AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — When the judge saw Bryan Stevenson sitting alone at the defense table, he told him to get out: He didn’t want any defendants in his courtroom without their lawyer.
Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, has helped free dozens of wrongfully convicted prisoners from death row, and persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are cruel and unusual. So he was sitting in that Midwestern courtroom a few years ago as a defense attorney — and he happened to be representing a white kid.
“What is it, when the judge saw a middle-aged black man in a suit and tie sitting at the defense table, it didn’t even occur to him that’s the lawyer?” Stevenson said, recalling the incident at the Summit on Race in America on Tuesday.
“That’s the narrative of racial difference,” he said.
Stevenson — described as “America’s Nelson Mandela” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu — told attendees at the three-day summit at the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin, that America needs to engage in a “narrative struggle,” to advance the cause of racial justice.
“We do not live in a free society,” Stevenson said. “We’re all burdened by a history of racial inequality that’s created a kind of smog in the air. … It’s in the atmosphere, and until we do something to change this memory we’re not going to be free, and I think we’re going to have to talk about some things that we haven’t talked about.”
Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 146 weeks. He wants Americans to start talking more about the genocide of Native Americans, the violence and discrimination against black Americans that continued for decades after the end of slavery, and the ideology of white supremacy that still is celebrated by memorials, statues, flags and even state holidays today (Alabama, for example, observes a combined Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.)
Stevenson cited South Africa, Germany and Rwanda as examples of countries that are doing the kind of “narrative work” he believes needs to be done in the U.S. This work requires acknowledgement of a violent, unjust and discriminatory past, and it is with this aim that Stevenson initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Often referred to as the National Lynching Memorial, the site in Montgomery, Alabama honors the thousands of black Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
“People think I want to talk about our history because I want to punish America,” Stevenson said. “I have no interest in punishing this nation for its history. … I think there’s something powerful and redemptive and restorative about truth-telling.
“Until we find the courage to talk honestly about our past, we cannot have the future that so many of us believe in.”
Stevenson said people have to be willing to put themselves in uncomfortable positions if they want to strive for racial equality, and that he has had a “privileged but painful career,” in the country’s criminal justice system.
The number of incarcerated Americans and those on probation or parole has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Almost 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, 6 million are on probation or parole and 70 million have criminal histories.
“My clients have been broken by poverty, broken by racism, broken by trauma, broken by disease, broken by disability, broken by neglect, broken by dependency.” Stevenson said. “I represent broken people.”
He said he also works in a “broken system,” that often treats defendants better if they are “rich and guilty” than if they are “poor and innocent.” This system executed an intellectually disabled man Stevenson represented a couple years ago, an event that almost drove him to give up his life’s work.
“All of a sudden I had this realization and it shocked me,” Stevenson said. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. And the truth is that when you’re trying to change narratives, when you’re required to stay hopeful, when you have to do uncomfortable things, there will be moments where you get broken, where you feel a little bit shattered, when you’re overwhelmed.
“You can actually be broken, because it’s the broken among us that can teach us the way compassion is supposed to work,” Stevenson said. “The broken appreciate the power of mercy. It’s in brokenness that we understand what justice can do to redeem and restore. It’s the broken that can teach us what humanity is all about, so don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers.”
Stevenson said there are “two powerful words,” that people who are trying to do justice work can say, even if they feel like there is not much they can do to fight inequality or oppression. At a minimum, he said, “You can say, ‘I’m here.’”
“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” Stevenson said. “Hope is what will get some of you to stand up when other people sit down.”
The Summit on Race in America features discussions with civil rights leaders, civil servants, community activists, musicians and comedians. On its final day Wednesday it will feature discussions on voting rights, immigration and a tribute to Motown.