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.”
|Boston-based employees of Wayfair walk out in protest|
|The planned walk-out was designed to protest the company’s refusal to stop selling furniture to the detention facilities holding asylum-seekers at the U.S border. Last week, employees learned that a $200,000 order of bedroom furniture had been placed by BCFS, a government contractor that manages the concentration camps. “Knowing what’s going on at the southern border and knowing that Wayfair has the potential to profit from it is pretty scary,” Elizabeth Good, a manager on the engineering team told The Boston Globe. “I want to work at a company where the standards we hold ourselves to are the same standards that we hold our customers and our partners to.” Nearly 550 employees signed a letter asking management to change course. Other bulk customers are expressing support online at #WayfairWalkout.|
|Ottawa gets serious about ridding its federal institutions of racism|
|Canada’s federal government is establishing a new secretariat designed to mitigate systemic racism and discrimination in their programs and services. “Every day in Canada people still face systemic racism and discrimination…it’s often subtle, sometimes invisible, but always unacceptable,” Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told the Toronto City News, citing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. The new office is part of a broader anti-racism effort that will be focusing on things like legal services, job-skills training, and anti-hate speech measures.|
|Toronto City News|
|RIP Norman Stone?|
|Official obituaries are typically dry affairs, appropriately laudatory and respectful of those who expect to be comforted by good memories. Historian Norman Stone, who died recently at the age of 78, was afforded no such send-off. “At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some rightwing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”), Edward Heath (“a flabby-faced coward”) and many more.” It’s all funny stuff…until you realize the damage he left in his wake, with his retrograde ideas of history and his boorish behavior, ever rewarded with more work. “On the occasions when he did appear in Oxford to do some teaching, Stone became notorious for groping his female students…” Sigh. He also wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher and spent his later years denying the Armenian genocide. I dedicate this summary to all the extraordinary historians who were unable to find a job because of all the space this privileged man evidently took up.|
|The racial realities of “a good death”|
|The ideas around “dying well” varies from person to person, and typically reflect their religious views, social norms, and ideas about what makes for a good life. But African Americans are more likely to be burdened by disease, and die sooner, and more uncomfortably, than white Americans. The reasons are complex, but bias is a clear factor. African Americans are less likely to receive pain medication management, higher-quality care or survive surgical procedures, writes Jason Ashe and Danielle L. Beatty Moody, in The Conversation. And we’re also exposed to the untimely deaths of loved ones at an earlier age. “As African American scholars, we argue the ‘art of dying well’ may be a distant and romantic notion for the African American community,” they write.|
|An enslaved man taught the colonists how to immunize themselves against smallpox|
|Today in history you should have learnt: An enslaved man named Onesimus shared his knowledge of the inoculation techniques he’d experienced in West Africa, which helped public officials stem the tide of a terrible smallpox epidemic that infected nearly half of Boston’s 11,000 residents in 1721. Onesimus was enslaved by a man you’ve probably heard of: Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister best known for his role in setting the stage for the Salem witch trials. Mather had been interested in the inoculation science that was emerging around the world, but the idea was still controversial. Onesimus shared the details with Mather – who took the unusual step of transcribing Onesimus’s instructions word for word, complete with his African accent. “People take juice of smallpox and cuttee skin, and put in a drop.” You’ll find the story around the 15:30 mark of this fascinating podcast.|
|Revision Path, an award-winning podcast on design, releases its 300th episode|
|The podcast is hosted by Maurice Cherry, a brilliant thinker in his own right. In this episode, he talks to Hannah Beachler, the first black person to be nominated for and win the Academy Award for Best Production Design, for Black Panther. (Her stories about building the Warrior Falls set, which took seven months and used 150,000 gallons of water, are incredible.) Cherry’s interview style is breezy and fun, like sitting in on a dishy conversation between geniuses. Beachler’s work includes Fruitvale Station, Creed, Moonlight, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, as well as the On The Run II tour with Beyoncé and Jay Z. She digs deep into how she uses design and visual thinking to eliminate stereotypes in film, which is especially vital on a biopic like Fruitvale Station. “When we’re not telling our own story, it gets told through a lens that people don’t even know they have,” she says.|
|Revision Path|Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today’s summaries.