My friend Yuko was trying to convince me to watch a Web video, a TED talk by some guy who said some inspiring stuff. I like watching videos, but I don’t get home to New York that much. I had a only few hours left in my visit, so I was anxious to hit the streets one last time to wallow in the treasures and pleasures of the big city. But Yuko, who is a self-defense instructor and conflict mediator, buttonholed me—gently and without conflict.
I didn’t know the speaker, a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson. But I was riveted and moved by what the man had to say. He blew me away, in fact, and he did it in an unexpected way: by telling stories, beautiful, personal stories.
I did know something about the issues Stevenson discussed: mass incarceration of black and brown boys and men, the suppression of the most brutal chapters of our history that created America’s legacy of racial injustice and economic inequality, the lethal absurdity of our death penalty regime.
I can’t dwell on these topics because I get enraged, both by the ugly facts and the culture of denial that surrounds them. It took me a whole year to finish Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which tackles mass incarceration head-on, because I had to put the book down every few pages. It kept igniting the volatile reservoir of anger I feel as a black man in a society that often seems to run on whitewashed myth, rather than “color-blind” truth.
Stevenson, a tall, bald, soft-spoken African-American attorney and founder of a Montgomery, Ala., legal aid group called the Equal Justice Initiative, began his TED talk with a story about his grandmother, Mama.
“I grew up in a house that was the traditional African-American home that was dominated by a matriarch,” he said, “and that matriarch was my grandmother. She was tough. She was strong. She was powerful. She was the end of every argument in our family.” He paused, smiled. “She was the beginning of a lot of arguments in our family.” In a heartbeat, Stevenson turned serious. Mama’s parents—his great-grands—had been enslaved. “She was born in the 1880s, and the experience of slavery very much shaped the way she saw the world.” That was Mama’s legacy for her grandson.
The past matters to Stevenson, particularly America’s hidden history. Rather than simply fighting The Man legal case by legal case, Stevenson’s work at EJI increasingly explores “what it was like for people of color to be humiliated every day, to be excluded, to be marginalized, to be subordinate, to be denied, and how changing a law [during the Civil Rights era] was inadequate to confront all of that anguish and suffering and get us closer to truth and reconciliation, which is ultimately the goal,” he told The Root. “And then it becomes important to talk about mass incarceration, because it’s a manifestation of our failure to confront” that history.
“Doing death penalty cases, you get confronted with a crime that has these horrific features,” Stevenson said, “and the narrative that gets presented to the public is one that makes everybody angry and everybody afraid and everybody comfortable with just throwing that person away—there’s no such thing as too much punishment for someone who did something like that. If you don’t change that narrative, if you don’t complicate the narrative, deepen it, contextualize it, you’re not going to have any chance at all in talking about why it’s important to treat this person fairly, to treat this person as though they have some basic dignity that has to be respected.”
After hearing the Stevenson talk, I looked him up. “I grew up on the Eastern shore [of Delaware] in a rural, segregated community, and was always mindful of the legacy of racial inequality and the challenges that poverty created,” Stevenson told The Root. He also “benefited from the opportunities created by integration,” he added.
Stevenson majored in philosophy, and then jumped ship. “I realized late in my college time that nobody would pay me to philosophize,” he said. So Stevenson went to Harvard Law. He didn’t quite get into it. “I hated the first year of law school because it was so disconnected to the things that motivated me to consider law—poverty and race and equality and all of that.” He tried Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, too. “They just seemed preoccupied with teaching you to maximize benefits and minimize costs.”
In his second year of law school, Stevenson went south—Deep South—to do practical work with a human rights group. He chose the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, now the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta, which represents people on death row. “It was really that exposure and the experience of meeting condemned people, who literally were dying for legal assistance, that radicalized my interest in the law,” Stevenson told The Root. He got a joint degree from both the law and government school, spent four years in Atlanta, and then headed to Montgomery and founded EJI in 1989. “I’ve been here ever since.”
We should all know who Stevenson is. Three months after TED, he took two cases to the Supreme Court, later joined in a single opinion. In each, a 14-year-old boy—one white, one African American—had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole, “LWOP” in legal lingo. Stevenson argued patiently, forcefully—and ultimately successfully—that it would be cruel and unusual, and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to condemn youth under the age of 18 to mandatory life without parole. The five-to-four ruling does not ban juvenile LWOP outright. Rather, as the opinion reads, it requires that judges “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”
The landmark ruling struck down laws in 29 states that imposed automatic, mandatory LWOP on juveniles. In concrete terms, a minor—a person who’s not yet fully developed cognitively—can't be condemned to rot and die in prison. We can lock him up—for 20, 40, 70 years—but because of Stevenson (and EJI), we can’t throw away the key.
The 53-year-old Stevenson is not an apologist for killing. “A lot of my clients have committed crimes, and they have to be punished for that, and I don’t have any objection to that,” he told a journalist in a 2000 PBS interview, “but there are people for whom I believe redemption is still a possibility.”
“I've learned very simple things doing the work that I do,” Stevenson said at TED. “I've come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that, there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.”
It’s a radical proposition, but one with compassion and hope at its core.
Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.