Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson wants Americans to look hard at the nation’s long, ongoing history of racism ― because, he says, without an honest acknowledgment of those wrongdoings, our past will be perpetuated in our present and we won’t be free to build a better future.
“True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” a new HBO documentary coming out June 26, digs into Stevenson’s work with the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, fighting racism in the criminal justice system for over 30 years, largely by defending poor, black people on death row.
But the film goes beyond Stevenson’s own story ― much of which is told in his bestselling memoir “Just Mercy” ― and forces the viewer to confront the legacy of racial injustice in the U.S.: from Native genocide to slavery, to segregation and lynching, and up to racism in the criminal justice system today. The film argues that unless Americans look at these issues square in the eye ― and unless people in power, including law enforcement and politicians, acknowledge them publicly ― the harms of racism will endure.
“I get frustrated when I hear people talk about ‘If I had been living during the time of slavery, of course, I would have been an abolitionist.’ ... Everybody imagines that if they were in Alabama in the 1960s, they would have been marching with Dr. King,” Stevenson says in the documentary.
“And the truth of it is, I don’t think you can claim that if today you are watching these systems be created that are incarcerating millions of people, throwing away the lives of millions of people, destroying communities, and you’re doing nothing,” he adds.
HuffPost spoke with Stevenson about what it would look like for Americans ― particularly white people ― to face the country’s legacy of racism and how they still participate in it today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The HBO documentary covers a lot of ground ― from your childhood to your work as an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, to America’s history of slavery, segregation, lynching and more. What is the main message you want viewers to come away with?
I think it’s that we are not free from the legacy of slavery and racial injustice. And that we have to address the problems that our history creates.
For me, you can’t understand a lot of contemporary issues ― like police violence or mass incarceration or the death penalty or excessive punishment, or even racial discrimination or immigration ― without a broader historical context.
And I just don’t think we’ve done a very good job in this country of talking about or reckoning with our very problematic history that begins with Native genocide, slavery. … When we try to solve these contemporary problems without that historical narrative, we fall short.
At the start of the film, you recount how when you and your sister were kids playing in a hotel pool, white adults started pulling their kids out of the water. And one called you the N-word. In the film, you ask: “The question becomes: Do the white kids remember the day they were forced out of the pool by their parents because two black kids got into the water?” What do you think white people should be acknowledging today?
I don’t think we have asked people to remember things they need to remember to grasp the importance of understanding this history. I moved to Montgomery in the 1980s. We have [dozens of] markers and monuments to the Confederacy. [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday. … People talk about the “good old days” of the early 20th century because we don’t have a consciousness of lynching.
If you’re not required to remember how you were complicit in discrimination and bigotry … then you’re not required to respond, to repent, to recover, to express things our country desperately needs to hear about the wrongfulness of those events.
We are not being honest about our past and that’s causing us to be not aware of the challenges we face in our present. And it makes me worried about our future.
Here we try to act as if the whole race problem has been resolved. And I just think that has to change. Causing people to remember their own history of compliance is an important part of it.
“Sometimes people hear me talking about this history and they think I want to punish America for this racist past. I have no interest in punishment. My interest is in liberation. ... But to achieve it, we can’t be silent about this past.”
You mention in the documentary that you want a “truth and reconciliation” process, like what governments have done in Rwanda post-genocide, in Germany post-Holocaust, in South Africa post-apartheid. What would that look like in the U.S. in your mind?
In South Africa, the courts are surrounded by emblems ... to make sure nobody forgets the injustices of apartheid. In Germany, if you go to Berlin, you can’t go 200 meters without seeing markers and stones [recalling the Holocaust].
I think the overarching principle is that truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t have reconciliation without first having the truth.
We opened a narrative museum about slavery because they generally do not exist. With the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] in Washington and ours, you can count on one hand the places you can go in this country where you can have an honest accounting of what happened. Why is that?
Most people in this country can’t name a single African American who was lynched. … They don’t know the history in their own communities.
It does mean creating a new landscape: markers, memorials. And journalists have to do more writing; filmmakers have to be more intentional about educating people.
When we put markers up [at the sites of past lynchings], I think it’s entirely appropriate for the chief of police to show up and say, ‘I am sorry that the people who wore this uniform 80 years ago didn’t protect you.’ … That doesn’t take money. It just requires a consciousness of wrongdoing in the past that has to be acknowledged and a commitment to doing better.
Both the film and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which the Equal Justice Initiative opened in Alabama, have an intentional focus on lynching. Why is that so important for Americans to be educated on, among the many racial injustices in American history?
I think it’s the phenomenon that had the most profound impact on life in America in the 20th century that is least understood and least discussed.
Six million black people fled the South in response to the terror of lynching [as part of the Great Migration] ― and nobody talks about it. The geography of this nation was shaped by racial terror lynching.
In Chicago, Detroit, they went to those communities as refugees from generational terror in the South. ... Without an understanding of that, we don’t understand how to deal with income inequality, education, a host of other issues.
This era of lynching would not have happened if we had a legal system committed to protecting African Americans from lawlessness and violence. Our courts failed, the law failed. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’re not going to be much better in the 21st century.
What do you see in terms of the issues still present today that you would want people to understand and acknowledge as part of this ongoing legacy of racial injustice?
We now have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in three black male babies will end up in the criminal justice system in their lifetime. That ought to be shocking. I doubt anybody will talk about it in 2020. We’ve just accepted it.
We’ve now exonerated scores of people who were condemned to death who were later proven innocent. And yet people are still trying to execute people.
We sometimes have videotaped evidence of black people being killed by officers, unarmed, and yet we have a hard time holding those officers accountable. ... I just think that has to change if we’re going to become a truly great nation.
At one point in the documentary, you mention wanting to have judges and prosecutors face their racism by asking if they’ve used the N-word, if they took their kids out of integrating schools. What do you think white people should be looking at in their own lives now to examine how, even those who may think of themselves as progressive or as being “not racist,” they don’t apply those principles in their own lives?
I’d ask: Do you know who your district attorney is? Who your judges are? What have they done? Do you know your local history as it related to these topics? And if you don’t know, then you can’t make informed decisions about the kind of leadership you want.
It’s interesting, we don’t ask critical questions about people who have enormous power ― police, judges. … How do we hold them accountable if nobody understands that?
At the federal level, do we care whether our elected officials are committed to eliminating bias and discrimination? If we don’t care, we’ll get politicians who don’t care either, and if they don’t care, we’ll be dealing with this for another century.
The No. 1 response we get out of people at the museum is: I didn’t know. The question becomes: Why don’t they know? Education in America has done a terrible job.
We’ve been practicing silence for a really long time. … Committing to ending the silence, having conversations in your community and your life, is really important.
What is the one thing you want people to know about why looking at this hard history of racial injustice and terror matters?
Sometimes people hear me talking about this history and they think I want to punish America for this racist past. I have no interest in punishment. My interest is in liberation.
I think there is something better waiting for us, something more like freedom, like equality. But to achieve it, we can’t be silent about this past. And that’s my hope.
I just think we need to imagine a more just, more equitable, fairer society where no one is burdened by the color of their skin. But we are far away from that now.