fbpx Seeking Justice: Bryan Stevenson MPP/JD 1985 is an indefatigable defender of the powerless | Harvard Kennedy School

IN 1912, SHIRAH DEDMAN’S GREAT-GRANDFATHER, Thomas William Miles Sr., was lynched in Shreveport, Louisiana, for allegedly passing a note to a white woman. His widow and only child fled to California, joining about 6 million African-Americans who left the South during the Great Migration of the early and mid-20th century looking for better opportunities—and a place they might be safe from lynching and Jim Crow, the institutionalized system of legal segregation. Dedman’s family had not traveled back east for nearly a century.

But in April, Dedman, her mother, and aunt were in Montgomery, Alabama. What had brought them there was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, dedicated to the more than 4,400 victims of lynching.

“There was no accountability,” Dedman said, as she toured the memorial—part museum, part tribute, part installation. “So, to have accountability, that would completely change the black experience in America. We have to admit that black people … weren’t really considered citizens. We still struggle to reconcile ourselves as citizens, as full citizens of America.”

Reckoning with the history documented by the memorial and the Legacy Museum “is about bringing black history and reconciling it with the American history we know.”

The memorial and museum were the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson MPP/JD 1985. Stevenson is known as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and an indefatigable defender of the powerless, whose legal work has helped exonerate innocent death row prisoners, brought about changes to excessive and unfair sentencing, and shined a light on the worst abuses of the criminal justice system.

Now, with the National Memorial, Stevenson aims at even deeper change.

 

Stevenson speaks at the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in April. The Memorial includes 800 six-foot monuments representing the victims or lynching and the counties and states where they took place.
Stevenson speaks at the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in April. The Memorial includes 800 six-foot monuments representing the victims of lynching and the counties and states where they took place.

“Much of the critical work in this country to help disfavored communities, marginalized communities, these powerless communities, has come because the courts have recognized their rights, and that’s why I continue to see the courts and law as the forum where it makes sense for me to spend time,” Stevenson said in an interview shortly after the opening of the memorial. “However, we’ve opened this museum and memorial because I definitely recognize the limits of what these institutions will do if we don’t create a deeper, more transformative commitment to eliminating bias and bigotry to protect the poor and disfavored. I am interested in non-legal narrative work as a way to change our society.”

“When I go to the Holocaust museum, at the end of it, I am motivated to say, Never again,” Stevenson said. “We haven’t created spaces that present the history of racial inequality in this country in a way that motivates people to say Never again. Because we haven’t said Never again, people say things that are ignorant about enslaved people being responsible for their slavery, or people being lynched, or segregation being something that black people wanted. I think that mind-set has just not been disrupted by the truth of what our history is. I do believe the truth can make us free. Understanding what has happened, despite its brutality, is key to us creating a better future.”

 

STEVENSON SAYS HIS CALLING FOUND HIM.

“I definitely think this work chose me,” Stevenson said. “I had no expectation of what kind of lawyer I would be or what I would be doing when I got to Harvard. There is something about seeing inequality and injustice, and when you believe you have the ability to address it, to not respond to it in an effective way would be, for me, incredibly painful and oppressive—and I don’t want to be pained and oppressed.”

His call to fight for equality didn’t begin at Harvard, where he attended the Kennedy School and the law school during the 1980s. His fighting roots are deep, going back to at least a great-grandfather who defied laws and customs and risked death to become literate even though he was one of 4 million enslaved Africans. Seeing what his family, and other black families like his, had faced and overcome without becoming bitter steeled Stevenson’s resolve and is why he’s able to maintain hope where others see impossibility.

Stevenson says his calling found him
 

But Harvard helped him hone skills that transformed him into a MacArthur grant recipient, best-selling author, TED Talk star, and one of the most influential lawyers in the country in the past quarter of a century. 

He arrived in Cambridge never having met a lawyer and a bit intimidated by his new surroundings. But he was soon disenchanted, because “the conversations seemed, initially, very disconnected from issues like helping the poor or creating justice for those who were marginalized.”

“I went to the Kennedy School really looking for something more engaging and initially was alienated by the focus on maximizing benefits and minimizing costs without attention to whose benefits got maximized and whose costs got minimized,” Stevenson said. “When I got proximate to poor communities in the midst of that, that’s when everything changed for me.”

A class with Elizabeth Bartholet at the Law School, which required him to spend a month with a human rights organization in Atlanta, where he worked with death row inmates, began to make clear the kind of career he wanted to pursue. Courses at the Kennedy School further developed that conviction by helping him appreciate the importance of rigorous analysis in being able to do his work in behalf of the poor and downtrodden well.

“I wanted to understand how quantitative analysis might help prove and show bias and discrimination,” Stevenson said. “My time at the Kennedy School helped me understand what those metrics were saying and how to articulate them for judges and policymakers, and even clients. All of that was very valuable.”

Some of his most important legal triumphs came in the form of precedent-setting Supreme Court rulings that changed the way the criminal justice system can treat the young. His 2012 argument before the Court led to a 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder violated the Eighth Amendment. That ruling relied heavily on legal reasoning Stevenson had used years earlier in a case that rendered unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted in non-homicide cases. The Court has since said the Miller v. Alabama ruling was retroactive, affecting upward of 2,300 people who had been sentenced when they were children. 

“I don’t think people understand what our abuse and cruelty and neglect of basic human needs can do to people,” Stevenson said. “We have thousands of children born into violent families. These children live in violent neighborhoods. They go to violent schools. And by the time they’re five, they have a trauma disorder. They are going to school with elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through their brains, and they are like vets coming back from a combat zone. What you are supposed to do is help those children feel safe. But instead we … menace them. And when those children, after eight or nine years, are given a drug and for the first time in their lives, for three hours, they don’t feel traumatized, we get mad at them when they say, ‘I want more of that drug,’ or when someone a few years later says, ‘Join my gang and we’ll help you fight against all these forces.’ We punish them for that.”

The Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit Stevenson founded in the 1990s to represent poor defendants facing death in Alabama and initially funded with money from his MacArthur grant, has won relief for at least 125 people on death row, including Anthony Ray Hinton, who was freed in 2015 after spending 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Stevenson (left) speaks to the media after the release of Anthony Ray Hinton (right), who spent almost 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit.
Stevenson (left) speaks to the media after the release of Anthony Ray Hinton (right), who spent almost 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit.

The impact of Stevenson’s legal work will last for decades and is why the American Bar Association deemed him a Human Rights Hero and said his has been “an extraordinary life.”

But beyond the lengthy list of his legal accomplishments, his ability to recognize the limits of the law—without allowing it to limit his pursuit of justice—has enabled him to carve a path unlike any other.

After Brown v. Board of Education, Stevenson “saw the Supreme Court as a powerful institution,” he said. “There were no high schools in my county for black kids when my dad was a teenager—he couldn’t go to school in that county.” The Supreme Court ruling in Brown showed the power of the law as an institution, but also its limits. “The rule of law was, for me, a very captivating forum in which to think about changing things, and I continue to believe it is a powerful space for reform. But I have seen the courts accommodate bias and discrimination. I’ve seen what happens when the larger environment, outside the courts, tolerates inequality and injustice. I think it does undermine the commitment to equality from our judges and decision makers.”

That’s why Stevenson’s work is now not only to convince judges and Supreme Court justices; it is to push the country to fully grapple with a painful past whose legacy is very much alive, and to change that reality.

But he realizes there’s much work to do. Just since the Peace and Justice Memorial was unveiled, black-as-automatic-suspect stories have made headlines nearly daily: a white Yale student calling the police on a black Yale student sleeping in the common area of a dorm; a white golf course owner calling the police on a group of black women supposedly golfing too slowly; a white store manager calling the police on two black men sitting quietly in a Starbucks.

“I do think we are in the midst of an identity crisis,” Stevenson said. “We haven’t accurately understood our history, and that has left us vulnerable to perspectives that I believe are very unhealthy. I’m not sure, as an African-American, what decade I’m supposed to want to relive when people start invoking this ‘Make America great again’ mantra. It’s confusing for many of us because we believe the greatness of America has yet to be fully achieved. And that notion animates much of the work that I do. I think there is something better waiting for us than what we’ve achieved when it comes to equality, when it comes to fairness, when it comes to eliminating bias and bigotry and discrimination.”

“All of that just reinforces the importance of a narrative project that pushes us to understand that we are going to be judged not by how we treat the rich and powerful and the celebrated; we’re going to be judged by how we treat the poor, the neglected, the undocumented, the incarcerated. In that vein, we have a lot of work to do in America. I’m really excited that in the midst of some of this confusion, we can present something that can hopefully give people a perspective that will help them navigate some of these questions and issues.”

The Peace and Justice Memorial
 

The Peace and Justice Memorial is part of that narrative. Stevenson had to be at various times secretive, delicate, and creative to buy the land and raise the funds for the project, which was built on six blocks overlooking downtown Montgomery, not far from a site where slaves were once sold. Stevenson and his staff investigated thousands of lynchings in the South. The project, which took years, was the first to document what Stevenson calls the “racial terror” endured by African-Americans for so long.

The striking design includes 800 hanging steel monuments, each symbolizing a county where a lynching took place. As part of the memorial’s mission to bring real understanding and discussion of this history, Equal Justice Initiative is inviting those counties to claim and install replicas of the monuments—a constant reminder of how the country is grappling with its history. The museum also includes large glass jars full of soil—each one collected from the site of a lynching.

 

“I THINK THERE IS SOMETHING BETTER WAITING FOR US THAN WHAT WE’VE ACHIEVED WHEN IT COMES TO EQUALITY.”

A little more than a century after Thomas Miles was lynched in Shreveport, a small group of black people attended a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A young white man named Dylann Roof joined them, prayed with them, studied with them—and then massacred them. Nine people in all, murdered in a church founded by black people who had tired of being discriminated against by white Christians. Though Roof was eventually held accountable the way lynchers never were and will spend the rest of his life in a federal prison, ripples from that June 2015 massacre are still being felt three years later, with black churches struggling to determine how best to keep congregations safe but welcoming.

It also forever changed retired South Carolina educator Marjorie McIver, whose sister Myra Thompson was among those killed by Roof. She hasn’t seen the Peace and Justice Memorial yet but plans to get there by this summer. Its importance can’t be overstated, she says.

“It gives us another opportunity that we need to seize,” McIver said. “We need to seize every opportunity we can to expose our children to our history. We don’t know how many people were actually lynched. We don’t know how many slaves were lost at sea and through suicide and other ways. It’s just the knowing. I just want to know. This will give us an opportunity to teach. What did they have to go through? What did they have to cope with? How did they survive?”

"From enslavement to mass incarceration"
 

McIver, like Dedman, sees the EJI’s work as key in the African-American quest to finally piece together a history that has in some ways been stolen, in others hidden, in still others papered over and downplayed, from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to police violence. It’s part of a chipping away of the shame of always feeling suspect, guilty until proved innocent, a stranger in one’s own land. It helps explain long-unacknowledged trauma and how and why wearing dark skin in America has always been a burden.

For too long, “as a black person, you didn’t expect justice,” Dedman said.

Issac Bailey, a former Nieman Fellow, is a journalist and writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. His book, My Brother Moochie, chronicles the trauma of seeing his beloved older brother sentenced to life in prison for murder.

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