October 18, 2019

Bryan Stevenson

Civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson joins Firing Line to discuss race in America, the legacy of slavery, and his work defending death row prisoners. He also discusses creating The National Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the victims of lynching, and the upcoming Hollywood movie based on his memoir, Just Mercy.

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HE’S DEDICATED HIS LIFE TO FIGHTING.
THIS WEEK ON FIRING LINES.

WE HAVE A SYSTEM OF JUSTICE IN THIS COUNTRY THAT TREATS YOU MUCH BETTER IF YOU’RE RICH AND GUILTY THAN IF YOU’RE POOR AND INNOCENT.

HIS STORY COULD BE STRAIGHT OUT OF HOLLYWOOD.
BRIAN STEVENSON WENT TO A SEGREGATED SCHOOL.
AT HARVARD, HE FOUND HIS CALLING FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE.

THEY ACCUSED ME OF SOMETHING I DIDN’T DO.

AND HELPING AMERICANS CONFRONT THE MOST DIFFICULT PARTS OF OUR HISTORY.
HIS FIGHT FOR MERCY IS SO REMARKABLE.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BRIAN STEPHENSON.

HOLLYWOOD HAS TAKEN NOTICE.

YOU’RE A LAWYER?

YES, MA’AM.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR DRIVING ALL THE WAY OUT HERE.

WHAT DOES BRIAN STEVENSON SAY NOW?

FIRING LINES WITH MARGARET HOOVER IS MADE POSSIBLE BY — THE MARGARET AND DANIEL LOBE FOUNDATION.
ADDITIONAL FUNDING PROVIDED BY — CORPORATE FUNDING IS PROVIDED BY STEVENED INC.

WELCOME TO FIRING LINE.

THANK YOU.

YOU ARE THE CO-FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE IN MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA.
AND YOU HAVE WON RELEASE FOR MORE THAN 130 DEATH ROW INMATES AND HUNDREDS OF OTHER ACCUSED AND HAVE ARGUED FIVE CASES IN FRONT OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES.
NOW, A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE, IS COMING OUT ABOUT YOUR LIFE.
BASED ON THE BOOK YOU WROTE.
I’LL GOING TO SHOW YOU A CLIP OF THAT MOVIE.
WE’LL TAKE A LOOK.

FIRST TIME I VISITED DEATH ROW, I WASN’T EXPECTING TO MEET SOMEONE THE SAME AGE AS MEAN.
YOUR LIFE IS STILL MEANINGFUL AND I’M GOING TO DO EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO KEEP THEM FROM TAKING IT.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE INTO IN ALABAMA.
YOU’RE GUILTY FROM THE MOMENT YOU’RE BORN.

GUARD, WE’RE DOWN HERE.

MR. McMILLAN, PLEASE.

JAMIE FOXX THERE PLAYED WALTER McMILLAN, AN INNOCENT MAN WHO IS SENT JSED TO DEATH BY A JUDGE WITH A NAME NONE OTHER THAN ROBERT E. LEE KEY.

YES.

WHAT HAPPENED WITH THAT CASE?

IT’S A REALLY FASCINATING CASE FOR A LOT OF REASONS.
FIRST OF ALL, IT TAKES PLACE IN MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA, WHICH IS THE COMMUNITY WHERE HARPER LEE GREW UP IN ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’ AND THAT COMMUNITY CELEBRATES THAT STORY, EMBRACES THAT STORY.
BUT WHEN I GOT INVOLVED IN WALTER McMILLAN’S CASE, A BLACK MAN WRONGFULLY ACCUSED OF KILLING A WHITE WOMAN, IT WAS ALMOST AS IF THEY COULDN’T MAKE THE CONNECTION.
HE WAS MILES FROM THE CRIME, VOUNTDED BY DOZENS OF BLACK PEOPLE WHO COULD CONFIRM HIS INNOCENCE AND HE WAS LARGELY PROSECUTED BECAUSE HE HAD AN AFFAIR WITH A YOUNG WHITE WOMAN, WHICH PROVOKED PEOPLE TO SEE HIM AS A DANGEROUS PERSON.
HE WAS CONVICTED AND SENTENCED TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE BY THE JURY AND THE JUDGE OVERRODE THE JURY’S SENTENCE OF LIFE AND IMPOSED THE DEATH PENALTY AND HE SPENT THE NEXT SIX YEARS ON DEATH ROW FOR A CRIME HE DIDN’T COMMIT.
I GOT INVOLVED AND WAS CHALLENGED BY PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T THINK I SHOULD REPRESENT SOMEONE LIKE THAT.
WE GOT DEATH THREAT, BOMB THREATS.
ALL KINDS OF EFFORTS TO UNDERMINE MY QUEST TO KIND OF OVERTURN HIS CONVICTION.
AND THE FILM GETS INTO ALL OF THOSE DETAILS.
WHAT WAS INTERESTING TO ME ABOUT IT WAS THE WAY IN WHICH WE CAN HAVE THIS IDEA ABOUT WHO WE ARE AS A COMMUNITY, AS A NATION, AND NOT LIVE OUT THOSE IDEAS AND VALUES IN REAL TIME WHEN ACTUAL PEOPLE’S LIVES ARE AT RISK.
THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED TO WALTER.

