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Bryan Stevenson: Get Proximate on Issues of Race And Injustice

Ashlie Ford

During a 2016 lecture as part of TLU's programming on "Informed Responses: Confronting Race, History, and Symbols of Exclusion,” Attorney Bryan Stevenson shared a few of the events that inspired his book, Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption.

His speech wove personal stories together with our nation’s history of racial inequality and injustice. Now, only four years later, "Just Mercy" is a major motion picture starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as his client Walter McMillian.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor at the NYU School of Law, Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. A widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned, he has won numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize and the ACLU’s National Medal of Liberty.

He is also the founder of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. It is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

Michael B. Jordan & Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

He opened his presentation at TLU with some staggering statistics. “The United States is only five percent of the world’s population, yet it has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated,” he said. “One in three black males will go to prison at some point in their life. The odds are one in six for Latino boys.”

He then talked about his first encounter with a prison inmate and how when the shackled man appeared, he became unnerved.

Stevenson—a law student at the time working for a human rights project in Georgia—had been instructed to tell him he wasn’t at risk of execution for another year. He was the first person the man had seen in two years who wasn’t a fellow inmate or a prison guard. That conversation, and the man’s gratitude, forever changed Stevenson’s life. After listening to this man and seeing how he was treated, Stevenson said he came to a realization.

“We cannot create justice without getting close to places where injustices prevail,” he said. “We have to get proximate.”

He immediately went back to his work and started learning all he could about due process. Stevenson wanted to dedicate his life to not only fixing our criminal justice system, but also exposing its flaws. His next account was perhaps the most intense moment of the lecture.

He told the story of a 14-year-old boy he had represented. The boy saw his mother’s boyfriend punch her so hard she was unconscious. When the man fell asleep, the boy found the man’s pistol in the nightstand. He shot and killed him as he slept. The boy’s grandmother reached out to Dr. Stevenson for help. He discovered the boy had no juvenile record or any prior instances of criminal behavior. But he also found out one more thing; the man he killed was a local police officer. The court was going to try the boy as an adult and placed him in a men’s prison. When he met with the boy, Stevenson said he told him about the physical and sexual abuse he had experienced after only three days in the prison.

“He was under five-feet-tall and weighed less than 100 pounds and he was in chains,” he said. “And when I went over and put my arm around him, he began sobbing. We have a duty to protect our children. That means all of our children. We have to get proximate.”

That case, and another about a mentally disabled man who was executed, made Stevenson reexamine whether or not to continue his career path. He closed with another story, this one about his time spent with Rosa Parks and Civil Rights Activist Johnnie Carr. Their insight inspired him to continue seeking justice for all.

“We’ve never fully addressed the history and narrative of racial inequality,” he said. “We’re not really free in America when it comes to race. Mrs. Rosa Parks and Mrs. Johnnie Carr taught me that we must commit to doing uncomfortable things, because only then will justice happen. When it comes to the death penalty or trying children as adults, we should ask ourselves not if they deserve to die, but if we as a society deserve to kill. I believe our courts are more concerned with finality than fairness. Our system is broken and I represent broken people. Broken by racism and poverty. But I do what I do because I’m broken too. There is power when we get proximate and only then can we have mercy and compassion.”

Listen to Bryan Stevenson's January 20, 2020 interview on Fresh Air: 'Just Mercy' Attorney Asks U.S. To Reckon With Its Racist Past And Present.