“There is a narrative that explains how we got here.”
Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, believes it’s possible to change our nation and world despite the inequality and violence that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. He’s thought long and hard about the steps needed and believes a key to changing America’s future is changing the narrative we tell ourselves about our shared past. This is especially true about our legacy of Native American genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, and the injustices throughout our history that linger and simmer under the surface then boil over again and again. He speaks often about the urgent need to confront our historic narrative including recently to young servant leaders preparing to teach children in Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs across America.
"There is a narrative that explains how we got here. Mass incarceration was created by policy decisions. We decided to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue . . . We didn’t do that for alcoholism. We said, ‘Alcoholism, that’s a disease,’ and now we don’t have a consciousness that when we see an alcoholic going into a bar that we have to call the police — but we didn’t do that for drug addiction. The reason why we didn’t do that was because of a narrative. And there’s a narrative of fear and anger out there.”
He continued: “You see, there’s a smog that’s hovering in the air. It’s a pollution created by our history of racial inequality . . . We’ve got to talk about the fact that we are a post-genocidal society. There was a genocide on this continent. When White settlers came, they killed millions of Native people. It was a genocide where famine and war and disease destroyed a whole culture, and there are things you have to do to recover from genocide that we haven’t done. And because we didn’t deal with that, we created this narrative of racial difference that allowed us to tolerate slavery.”
“And when we talk about slavery, we have to understand what we’re talking about. I don’t think the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude and forced labor. I think the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it. The great evil of American slavery was the ideology of White supremacy that we made up to legitimate the way we treated people of color, and we didn’t deal with that . . . And because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence. And we’ve got to deal with what it’s turned into.”
“From the end of Reconstruction until World War II, people of color were terrorized, pulled out of their homes, lynched, burned alive, taken from jails, hanged, shot. Older people of color come up to me sometimes and say, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody on TV talking about how we’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.’ They say, ‘We grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed and lynched every day of our lives,’ and we’ve got to tell that story.”
“When I look at this country, I look at a country whose demographic geography was shaped by terror. The Black people that are in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit — those of you who live in these cities in the North and West, you need to understand how you got there. The Black people in New York and Boston and Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn’t go to those communities as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. And there are things you’re supposed to do for refugees that we didn’t do, and that turned into this era of segregation.”
“And I have to tell you, I think we have to change the narrative of how we think and talk about civil rights . . . I hear people talking about the Civil Rights Movement, and it sounds like a three-day carnival: On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington, and on day three, we changed all the laws and racism was over. And we’ve got to change that narrative. Because the truth is that for decades in this country, we had segregation, and segregation was brutal. We told Black people that they couldn’t vote just because they’re Black. We told Black kids you couldn’t go to school because you’re Black. My parents were humiliated every day of their lives. Those signs that said ‘White’ and ‘colored’ weren’t directions. They were assaults. And we haven’t done the things you’re supposed to do to help recover from those assaults.”
“We should have committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation in the 1960s — but we didn’t do that. And because we didn’t do that, now we are suffering from a presumption of dangerousness and guilt, and we have to deal with it. Black and Brown people in this country are presumed dangerous. They’re presumed guilty. It is the reason why we’re having these issues with police on our streets, and we’ve got to change that narrative.”
The events of this summer continue to prove that we must change our national racial narrative to keep moving forward together. When Bryan Stevenson spoke about the narrative of fear and anger, he added: “I will tell you that you can’t do justice rooted in fear and anger. To do justice, you’ve got to get past fear, past anger, and believe things you have not seen.” Those of us who have spent our entire lives fighting for freedom and justice understand. As a nation we are desperately overdue for truth and reconciliation. We need both to allow us to move past fear and anger and toward a country we have not yet seen but we must never stop believing in and building — an America finally ready to “do justice” for everyone.