Bryan Stevenson, Great Spirit


On March 7, 2017, along with 1,100 other people, I heard Bryan Stevenson speak and saw him accept the 25th Wallenberg award. The University of Michigan has designated this honor for people “whose courageous actions call to mind Wallenberg’s extraordinary accomplishments and values.” Raoul Wallenberg attended the University of Michigan to study architecture in the 1930’s. During WW II, the Swedish government sent him to Budapest to save the lives of Hungarian Jews, trapped in the last months of the war. Cleverly and courageously, Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews before he was captured by the Soviets in 1947.

Stevenson opened his remarks about the “great spirits” among us and advised us all to go out and “change the world.” He gave us four ways to move forward. The crowd rose to its feet several times and gave him a long standing ovation at the end.

First, we must get proximate to people who are marginalized, in our prisons, in places of poverty and oppression—wherever people are “disfavored.” He told us about being unable to attend an integrated high school, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling that separate was not equal in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.  Some lawyers appeared in Stevenson’s community and made it possible for him to go to high school. “They got proximate,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be standing here tonight without their actions.”

Second, he often talks about “the politics of fear and anger” as weapons against justice and progress. He talked about the need to change the narratives that drive injustice, oppression and disadvantage. He talked about the injustice in the criminal justice system, citing dismal statistics: 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, the huge rise of incarcerated women, and the tragedies of incarcerating children for life. He told us that Michigan has one of the worst records for treating juveniles unfairly. He talked about the need to change the “great evil in the narrative of racial difference,” the idea that white people are somehow better than people of color.

Third, he said we must stay hopeful, as hard as it can be at times. He explained how even people on death row have hope, and he explained his mission to erect monuments about lynching as giving him hope. His work with people given life sentences as children gives him hope. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he declared.

Fourth, we need to do “uncomfortable things.” Getting out of our comfort zones isn’t easy, but it is also the only way forward. Stevenson has done the painful, hard and sometimes tragic work with condemned people on Death Row for decades, providing us with a model of extraordinary heart and courage.

He also addressed the problem of America’s unwillingness to face the ugliness in our past. “We are living in a post-genocidal society,” he said as he talked about the millions of Native Americans who have died in the name of American progress. As Americans, we have a very hard time talking about slavery. The Equal Justice Initiative that Stevenson founded is housed in Montgomery, Alabama, and it has undertaken a project to put monuments and markers in places where slaves were sold. EJI is also planning a memorial to the people who were lynched, so “we can begin to heal,” he said. The video on Proposed National Lynching Memorial is very moving.

Americans don’t like to look at these wrongdoings, because we are so punitive. But, he said people in Alabama are beginning to see the merits of doing these uncomfortable things, such as learning the awful realities of slavery, segregation and lynching. It is the only way we will get beyond our divisions of race and class. “The Germans have markers everywhere to mark what happened in the Holocaust. They want to remind people what was done so that it doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. He reminded us of how burdened we are by our history and how important it is to have the uncomfortable conversations to understand all of our history. Those efforts are the only way to get beyond bigotry and injustice.

Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a must read for all Americans. I smiled to myself as I listened, feeling so honored to hear him. As he talked about other people with courage and great spirit, especially people in prisons, I could not think of anyone who could wear the label of Great Spirit more than this man. We are living in such troubling times. How lucky we are to have Stevenson’s tenacious courage in the face of persistent injustice and the good humor and grace to inspire the rest of us. No wonder he is called “America’s Nelson Mandela.”

“It’s Easy”

Like many people, I was shocked to hear about the death of Justice Scalia. After several days, I realized how complicated his death is from a legal standpoint, and the more I read and hear about him, the more contradictions I find. It has been heartening to hear about his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and how it has endured across a huge political divide. I keep hearing about his charm, his wit, his humor, his writing ability and his legal brilliance. He served on the court with distinction for decades. I am sorry about his death, but I am relieved that he will no longer negatively effect so many people, particularly people on death row with his vociferous defense of the death penalty. Asked about what it was like to rule on death penalty cases, he responded, “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy.” Given our horribly broken criminal justice system and its accompanying racist policies, I do not understand how anyone could be so cavalier about anything as serious and tragic as capital punishment. In my last blog, I wrote about people in the “tall tower” and how often they are disconnected from the world of impoverished communities and people of color. Wealth, power and privilege create these disconnections. Misinformation, prejudice and judgment often follow. It seems to me that Antonin Scalia lived in the tall tower—far removed from the realities of people in prisons and on death row.

Two of my heroes are Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and he created The Equal Justice Initiative where he represents people in Alabama on death row, many who are innocent. He represents children who are incarcerated, sometimes as young as nine or ten, and who have been sentenced to life without parole. Many of his stories are chilling. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, gives us new language and understanding about the tragedy of the United States becoming the world’s biggest jailor, and how our prison populations reflect the new form of racial control. She sheds light on how our prison system is creating an American caste system. They both work tirelessly for justice.

Bill Moyers interviewed Stevenson and Alexander together.  

Moyers asked Stevenson, “Why is it that capital punishment has become so symbolic of what you see as the crisis in American justice and American life?”  Stevenson replied,

“It shapes all of criminal justice policy. It’s in the only country where you have the death penalty that you can have life without parole for someone who writes bad checks. Somebody else who steals a bicycle. And so it shapes the way we think about punishment. You know, we’ve gotten very comfortable with really harsh and excessive sentences. And I think the death penalty permits that. But I also think it really challenges us, if we will really execute innocent people. We’ve had 130 people in this country who’ve been exonerated, proven innocent while on death row. For every 8 people who have been executed, we’ve identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.”

Allowing the death penalty makes our society more punitive. Our prison policies are not based on the assumption that people are basically good and make mistakes. We don’t use prisons for the sole purpose of rehabilitation. We punish. We punish severely. We still have more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of them children. Women and children are especially vulnerable to rape, and pregnant women are treated horribly in many cases. At this point, we make it very hard for people to put their lives back together when they are released by restricting access to federal housing and food subsidies, restricting licenses and student loans and by providing inadequate support for finding sustainable jobs. There is talk of reinstating Pell grants for people behind bars, but far more needs to be done about more comprehensive education. I taught in the only high school completion program beyond GED in the federal system. Without the right kind of support, returning citizens are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, debtor’s prison and what Michelle Alexander calls “a lifelong underclass.” Many states prohibit these citizens from serving on juries or even voting. They are vulnerable to recidivism.

When I was writing a blog about one of my students on June 15, 2015 called A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty, I learned about a national organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. It was reassuring to read about their concern and political action. Helen Prejean wrote in Dead Man Walking, “Government…can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide with of its citizens to kill.” The death penalty  is not only complicated, but it results in tragedies of immense proportions, especially among minorities. It is devastating to the families of people who are killed. It provides a slippery slope into more and more damaging and punitive policies, and it should never be described as easy in any context.