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“Death Penalty Is Lynching’s Stepson”: Bryan Stevenson on Slavery, White Supremacy, Prisons & More

Web ExclusiveMay 01, 2018
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Extended conversation 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. The memorial opened last week in Montgomery, Alabama. Its 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. The memorial’s partner site, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, also opened last week. For more, we speak with Bryan Stevenson, who says that acknowledging history is crucial to facing racism today. “Everybody wants to think that if they were alive during slavery, they’d be an abolitionist,” Stevenson says. “If we’re not prepared to act today, then I don’t think we can claim that we would have acted any differently during slavery and lynching and segregation.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation about the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, that just 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.

I want to turn to the niece of Fred Croft, telling the story of how her family was impacted by racial terror in Gadsden, Alabama. This video was produced in 2017 by the Equal Justice Initiative in partnership with Google as part of the Lynching in America storytelling project.

VANESSA CROFT: As a child, my aunts and uncles were like movie stars to us, living in different parts of the country. You know, that was my uncle in Detroit, or Los Angeles. And my Uncle Fred lived in New York. But he never came back home to visit my dad. I never knew the reasons why, until my dad told me this story.

One day, this group of white men came to my granddad’s house asking to bring my Uncle Fred out. And Fred was a young teenage boy. They said, “This little white girl, somebody pushed her off the back porch.” And the little girl, she stood up and said, “I told y’all it was not him.” But this guy said, “I know it was Fred. We’re coming back.”

So my granddad told my daddy, “Run downtown. Tell Fred, “Do not come home.” And my granddad got Fred out of town with nothing but the shirt on his back. So, if my Uncle Fred was there at home that day, you just knew it would not have ended well.

I was a grown woman when I heard this story. So, for me, it really came into perspective: That’s why you have seven uncles who leave and never come back to Alabama.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue now our conversation with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Bryan, we talked in the first segment about the beginning of this memorial. I was wondering if you can take us on a walk through, since you have been through it now so many times, through the museum, and just point out what you are most affected by. And also talk about the soil samples you have in the museum.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. Well, we’ve been working really hard on this. When you walk through the front doors of our museum, the first thing you see is a sign that says, “Montgomery, a city shaped by slavery.” And what we really want to do is to kind of retell the history of our community. Montgomery was the cradle of the Confederacy. It was at the heart of this effort to preserve slavery forever. And we haven’t really talked about that. And you see that sign.

You see a big sign that says, “You are standing in a warehouse where formerly enslaved—or, enslaved people were held.” And that authenticity is part of what we’re trying to present, too. And then you walk into a space which replicates the warehouse, the slave pens, where people, black people, would be chained and held pending an auction. And I just don’t think we actually have an optic for slavery that’s very disruptive, that’s very discomforting. We make our pictures of slavery too often benign, and people look happy and comfortable. But in our museum, you see these slave pens. And when you walk close to the pen, what emerges is the ghost of an enslaved person. It’s a hologram. And these performers actually recite words from slave narratives. They’re first-person accounts of enslaved people expressing their grief and anguish, their fear and anxiety about what’s about to come when they get to the slave auction. You hear a woman singing in a slave pen, and she’s singing some of these spirituals that we sometimes hear, but it has a different impact when you see it being sung by—hear it being sung by someone in a pen. So when she says, “Lord, how come me here? I wish I’d never been born,” it just has a different resonance.

And then you walk into the main exhibit, and you’ll see banners that present slave catalogues. And the language, to see a catalogue with the label, “Negroes, mules, carts and wagons,” I think, for me, is really powerful. You’ll see the slave narratives, and you hear enslaved people saying things like, “Slavery—selling is worse than flogging,” one woman says. She said, “My back has been beaten many times but has always healed. They sold my husband away, and my heart is not right yet.” And we really try to tell the story about how 50 percent of enslaved people were separated from their families, their children, their siblings, during the domestic slave trade.

And then you move from slavery into lynching, where we have this wall of jars that are filled with soil collected from various lynching sites that community volunteers went to. And it’s quite, for me, moving to see the names of these victims immortalized in this way and create this image that makes the legacy of lynching tangible.

Then there are the signs of segregation, the “white-only” signs, the “no coloreds,” all of that, which I think we have to remember to appreciate the commitment that these communities made to keep black people oppressed. And it wasn’t just people in Klan robes. It was the legislators and the governors and the elected officials that were saying segregation forever.

