The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The author of ‘Just Mercy’ says we’ve made talking about race political — and that has to change

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. (Rob Culpepper)

Bryan Stevenson, 61, is a lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which advocates for death-row inmates and a fair criminal justice system. The film “Just Mercy,” based on his memoir, was released in 2019. He lives in Montgomery, Ala.

You’ve been working for four decades defending death-row inmates as well as children who received life-without-parole sentences. Are we significantly closer to a just system now than when you began?

I don’t know that I would say “significantly closer,” because we still have this obscenely high rate of incarceration in America, and that’s going to have to change dramatically before we can claim significant progress. But, you know, for the first 15, 20 years of my work, no one seemed to care. No one paid any attention to the wrongful convictions, the racial disparities, the botched executions, the excessive punishment of children. It was an environment where everyone was competing with each other over who could be the toughest, who could articulate the most extreme punishment. So I think in that respect, we have turned a corner. There’s bipartisan recognition that we have way too many people in our jails and prisons. There’s a growing consensus that treating people who are dealing with drug addiction and drug dependency as criminals, rather than seeing that as a health-care problem, is a serious problem and a mistake. And I think there is a growing awareness that we made a lot of mistakes, that our system is not sufficiently reliable to impose some of the harsh punishments that we imposed, including things like the death penalty. There’s certainly more interest now than ever before, and I think that’s encouraging; I just think we cannot settle for, you know, awareness and consciousness-raising and attention. We need to see hundreds of thousands of fewer people in our jails and prisons. We need to end the death penalty. We need to stop this punishment approach to people who are vulnerable, like children and the mentally ill. That’s when we will really be able to claim significant progress.

For people who want to help make those things happen, what’s your best advice to them?

Well, I think we have to become more educated and more involved. Most people in this country don’t know who their district attorney is. They can’t name any of the local judges who impose punishment. Those kinds of decision-makers have enormous power and opportunity to immediately impact some of the worst aspects of the criminal legal system. And so I think we all have a role to play because in those communities they are elected, and we just haven’t been particularly engaged or aware. That’s the first thing. And then I think that has to then manifest itself in other political spaces. I mean, people were promising to execute folks and put children in prisons and do all of these other extreme things because they thought voters would reward them for that. And if we actually challenge people, if we condemn elected officials who engage in the politics of fear and anger, we’ll create a very different political environment.

What argument do you make to those Americans who believe the death penalty is a moral and just form of punishment?

The first thing I would say is that we can’t make a decision about the death penalty by asking whether people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed. The threshold question is: Do we deserve to kill? And if you have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent; if you have a system that has been compromised by politics and arbitrariness and racial bias; if you have a system that’s so unreliable that for every nine people we’ve executed in this country, we’ve now identified one innocent person on death row who has been exonerated, that’s a shocking rate of error. We may all like apples, but if the word comes out that one out of nine apples in the store will kill you if you touch it, no one would buy apples. No one would sell apples. We would recognize that kind of error, that kind of risk, as just unacceptable. That would be the first thing I would say even before we get to questions of morality and philosophy and theology. This is a basic question of fairness and credibility. And I think that question dictates that we end the death penalty. We just haven’t created a system that can be entrusted with perfect punishment. And the death penalty is a sentence that requires perfection, because when you make mistakes, you have no ability to correct those mistakes.

For years you’ve been talking about a need for a racial reckoning in America. What form should that take?

Well, I think we have just done a very poor job in this country in understanding our history. And I think what we’re first going to have to do is engage in an era of truth-telling about who we are and the multiple ways in which we have failed to confront and overcome racial injustice, racial inequality. We’ve just lied to ourselves about our history. We’ve never acknowledged that we are a post-genocide society, that what Europeans did to Indigenous people, when they came to this continent, was genocide. We killed millions of native people through famine and war and disease. We took their land. We made the people leave. There’s no framework in which that is just or fair. And instead of grappling with the unfairness of that history and reckoning with it, we created a narrative of racial difference to justify it. We said that Indigenous people are different, native people are savages. And we use this kind of rhetoric to justify the abuse and mistreatment of that population. And then we created a Constitution that talked about equality and justice for all and didn’t apply those values to Indigenous people because we have shielded them from fair and just treatment through this narrative of racial difference.

That’s the same narrative we relied on to justify slavery. And we haven’t been truthful about the legacy of slavery. And I’ve argued that the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor. I think it was the idea we created in this country that Black people are not as good as White people, that Black people are not fully human. Black people are less evolved, less capable, less worthy, less deserving. And that ideology of white supremacy, that narrative of racial difference, was the real evil of American slavery.

I think this reckoning with the truth, truth-telling, is urgently needed in this country, along the lines of what you see in South Africa. When you go there, you are reminded of all of the pain and horror of apartheid. There’s an apartheid museum. There are spaces that compel that reflection. I talk a lot about Germany because I think you can’t go to Germany without having some reckoning with the Holocaust. There are stones and symbols and memorials and monuments everywhere. And that’s a country that has realized that its ability to move forward required it to reckon with the past. There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany, because there’s been truth-telling about the Holocaust. It would be unconscionable there to honor the architects and defenders of the Third Reich, the perpetrators of the Holocaust. But I live in a region of the country in the United States where the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday, Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Streets and monuments honor the architects and defenders of slavery, the perpetrators of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. And I just think in an absence of reckoning, of truth-telling, these patterns and habits will continue to undermine fairness and equality.

I wonder if in the widespread protests last summer following George Floyd’s death, you saw that as a sign of some reckoning?

