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.”