And finally, you enter a part of the museum where you see incarcerated men and women. And you go into the visitation booths that millions of people have entered during this era to see their loved ones, and you hear their stories of wrongful conviction, of unfair sentencing, of conditions of confinement. We have letters from our clients. And all of this is designed to kind of show this line that continues from slavery, through lynching, through segregation, to this era today, where black and brown people are often presumed dangerous and guilty.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, when you take it to today—and this is an issue, issue of equal justice, that you have talked about so often, about the mass incarceration of people of color—you have the Montgomery Advertiser, your local newspaper, apologizing for its coverage of lynching and of slavery. But just in a recent editorial, well, in the last few years, an editorial says, “Put new prisons on table.” How do you talk to them—because you’re from the same town, and you’re lauding what they have done around apologizing for lynching—around current criminal justice or injustice policies?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. Well, I think that, for me, is the essence of this. When we have a consciousness of how frequently we have failed to address racial bias and discrimination, I think it can helpfully—hopefully increase our consciousness now. I mean, the reason why the United States Supreme Court issues the decision it issues in Shelby County, the case where they decided to retreat from the Voting Rights Act, is because they don’t actually understand the weight of this history, the legacy of this history. The reason why the United States Supreme Court, in McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987, talks about the inevitability of bias and discrimination in the administration of the death penalty is because they don’t understand the obligation, the moral obligation, to overcome this history.

Our journalists do this all the time. They minimize bigotry and discrimination. They marginalize stories about racial bias. And I think, to get them to understand why they should not do that, we have to remind them of how they are replicating the failures of journalists generations before them. During the civil rights era, most Southern newspapers were indifferent to the activism of Dr. King or hostile to it. And, you know, I’ve said this before. Everybody wants to think that if they were alive during slavery, they’d be an abolitionist. Everybody wants to think that if they were active during the time of lynching, they’d be rallying against and trying to prevent lynchings. Most of us believe that if we were alive and in a position to march in the 1950s, we’d be on the side of Dr. King. But today, we are in the face of all of these problems. One in three black male babies is expected to go to jail or prison. There are these constant unarmed shootings, shootings of unarmed black people. And the question is: If we’re not prepared to respond to these issues, if we’re not prepared to act today, then I don’t think we can claim that we would have acted any differently during slavery and lynching and segregation.

So, that consciousness, for me, is critical to creating our institutions—not just the press, but our courts, the police, law enforcement, our elected officials—to think differently about this continuing legacy of bias and discrimination that manifests itself all the time. All the time. And that’s the challenge that I see us trying to take on with these cultural projects.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bryan, last month, protesters repeatedly occupied the Philadelphia Starbucks to denounce Starbucks for racial profiling, after a video went viral of police arresting two African-American men for being inside the coffee shop. Their lawyer says the two men were waiting for a third person to arrive for a business meeting, when a Starbucks employee called the police, within minutes, and claimed the men were trespassing. So, the Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, has apologized, calling the incident “reprehensible.” In response to the pressure, Starbucks said it would hold a nationwide racial bias sensitivity training on May 29th that all their employees have to go to. They’re going to close the stores for a number of hours for this. I’d like to ask you what you would like to see that racial sensitivity training teach people, who you would like to see teaching it, what you’d like to be said.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is that, you know, we’re not going to get people where they need to be during a four-hour training. We’re not going to be able to achieve what must be achieved during that moment. But if we can start this process of committing to recovery and acknowledging how implicit bias and overt bias makes us vulnerable to precisely the tragedy of what happened in that story, I think that’s a positive thing.

I’m actually more impressed that they’re closing the stores, that there will be some economic consequence to this incident, than anything, because I think what we’ve done too often in the past is we’ve tried to minimize these incidents, we’ve tried to explain them away. And I don’t think that’s the right response. We need to say, “You know what? Something terrible happened. This should have never happened. We want to teach all of our employees that this is something that is not acceptable. We want to signal that this is a big deal that this happened.” And those kinds of gestures, I think, are key.

You know, I don’t believe—you know, as somebody who defends people who sometimes commit crimes, I’m still committed to this idea that we’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, that there has to be space for recovery and redemption and restoration. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do for my clients if I didn’t believe that. And so I think there is a way to do better, but we have to understand the nature of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are one of the people who—

BRYAN STEVENSON: —and to commit to responding to that problem.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re one of the people who’s designing this—you; also Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, head of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti-Defamation League—though the ADL came under some criticism. There was a protest at the local Starbucks in Philadelphia, where protesters were concerned the ADL was involved, citing their concern about what’s happening in Israel-Palestine and the ADL’s position on that and the lack of endorsement of Black Lives Matter?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. Well, ADL will not be involved in the curriculum development, and I’m not actually going to be involved in that, either. I’m not—I’m not an expert on training around these issues. My interest is in actually making sure that corporations respond appropriately when they have these kind of issues. There are going to be some great people that are going to be involved in putting together that kind of curriculum. But I don’t think anybody should expect that you can undo 400 years of bigotry and discrimination in a few hours. I don’t think that’s realistic. I don’t think that’s achievable.

