Bryan Stevenson - Human Rights Hero; Issue 17 Feature Article

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As I drove along the coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the fall of last year, I was filled with a sense of adventure. I had secured an interview with one of my personal heroes just a few weeks before. Not having the money to fly, I drove. As I got closer to my destination I began to wonder what it would be like to meet this man whom I’d looked up to, read about, watched interviews of, and was the author of the critically acclaimed book I was currently reading, Just Mercy. To meet the man who had helped to END the death sentence for minors in this country and who won a case that banned life without parole sentences for minors for non-homicide offences and removed the mandatory life without parole charges for them, giving judges more freedom to consider individual circumstances of their lives leading to the crime. I thought WOW! I’m going to shake the hand of a man who is doing something monumental and historical.

I made it to the beautiful, historic Equal Justice Initiative building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama after a decent night’s sleep and found myself growing nervous as I entered. I was greeted and taken to a room where I was introduced to Bryan Stevenson. Almost immediately I felt as if I were meeting an old friend. He met me with a huge smile on his face and a sense of peace and kindness that seemed to flow from him, filling the room. We talked about his past and how he started the Equal Justice Initiative, we discussed some of the issues facing our country today and how to best address them. And we talked about you – our readers. We talked about our hopes for you and how we’d like to challenge you.

Stevenson grew up in a time in his community when racial segregation was still legalized. He started his education in a “colored school” because black kids weren’t allowed to attend the public schools. Everything around him was segregated until some lawyers showed up one day and made them open up the public schools and allow kids like Bryan to attend by implementing the historic Brown VS Board of Education decision. Stevenson remembers, “Then, you know, things changed. We started going to the public school and meeting kids we’d never met before. There were challenges but it was also really encouraging to see a community get past those barriers that existed for decades and it was a substantial step forward. It wasn’t a complete resolution of all of the tensions and conflicts. But it was a step forward.”

Many of those tensions and conflicts arose from a lingering threat that still hung over the heads of many in Stevenson’s community – and in communities like his across the country. While many supported integration, there was still an unfair and untrue presump tion by many that kids of color were somehow less safe and more problematic. This stigma was very damaging to the kids themselves and to the country as a whole as integration began. Bryan describes what it felt like for him, “I grew up with an awareness that it was easy to get into trouble and hard to succeed and that sense of threat began to worry me. It wasn’t so overwhelming that you couldn’t do things. And you know, I had a good school career and graduated and went to college – but it was present and it was constant.”

Bryan had a family and community surrounding him that had faith in God and taught him many lessons about overcoming challenges in life. There was one very special person in his family who influenced him more than anyone else – his grandmother. Many of you have a similar bond with your grandmothers. Bryan’s grandmother was very loving, compassionate, and cautious. She was the daughter of Virginian slaves. When I heard this for the first time it floored me. Was it really not that long ago when we had legalized slavery in our country? It seemed so much longer to me – so much more removed. But it has not been that long. She knew first hand about the slave trade, had witnessed years of terrorism following the abolition of slavery, and was then witnessing the civil rights movement. Can you imagine the wealth of information, courage, and history she shared with Bryan? He speaks about her often in his speeches.

One story he shared during his Ted Talk was when he was around nine years old and he went into his living room to find his grandmother staring at him. She did this for 15 to 20 minutes before she pulled him aside and said, “We’re going to have a talk. I want you to know I’ve been watching you. I think you’re special. I think you can do anything you want to do. Just promise me three things. One: love your mom. Two: always do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. Three: never drink alcohol.” Bryan promised. Later when he was a teenager his siblings offered him a beer and he became uncomfortable and refused. He said his brother stared at him and then said, “I hope you’re not still hung up on that conversation. Mama tells everyone they’re special.” Bryan laughed as he told that part of the story in his Ted Talk, but it didn’t change his mind. So she had said it to everyone – that didn’t make it untrue. He kept his promise to her and has never taken a drink – not because he is trying to be perfect, but because he received his grandmother’s words as part of his identity. The power of those words spoken over him shaped his life. Another lesson of his grandmother’s that he carried with him all his life was when she told him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”

Bryan attended college and then received a scholarship to Harvard Law School, which he graduated from while also earning a Master’s in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. While in law school, he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights as part of his class on race and poverty litigation. This organization worked to provide legal help to inmates on death row. It was during this time that Bryan began to see the plan for his life: “As I left college and went to law school, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with law, and that sense of threat and menace that emerged when I was a little boy was one of the things I wanted to confront. When I first visited death row and began seeing the issues of so many people in this country, that’s when I knew what I wanted to challenge, that’s what I wanted to fight.” Again, his grandmother’s words rang true. The closer he got to the people he served on death row, the more he began to understand the problems and develop a desire to confront them.

