- Bryan Stevensonfounder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the country’s first-ever memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States. He is an attorney who has worked on death penalty cases in the Deep South for decades. He is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened last week in Montgomery, Alabama—a monument to victims of white supremacy in the United States. The memorial’s centerpiece is a walkway with 800 weathered steel pillars overhead, each of them naming a U.S. county and the people who were lynched there by white mobs. In addition to the memorial dedicated to the victims of lynching, its partner site, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, also opened last week. For more, we speak with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the country’s first-ever memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, a monument to victims of white supremacy in the United States. The memorial’s centerpiece is a walkway with 800 weathered steel pillars overhead, each of them naming a U.S. county and the people who were lynched there by white mobs. This a clip, played during one of the opening events for the museum, featuring the family members of lynching victims.
SHIRAH DEDMAN: My great-grandfather, Thomas William Miles Sr., was lynched. This man was taken and strangled to death. They also shot bullets in him.
DORIA JOHNSON: They stabbed him, beat him, tied him to the back of the buggy and drove that around town.
TARABU KIRKLAND: His lynching was advertised in the Mississippi news. They dismembered parts of his body as souvenirs.
WILLIE THOMAS: One of them say, “Well, we gon’ hang him?” And so he made up the noose. And he put it ’round my neck. I remember.
SHIRAH DEDMAN: There was no accountability. Families torn apart, communities torn apart, loss of businesses, loss of history. As a black person, you don’t expect justice.
AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the memorial dedicated to the victims of lynching, its partner site, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, also opened Thursday. The museum is located on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned. It’s midway between a historic slave market and the dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade.
The museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice are the culmination of years of exhaustive research and interviews with local historians and descendants of lynching victims, conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, led by its director, Bryan Stevenson. In 2017, the Equal Justice Initiative issued the third edition of its “Lynching in America” report, which found that white Southerners lynched nearly 4,400 black men, women and children between 1877 and 1950. Nearly 800 of those lynchings were previously unaccounted for. The report details a 1916 attack in which a mob lynched Jeff Brown for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train. In 1940, a crowd lynched Jesse Thornton for not addressing a white police officer as “mister.” In many cases, the lynchings were attended by the entire white communities in an area.
For more, we go to Alabama, where we’re joined by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who’s worked on death penalty cases in the Deep South since 1985, the founder, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative.
Bryan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on this epic achievement, the museum and the monument. Talk about the years that have gone into developing this and why you pushed so hard for this in Montgomery, Alabama.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, thank you, Amy. It’s great to be with you.
I’m a product of Brown v. Board of Education. I grew up in a community where black children couldn’t go to the public schools. There were actually no high schools for black kids when my dad was a teenager. And so, when lawyers came into our community and made them open up the public schools, it planted a seed in my mind that the law can be a powerful tool for protecting disfavored people, marginalized communities. And I’ve kind of lived by that. I went to law school. I’ve been practicing law for over 30 years. And I’m still persuaded that the rule of law is critical to our capacity to create justice for those who are disempowered.
But I’ve come to understand recently that even the law will be [in]sufficient if we don’t change the narrative, if we don’t create a deeper commitment to equality. And I think even our courts have been compromised by this narrative of racial difference that we have in America, this history of racial inequality that has made us tolerant of bigotry and discrimination.
So, about 10 years ago, we began working on a project to change the narrative. We started doing this research on slavery, on lynching, on segregation. We put out these reports. We started putting up public markers, because this region is a region where the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy.
People often say to me, “Why do you want to dig up the past? Why do you want to start talking about the past?” We are preoccupied with the past in the American South. Last Monday was Confederate Memorial Day. It’s a state holiday. We have a state holiday of Jefferson Davis’s birthday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. And this preoccupation with mid-19th century history is one of the characteristics that oppresses and burdens people of color. We talk about the mid-19th century, but we never talk about slavery. So, for me, talking about slavery, talking about lynching, talking about segregation, talking about our history of racial inequality is critical to creating a consciousness that will allow us to move forward toward a just—toward justice and equality. And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: Bryan, I want to go to a clip from a short documentary that the Equal Justice Initiative produced last year highlighting the story of one family whose ancestor was lynched.
DORIA JOHNSON: My great-great-grandfather Anthony Crawford had an altercation at a store with a white storekeeper about the price of his cottonseed. Grandpa refused to do business with him, and was arrested, and then was lynched in a spectacle, ritualistic killing at the town square in Abbeville, South Carolina, 100 years ago.