I think what we have to commit to is a long-term process. And not just Starbucks employees. If we made every Starbucks in America a safe space for people of color, we would not have achieved anything that we can celebrate, because Starbucks is not the world. The places that we have to work on are our courts and our elected spaces, our schools, where black children are often victimized and suspended and expelled. I mean, I’m very sort of supportive of this effort, but I don’t want to be at all naive about what happens in a Starbucks being the answer to what happens in America. We have a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline. We have jails and prisons that are filled with folks who are not a threat to public safety. We have black and brown people being menaced and targeted by the police. We have a network of political discussions that always exclude people of color. And until we confront those spaces and challenge those places, we’re not going to be able to achieve the kind of justice that most of us seek. That’s my challenge. That’s my heart.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bryan Stevenson, if you could talk about your life, how you went from a death penalty lawyer to really being the founder of this movement that has now, well, culminated this weekend, just the beginning, with the monument and the museum against slavery, lynching, white supremacy?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a civil rights lawyer, social justice lawyer. And the death penalty was just the issue that was my priority. I think the death penalty is lynching’s stepson. And because it is so racialized and biased, I felt like I had to address it. But I’ve always thought of myself as a social justice lawyer, and I think of this work as consistent with that challenge, that calling, to do social justice. I’m excited about it because I think it’s the critical next step for us to create institutions that can respond to the legal arguments we make about bias and discrimination. And I hope people do come to our community and to see these sites, to go to these museums and memorials, and experience this history in a meaningful way.

AMY GOODMAN: And it being, in this last 30 seconds, at this time, during the Trump administration, your thoughts on the president?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think this country is in the middle of an identity crisis, the fact that we have tried to romanticize our history. I mean, when I hear the president talking about “make America great again,” I don’t know, as an African American, what decade I’m supposed to want to relive. And I do think we haven’t actually positioned ourselves to understand some of these messages. I think the politics of fear and anger is on the rise, and we’ve got to fight that. That’s what created the “war on drugs.” It’s what allowed us to be indifferent to lynching. It’s what permitted this bigotry to go unchallenged for so long. So I think this is a critical time in America where people committed to justice, people of goodwill, have to understand that we cannot be silent, we cannot be active. We’ve got to get up and do the things that are necessary to create a healthier community.

AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, just a little more on President Trump, from Charlottesville, saying these are fine people, to calling the—I think it was the country of Africa, not the continent—well, we know the word—”s—hole,” but he said the whole thing?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yes, yeah. Well, I think it’s completely reprehensible, of course. And we are not getting the kind of leadership that we need to deal with these issues. Whenever we start debating slavery—and this happened after Michelle Obama gave her speech at the Democratic National Convention. You had people arguing, “Was slavery so bad?” When people start trying to legitimate white supremacy and those who are actively committing violent acts against people of color, then it’s the time for us to realize that this is something that we need to address urgently, immediately. And I just think we’ve not been as focused on that as we need to. I think this is a really important moment in American history, where we’re either going to confront this history and understand that we have to overcome it, or we’re going to try to minimize it, sugarcoat it, romanticize it, in the way that I’ve heard the president do, and fall deeper into these patterns and practices that oppress and marginalize and minimize some communities because of their color or their national origin. I mean, this is the same candidacy that talked about banning Muslims and denigrated Mexicans. And I think all of us have to see the threat posed by that, and take seriously the political challenge that awaits us in these coming elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Will President Trump be visiting the monument or memorial? Is he welcome to come?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I have no idea. We invite everyone to come. I think there’s a lot to be learned here, that a lot of our elected politicians could benefit from hearing and understanding. You know, I don’t know that any of our officials or many of our officials have done the kind of investigative work that is needed to better position themselves to lead on these issues that affect so many people in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, we want to thank you so much for joining us, 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. He’s an attorney who has worked on death penalty cases in the Deep South for decades, the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama, where the museum and the monument have just opened.

To see Part 1 of our conversation with Bryan, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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