prepared to squirm a bit. “We can’t change these larger systems without being willing to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient,” he says. It’s daunting work and it has to go deep.
Stevenson is plenty uncomfortable. He’s still actively representing people in jails and prisons. He’s worried about overcrowding in prisons and is launching a new effort on mental health. “People with severe mental disabilities can get no accommodations in the justice sector. I think that’s unusual and cruel,” he says.
But he’s pleased with the memorial and museum, which welcomed 400,000 visitors in its first year, and is expanding to include meeting space, and a new site with details of 1,600 more victims of lynching. It was a risky endeavor which is paying off. “All of this work of memory and art, it’s all important,” he says. “We’ve done such a poor job educating people on the legacy of all these problems that we’ve inherited from enslavement and lynching and segregation.”
Our willingness to be uncomfortable with him will not be for nothing, he says.
“I just think we’re all burdened by this history and I just think that something better is waiting for us. Something that feels more like freedom, something that feels more like equality,” he says. “Something that feels more like justice than anything any of us are experiencing in this country.”
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|Toronto City News|
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|Revision Path|Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.