For me, it was more an acknowledgment that it’s time to stop the long history of violence. We’ve never really engaged in reckoning, in my judgment. In part because enslaved Black people had to focus on freedom. They had to focus on winning their basic human right of autonomy and dignity. And then Black people who were being lynched had to focus on security. Many of them fled to the North and West just to create an environment where they weren’t going to be threatened and menaced with lawless lynching on any given day. And then we had to focus on basic civil rights, the right to education, the right to vote. And in many ways, we’re just entering a period of American history where there is the capacity to engage in the sort of reckoning that I’m talking about, the kind of truth-telling that I’m talking about, because there has to be some of these basic conditions to exist before that can happen. What I think we saw last summer is that with the continued indifference to the victimization of Black people by police violence, the disparities, you know, that we saw during the pandemic, all of these things just made it clear that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing for 400 years, if we stay silent as we have been taught, then this problem will continue generation after generation. I think what a lot of people said is that we don’t want to do that anymore. And that is the beginning of creating a space for actual reckoning. It’s not the reckoning itself, but it creates that space. And I’m hopeful that millions more Americans have come to accept that we have to talk about these things differently. We have to do some things differently if we want to get free from this long history of racial injustice.

What do you think it is about the three words “Black lives matter” that generates so much antipathy and anger among some White Americans?

I think it’s just a misunderstanding, to be honest. What’s powerful about those three words is that it is a simple, basic, noncontroversial affirmation that the victimization of Black people should not be ignored. The death and killing and unjustified abuse of Black people should not be tolerated. In a just democracy, there’s nothing controversial about that. It speaks to the way in which we have been indifferent to victimization of Black people for a very long time, which is evident from things like no one knowing anything about the history of lynching, few people understanding the history of slavery.

It’s interesting because there’s really nothing inherently controversial or complicated about the idea that you shouldn’t devalue some lives because of their race, because of their color. Where it becomes controversial is that when that statement is attended by activism that tries to push institutions and systems to recognize the ways in which they are not valuing Black lives, people resist, people don’t want to do it, and then people assign their own meaning to the words. They assign their own purpose and motive to that assertion. And I just think if you look at those three words, there’s nothing inherently, in my view, controversial or complicated or challenging or provocative.

Unless you were so committed to white supremacy, unless you’re so committed to racial hierarchy, unless you’re so committed to the status quo that you see a threat in the idea that we’re going to now have to think differently about the ways in which we have tolerated the victimization and exploitation of Black people, then I can see how it would be provocative. But if you’re not aligned with those outcomes, then you should embrace the notion.

You know, I just think even before anybody said, “Black lives matter,” I mean, you know, America has just been defensive about our history of racial inequality from almost Day One. And instead of recognizing that we’ve practiced violence, we’ve made it impolite for someone to talk about race or racial justice. We’ve made it controversial and political, and that has to change. I just think, you know, that that sort of reactive defensiveness, hostility to talking about issues that complicate the American story, has to change, just like, you know, it has on a host of other issues.

The power of a narrative like Black Lives Matter is that, you know, it’s rooted in, I think, an essential truth. Human beings, every human being has dignity and worth. There is no hierarchy of human value based on color. That’s a false idea. And false ideas can be supported and structured and systemized and empowered and funded. But eventually they fail.

The movie “Just Mercy” is based on your memoir about representing death-row prisoners who were either innocent or had sort of sham legal representation before you took over. What was it like for you to watch that and relive some of the horrific events you witnessed and were subject to?

It was stressful to watch in the early stages, not because it triggered anything from the actual experience, but mostly because I care so deeply about getting people to understand the nature of the problem that I didn’t want distortions or artificial things to kind of get in the way. And so for me, it was just really important to help people see what I’ve seen during my career. To try to perhaps get close enough to the things I’ve been close to that they can hear and see things that they haven’t heard and seen before. And so I wasn’t particularly anxious about having a movie made out of the book. I just was fearful that something might be done to kind of undermine what I thought were the essential truths. I was really honored that they did such a great job.

And I think it was gratifying for me to see the film and know that others may have some new awareness about the challenges that we face in our system. That was my overwhelming emotion.

You talk about the importance of proximity to the issues that are stressing America in different ways. As someone who has never been to a prison or talked to anyone on death row, for me that movie created a proximity to the injustices of our legal system in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.

I’m really pleased to hear that. And that was very much on my mind. I wanted people to have a sense of what it’s like to live in a community and to be marginalized and unheard and unseen and unrecognized while horrible things are happening to people you love and care about. You know, what it’s like to be condemned and put in this place where the society has said: You’re so awful that you’re beyond hope, beyond redemption. Your life has no meaning or purpose or value such that we can kill you. And I do think that the more intimately we connect with people and places and experiences like those that are being dealt with by condemned prisoners and poor people and people of color, the more compassionate we become. And more than that, the more informed we are to want to see things change.

My work is really about affirming this idea that we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. And I want people to really wrestle with that. If someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. They take something, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And justice requires that we understand the other things you are. And much of my work has been animated by that belief, by that world view.

What brings you peace of mind?

Oh, wow. Peace of mind. That’s a good question. I don’t know that I get peace of mind. I am sustained and energized and hopeful when I see new ways, new opportunities to contribute, to fight, to challenge things that I think are unjust and unfair. And I guess I’m grateful that I’ve been able to be open-minded about what should happen next. You know, 10 years ago, if you said, “Oh, you’re going to build a museum and memorial and put out all of these reports on slavery and lynching and segregation,” I would have said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would I do that?” And then you just kind of grow into an awareness of things, and you just have to have the courage to respond. What gives me a peace of mind more than anything is that I really feel like we’ve been able to remain responsive to the needs of the people we serve, the clients, the communities we work, the issues that are emerging in our nation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.