When asked how he was able to confront the issues surrounding the death penalty, Stevenson replied, “Well, I grew up in a big community that required us to believe in things we hadn’t seen. For me it was important not to be defined by the institutional opportunities that existed, but to start to imagine what could be done, what was possible, what do people really need?” So, after he graduated law school he joinedthe Southern Center for Human Rights full time, providing legal skills and services to people on death row. While doing this it became clear to Bryan that the people he was meeting with had other spiritual, psychological, and emotional needs that needed to be met. That became a critical part of Stevenson’s work because seeing those issues made him do whatever was possible to save their lives. Building that personal connection with his clients was important and he began to imagine how we could provide a more holistic approach to helping these people. And the situation on death row was reaching the point of crisis. “At the time there were no services, there were no public defenders, there were no institutions, none. And the number of people facing execution was skyrocketing.”

On top of this, the Southern Center for Human Rights had lost its funding. So, Bryan moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and started a new project designed to replicate the work he had been doing. “But in the back of my mind I had this hope that we might be able to get beyond just dealing with those issues. And over time, that’s what happened.” The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit law office that tries tactically and strategically to confront mass incarceration, excessive punishment, the unreliability of our system, and discrimination. While they continue to do most of the death penalty work in their region, they have expanded their work to help people who have been sentenced to die in prison (life without parole) for low-level, non-violent crimes. “Hundreds of people are serving life without parole for simple drug possession or writing a bad check or other nonviolent offenses that resulted in these mandatory life without parole sentences because of prior criminal history.”

EJI started challenging the inability of the poor to get the legal help they needed and then they took on juveniles. “We took on children because Alabama had more kids on death row per capita than any other state in the country.” Working with 16 and 17 year olds who had been sentenced to death by execution was an extremely sobering experience for Bryan. “Not only did I have clients with legal needs, I had these young people with just intense emotional and psychological needs and it was impossible to just be a lawyer to these young kids. You became a parent, sibling, teacher, and mentor all wrapped up in one.” The intensity of those relationships made it really clear to Stevenson that the system needed to address these cases differently. “So we started working on cases to end death penalty for children. We succeeded in that in 2005. We won a case called Roper vs Simmons along with other lawyers and advocates that banned that penalty for kids.” But soon after, Stevenson realized that the decision did not give him the joy he had expected it would. His conscience was still not relieved because he realized the kids were still going to die in prison – just a different way because of life in prison without parole sentences. “In 2010 we succeeded in winning a ban against life without parole for kids for non-homicide offenses and a couple years after that we won a case that banned mandatory life without parole for all cases. We continue to represent children now through resentencing to try and get them out.”

The Equal Justice Initiative continues to press toward more reform in the legal system. “We would like to create a minimum age for trying a child as an adult, we would like to end the practice of putting kids in adult jails and prisons, and we’d like to extend these protections for kids in other categories.”

Beyond all of this, the Equal Justice Initiative has launched a massive project on race and the history of racial inequality. “So many of the problems young kids face are compounded by this legacy of racial in- equality and that can’t be addressed accurately until we deal more honestly with this history.” EJI has created 10 historical markers, created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and opened The Legacy Museum in April of this year to help educate the public about the issues surrounding our country’s history of racial inequality. It seems we are seeing more and more tensions around the issues of race and inequality in the media lately. I’m sure you’ve seen them and felt them. So how do we deal with these issues? How do we move forward and not backward? Stevenson says the first thing we need is to understand the history of our country. We need to look at it realistically and then assess what needs to be changed and how best to move towards that change in a way that brings unity.

Have you ever thrown a rock into a pond? If not, you can imagine what happens. When it first hits there is a violent splash and large waves come out from the place where the rock landed. But then what happens? The ripples move outward. They may not be as large, but they are present and the whole pond is affected. It’s the same thing with history. When something significant happens it is like that huge splash. As time moves on, we continue to deal with the waves and then the ripples – the after- shock of what took place. It’s inevitable. So, we have to start with understanding what initially happened, then we move outward from that and trace the issues that have arisen from it. Then one at a time, we begin to deal honestly with those issues to restore the peace and bring balance. So, as we review some of this history – remember that we have been through this together and we have come to where we are now together and the only way we will continue to heal is together. We have to endure together by each doing our part.

While we discussed this issue, Stevenson shared this history of the brave men and women who have endured some of the darkest times in our country. “We had millions of people in the native community who were slaughtered when settlers came to this continent. It was effectively genocide and yet a handful of people survived and fought to hold on to that identity. We had millions of people enslaved in this country and subjected to just unbelievable torture and humiliation and degradation and abuse and exploitation. Fifty percent of all enslaved families were separated during the domestic slave trade, which means that people routinely lost their children, their siblings, their parents, their spouses. That’s so traumatizing and so disorienting and yet people endured, and fought, and survived.