A lot of people don’t talk about the lynchings in their family, and some of us do. For those of us who do, we represent a whole slew of people who are so traumatized that they can’t speak, that their relatives did not pass down this history to them. So the Crawfords have always felt, I think, an obligation to speak up for Grandpa Crawford. We were all socialized that way.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s, Bryan Stevenson, the documentary about this project that memorializes the victims of white supremacy, of slavery, of lynching. Bryan, you’ve said that slavery didn’t really end in 1865. You’ve talked about it just evolving, from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration. Can you lay out that trajectory?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Sure. I do think that the great evil of American slavery was this narrative of racial difference. I mean, we have to understand that our nation has a very unhealthy narrative of racial difference, that began at the very first moment when Europeans came to this continent. I mean, there were millions of Native people here. We are a post-genocide society, because what I think we did to Native people was genocide. We killed them by the millions. We slaughtered them through famine and war and disease. We didn’t own up to that, because we said those Native people are different racially.
And that narrative of racial difference is part of the reason why slavery flourished for so long. I really do believe the great evil of American slavery was this ideology of white supremacy, this myth we made up that black people aren’t the same, they’re not as evolved, they’re not fully human, they’re three-fifths human. And that consciousness, that bigotry, that ideology, was, for me, the true evil of American slavery.
And in 1865, when the Civil War was over and we passed the 13th Amendment, we committed to ending involuntary servitude and forced labor, but we didn’t say anything about this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy. And because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved.
It turned into decades of terrorism. And what happened to African Americans between Reconstruction and World War II was racial terror. Black people were being pulled out of their homes, they were drowned, they were beaten, they were hanged, they were brutalized—sometimes on the courthouse lawn in front of thousands of white people who cheered and celebrated this ritualistic violence.
And it had a powerful impact on communities of color. In fact, sometimes older people of color come up to me, and they say, “Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody on TV 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 had to worry about being bombed and lynched and menaced every day of our lives.” And 6 million people fled, black people fled, the American South during the 20th century. And the black people in Cleveland, in Chicago, in Detroit, in Los Angeles, in Oakland didn’t go to those communities as immigrants; they went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror. And we haven’t talked about this history, this legacy.
So, in our memorial in Montgomery that opened last week, when you walk into the space, the first sculpture you see is a slavery sculpture. It’s people enchained. It was made by West African artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. He calls it Nkyinkim, which is an African word for resistance and resiliency in the face of oppression.
But it’s important for people to understand that without slavery, without the legacy of slavery, without this ideology of white supremacy, black women and men would not have been lynched for bumping into a white person, for walking behind a white woman, for knocking on the front door, for all of these social transgressions. It would not have happened.
And I also think that this era is important for understanding how we got to where we are now. When you come out of our memorial that honors these 4,000 victims of racial terror lynchings, we have another sculpture, created by Dana King. It’s called Guided by Justice. It’s three women walking during the Montgomery bus boycott. And one of the points we’re trying to make is that we have not fully appreciated the courage of people like Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Rosa Parks in resisting segregation. They could have lost their lives. And that courage has to be understood.
And then, of course, the fourth sculpture is by Hank Willis Thomas, and it’s a collection of men with their arms raised up, which speaks to this present moment, where this ideology of white supremacy, this narrative of racial difference, persists. And today we still live in a country where black and brown people are frequently presumed dangers and guilty just because of their color. And whether they’re sitting in a Starbucks or they’re in a courtroom or they’re confronting a police officer, that burden still exists. And we’re not going to lift that burden until we tell this history, this story, and motivate people to deal with this issue much more directly.
AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, we’re going to have our second break be Common, the rap that he did on Friday night at the concert, Equal Justice Initiative’s Concert for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Letter to the Free” by Common, performed Friday night at Equal Justice Initiative’s Concert for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with rapper, activist, actor Common, who performed that night. Between songs, he addressed the audience.
COMMON: Like a lot of people from Chicago, my family migrated—my family migrated from the Deep South, from several generations ago. And, yes, they were seeking jobs and education, but they also were fleeing racial terror. They were fleeing terrorists in the South, racial terrorists. Now, some of my ancestors migrated, and some stayed. But we’ve all learned that these decades later, there is really no running from our collective history.
This history is our American history. And it’s time for us to acknowledge it, no matter what color you are—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. It’s time for us to acknowledge it. And we’d like to live in a reality where our country is growing, and is grown, where freedom and dignity are in fact inalienable rights. And this can’t happen without a real reckoning of our history. That means it’s time for the government, it’s time for everybody working as politicians, to acknowledge this history. It’s some pain and healing that needs to happen. And we have to know this history. When we talk about this history, we will heal.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Common speaking on Friday night at the opening of the monument and the museum to the victims of slavery, white supremacy, lynching. I want to turn to filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who was also there at the opening of the Legacy Museum.
