We live in the same country, but in two different worlds
I had never heard of Bryan Stevenson.
I heard his name for the first time in Montgomery, Ala., just last month. There, on top of a hill, sits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the “lynching memorial,” locals call it. It opened last spring. It’s a somber site.
Some 800 rust-colored steel rectangles, the size and shape of coffins, bear the names of more than 4,000 African-American men, women, and children who were lynched from 1877 all the way up to 1950 simply because of the color of their skin. The monuments hang lynched, too, suspended from a ceiling. They are the history I was never taught in school.
“Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940 for addressing a white police officer without the title ‘mister.’” “Caleb Gadly was lynched in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employee.” “John Griggs was hanged and shot . . . in 1934, after being accused of ‘associating with a white woman’ in Newton, Texas.”
This memorial, along with the nearby Legacy Museum, was built by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit founded in 1989 by this man I had never heard of, Bryan Stevenson.
I Googled him, watched his TED talk, read his book, “Just Mercy,” and watched the documentary “13th.” And then vacation was over and I flew home and what do you know? Stevenson was speaking at Symphony Hall as part of the Boston Speakers Series that very night.
I went, and the next day I talked to him and at the end of our conversation, I thought about Mother Teresa. “One by one by one,” she said, that’s how you save people. That’s how Bryan Stevenson saves people. One by one by one.
Stevenson says lawyers saved him. Born in 1959 in southern Delaware, he grew up poor and went to a “colored” school until lawyers forced his town to adhere to federal law. He was an excellent student but didn’t find his passion until he was 23, in law school, and met a man on death row. The man was his age. They talked for three hours.
“Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness,” Stevenson says.
It’s hopefulness and a commitment to right wrongs that propel him still: A man on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. A child who weighs less than 100 pounds imprisoned for life with grown men. A mentally disabled woman punished instead of being diagnosed and treated.
The United States has the highest number of men, women, and children locked up in prisons and jails in the world, Stevenson tells his audiences. In the 1970s, there were 300,000 people incarcerated. Today there are 2.3 million. More than 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness. The number of women increased 646 percent from 1980 through 2010.
To accommodate these millions of prisoners, a new prison was opened every 10 days from 1990 to 2005.
Prisons are big business. Many are privatized. Owners and suppliers make big money.
When he won the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” Stevenson put every penny of the $300,000 prize into EJI. He’s the reason the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. And he’s the man Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu has called “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”
So why had I not heard of him?
Because we live in the same country but we live in two different worlds.
Stevenson’s work is all about bridging these worlds. “The greatest evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimate slavery,” he says. This narrative was embedded in our Constitution, where it was written that the census value of a slave was 60 percent the value of a free person. This narrative of diminished human value has been a theme repeated in different ways and in different words since 1788.
Stevenson’s work with the poor, with prisoners, with the disenfranchised, his work with EJI, his books, his interviews, his lectures, are all about changing that narrative. “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” Stevenson begins “Just Mercy” with this Reinhold Niebuhr quote.
Love of man — all men, women, and children, both living and dead — and a quest for justice. These are Bryan Stevenson’s superpowers.