And then we had this horrific era of terrorism where African Americans were lynched in these spectacle events in counties all across this country and yet people endured and found a way to keep fighting. Then there was the movement to challenge the apartheid – the legal segregation and bigotry that was endorsed by our courts and state legislatures – and they won and passed several acts that made it possible for kids like me to go to school, to vote, and participate in the political process. So, what I would say to these kids is that you are the heirs of those who survived genocide and slavery and lynching and segregation and there is a community of people who are your fore- parents. The knowledge that there are fore-parents who have overcome and found faith to guide them is something that is important that you reflect on. And that sense of finding strength in this history is really important because when it’s activated by faith really extraordinary things happen, dynamic things happen – amazing things happen and that’s what I hope for those young people.”

It’s no secret that many of you still face challenges similar to these. The world is not a fair place. Regardless of your ethnic background, you will all face prejudice and injustice at some point. You all know the feeling of people thinking things about you based on your appearance or your past that are not true. That feeling can make you angry – understandably. But anger won’t solve anything – violence certainly won’t solve anything. The EJI has won relief for 125 individuals from the death penalty. One of those men had been on death row for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. The injustice he endured was unbelievable. You can read all about his case in Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. But listen to what Stevenson says of his client: “He could’ve been destroyed by that experience but now he’s one of the most powerful witnesses for what grace and mercy can do while being deeply committed to changing our system of justice.”

You can’t let the challenges make you aggressive or passive - but you can let it make you passionate and dedicated to changing things. So, how do you change things without turning to anger and violence? Here’s how Stevenson has dealt with it. “I think it does help to have a bigger purpose. I think we all need purpose in our life to help us decide when to do what comes easy and when it’s important to do what comes hard. And it actually becomes easy to react angrily and violently to all these things that are threatening you and it becomes really hard to not react in that way. Our purpose helps us to do the things that are hard. I didn’t want to end up working in this chicken factory that just consumed the lives of so many people. It wasn’t that I thought there was anything wrong with it, I just felt like we needed to create another dynamic in the community because I really did believe that the more I could learn and understand about the world around me, the more effective I would be at creating resources and help for people I cared deeply about.”

So education became his purpose but he had an even broader purpose that had been planted in his heart and mind when he was just a kid. He wanted to be like the lawyers he had seen open those school doors all those years ago– he wanted to be that for others. “Those lawyers who showed up and opened up those school doors were like magicians to me. That they were making this community do something it didn’t want to do was just unbelievable to me and it suggested this kind of power that intrigued me. And I think that when we see things that represent the kind of things that we want to create and we see people who model that, it can be very, very meaningful.” For this reason it has always been important to Stevenson that he model the kinds of tactics and strategies he thinks will help his clients. “It’s important, even when I’m frustrated by something that happened to not show anger, but to show compassion and understanding. It’s important for me to show love even when people have reacted in the wrong way – ways that are not healthy. It’s important to remind my clients and my community that we don’t give mercy to people because they’ve done something to show that they deserve it. It’s mercy because we give it to the undeserving. We give it to people who have made serious mistakes. And of course, we all need mercy and that connection becomes powerful when it is lived through the lives of people who you are fortunate enough to be placed among. And so that dynamic has been very much a part of what has helped me to navigate the challenges. And I still see things that are very, very angering. I see people being abused or mistreated and that’s very hard. But, I’m persuaded that there is a way to fight against these things that is effective and transformative and that’s why I choose to do it.”

As we wound down our discussion and as I prepared to leave, I had one last question for Bryan. I know that he sees cases that are heartbreaking and that he does not win all of his cases. I know that you guys of- ten try hard but things do not always go the way you want. It can be hard to stay positive and stay focused on doing right sometimes. So I asked Bryan what keeps him going and how he keeps from being overwhelmed by all of the hardship he sees. His answer really spoke to me, and I hope it will speak to you. “You know, I’m a person of faith and I live by grace and I think God always gives us the grace to navigate the hardships that have to be navigated. I do see a lot of very painful things but I see such extraordinary, beautiful things. I mean, I’m seeing young men and women become just unbelievably beautiful human beings – men and women with extraordinary character and capacity for love and compassion. And that transformation is so priceless that it is a balm to any wound. It is a comfort to any injury. It’s actually more than that - it’s inspiring. So yeah, I think that’s what happens when you open your heart and your eyes to the things that can be beautiful in the midst of such ugliness and trauma and abuse. And we all approach it differently but I’ve always felt grateful that grace has been there to sustain me in the moments when things seem particularly challenging.”

As I gathered my things to leave I received much more than the handshake I was looking forward to - I received a hug and took a selfie with one of my biggest heroes. While driving home to Texas I was filled with a renewed sense of compassion and hope for the future of our country and for your future – our readers. I’m honored to have introduced you to a true role model – someone who fights tirelessly on your behalf even though he’s never even met you. Now remember, in the words of Bryan’s grandmother, “Always do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.” We know you are special and can do anything you put your mind to. God has a plan for you just like he had a plan for Bryan. Don’t give up!

Tera Swigart