AVA DUVERNAY: Free, dedicated artists reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a public mark of ignorance, it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never the issue. Profit and money always was. The threat was always jobs, land or money. When you really want to take away, to oppress, to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim. Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength from the victim. It’s the red flag that’s danced before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep it focused on anything but its own business. Its hoped-for consequence is to define black people as a reaction to white presence, as opposed to being in harmony with it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ava DuVernay, speaking at the opening of the Legacy Museum. Bryan Stevenson, you have done something quite remarkable. As the discussion around the country—and I want to get your comment on this—the taking down of monuments to racism, Confederate generals and others, you have erected new monuments here. You have erected the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. Talk about that.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think that we just haven’t done a very good job of creating a consciousness about this history. You know, when I go to South Africa, when I go to the Apartheid Museum, I see a place that is a very powerful institution designed to make sure no one ever forgets the hardship of apartheid. The suffering of black Africans by that white minority is documented and detailed. They make it impossible for people to forget or to distort that history. In Rwanda, the Genocide Museum there is a powerful cultural institution. They actually have human skulls in that space. That’s how desperately the survivors and victims of that horror want to express their grief. When I go to Berlin, Germany, I see markers and stones every hundred meters outside the homes of Jewish families, Roma families, that were abducted during the Holocaust. Germans want you to go to the Holocaust Memorial, and they want to change the narrative. They don’t want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists for the rest of their lives.
But in this country, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. We don’t talk about the horrors of this history of racial inequality. Many of the people who were with us last week came up to me and said, “You know, I just realized I’ve never seen a sculpture about slavery before in my life.” They’ve never really been in a place where they were confronted with the legacy of lynching in a way that was tangible and visible. And I think that implicates our ability to move forward, to create real equality.
And so, yes, it is important that we create a new landscape, that we erect symbols and statues and monuments and markers that push our nation in a different direction, rather than protecting these false narratives that I think we have built to reinforce that same ideology of white supremacy. And I think our artists, our sculptors, our writers, our musicians have a critical role to play in what I see as essentially narrative work.
I don’t think we’ve ever felt the kind of shame we should feel about what we did to Native Americans, about what we did during slavery, about what we did during lynching, what we did during segregation. And I don’t think of shame as a bad thing for us to experience. When you do something shameful, there has to be some moment of remorse and regret and repentance and truth telling. That’s what leads to redemption and recovery and repair and restoration. I represent people who do bad things. None of them expects to be paroled if they’re not willing to admit the wrongfulness of their crime.
And a lot of times when people hear me talking about this, I think they get a little edgy, because we’ve become such a punitive society, Amy. I think, you know, we have highest rate of incarceration in the world. We’re so punitive in America that we’re unwilling sometimes to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our wrongdoings, because we fear punishment. And for me, what’s been important about this project is to make clear to people, I’m not interested in talking about our history because I want to punish America; I think talking about our history is the way we liberate America, the way we move to a different place, we get to some place where we acknowledge the pain of this path so we can recover. I do believe that our country needs truth and repair, truth and reconciliation. But I believe those things are sequential. You can’t get the repair, you can’t get the conciliation, until you first tell the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: Bryan, I wanted to ask you about what happened at the Montgomery Advertiser, as your monument and museum was going up. Last week, the editorial board of the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, published a public apology for its previous coverage of lynching, on the same day as the monument and museum opened. In the editorial, the board wrote, quote, “We take responsibility for our proliferation of a false narrative regarding the treatment of African-Americans in those disgraceful days. … We propagated a world view rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority. … We must never be as wrong as this again,” unquote. The Montgomery Advertiser was among many white-owned newspapers across the United States that failed to investigate—and at times even celebrated—the white mob violence that killed thousands of African Americans throughout U.S. history. Instead, it was black journalists, mostly notably Ida B. Wells, who exposed the horrors of lynching to the world, and paid a heavy price for that. As we wrap up, in this last 30 seconds, Bryan Stevenson, can you talk about the significance of your paper doing this?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I’m very encouraged by that. I mean, that’s precisely the kind of reaction I hope we see across this country. White media, white journalists, white newspapers were complicit. They were aiders and abettors in much of this violence. They sometimes advertised where these lynchings would take place. And so, to acknowledge that, to repent for that, to commit to not do that again, is the very heart, what I think our nation needs to do in response to this legacy and this history. So I’m encouraged by that. I hope other newspapers across the region do the same thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation and post it as a web exclusive at democracynow.org. Our guest, Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the country’s first-ever memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States. Bryan is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.