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.”

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.