THE OUTCOME OF TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD IS A VERY DIFFERENT OUTCOME THAT WHAT HAPPENED WITH WALTER BECAUSE OF YOUR LEGAL WORK.
IT SEEMS TO ME THAT KIND OF BOTHERS YOU.

I THINK WE HAVE ALL OF THESE AWARDS THAT ARE NAMED AFTER ATTICUS FINCH AND WE CELEBRATE THAT STORY.

A LAWYER LIKE YOU.

I DON’T WANT TO BE ATTICUS FINCH.
I DON’T THINK IT’S ENOUGH TO JUST STAND WITH SOMEONE WHO IS INNOCENT AND THEN SEE THEM WRONGLY CONVICTED AND ULTIMATELY DIE FROM A LACK OF HOPE.
I THINK WE HAVE TO DEMAND MORE, WE HAVE TO EXPECT MORE THAN JUST SHOWING UP.
SO FOR ME, I WANT PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN WRONGLY CONVICTED AND CONDEMNED TO WIN THEIR FREEDOM.
I WANT OUR SYSTEM TO DO BETTER THAN WHAT IT HAS DONE FOR TOO LONG.

YOU BEGAN THIS WORK SITTING ACROSS THE TABLE FROM A MAN WHO WAS ROUGHLY YOUR AGE, FEELING UTTERLY INCAPABLE OF BEING ABLE TO MUSTER WHAT IT WAS HE NEEDED.
BUT WHAT HE NEEDED ENDED UP NOT BEING YOUR LEGAL EXPERTISE BUT WHAT?

I THINK WHAT MANY PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THE MARGINS OF OUR SOCIETY NEED, WHAT MANY PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN DISFAVORED AND EXCLUDED AND CONDEMNED NEED IS THEY NEED OTHERS TO GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE THAT THEY’RE MORE THAN THE WORST THING THEY HAVE EVER DONE.
TO GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF THE ISSUES THAT HAVE EXCLUDED, MARGINALIZED, DISFAVORED THEM.
AND YEAH, I WAS A LAW STUDENT STRUGGLING AT HARVARD LAW SCHOOL.
I NEVER MET A LAWYER UNTIL I GOT TO LAW SCHOOL.
AND I WAS REALLY TRYING TO FIND MY PATH AND MEETING CONDEMNED PRISONERS ON GEORGIA’S DEATH ROW WHO WERE LITERALLY DYING FOR LEGAL ASSISTANCE AND SEEING THEIR HUMANITY AND SEEING THEIR NEED AND THEIR STRUGGLE FOR DIGNITY REALLY CHANGED THINGS FOR ME IN WAYS I DIDN’T EXPECT.
AND I BECAME PERSUADED THAT IT’S PROTECTING THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE WHO ARE MOST HATED, THE MOST DESPISED, THE MOST DISFAVORED, SOMETIMES THE MOST DISJECTED AND IT’S THE ULTIMATE TEST OF OUR RULE OF LAW.
THAT’S WHERE WE CAN EVALUATE WHETHER WE’RE PREPARED TO BE A JUST SOCIETY, AND THAT ENCOUNTER REALLY SHAPED THINGS FOR ME AND CHANGED THINGS IN WME THAT CONTINUED TO THIS TIME.

YOU WERE PLAYED BY MICHAEL B.
JORDAN.
HOW DOES HE DO?

HE WAS GREAT.
I’M HONORED.
IT’S A THRILL TO HAVE SOMEONE AS POPULAR AND CELEBRATED AS MICHAEL B. PLAYING ME.
I TOLD HIM WHEN HE TOOK ON THE ROLE, HE DIDN’T HAVE TO GET RID OF HIS ‘BLACK PANTHER’ BODY TO PLAY ME.
AND IT’S BEEN EXCITING TO SEE THE FILM COME OUT AND I’M EXCITED FOR PEOPLE TO SEE IT BECAUSE IT’S A WAY, AGAIN, OF GETTING MORE PEOPLE CLOSER TO THIS WORLD THAT WE HAVE CREATED IN AMERICA THAT OFTEN TREATS YOU BETTER IF YOU’RE RICH AND GUILTY THAN POOR AND INNOCENT.

ANTHONY IS ANOTHER MAN WHO YOU DEFENDED.
HE SPENT 30 YEARS ON DEATH ROW FOR A MURDER IN WHICH MODERN BALLISTIC SCIENCE ENDED UP DEMONSTRATING HE WAS INNOCENT.

THAT’S RIGHT.
HE WAS ALSO ACCUSED OF TWO MURDERS, ACTUALLY, AND COULDN’T GET THE EXPERT HELP HE NEEDED WHEN HE WAS CONVICTED AND TRIED.
AND AS A RESULT OF THAT, HE WAS FOUND GUILTY AND PUT ON DEATH ROW.
WE GOT INVOLVED IN THE CASE IN 1999.
AND I FOUND THE BEST EXPERTS IN THE COUNTRY TO TEST THE EVIDENCE.
THEY QUICKLY CONCLUDED THAT THE GUN DIDN’T MATCH — THE BULLETS DIDN’T MATCH THE GUN OBTAINED FROM HIS HOME SO THEY WERE CONFIDENT HE WAS INNOCENT.
WE JUST COULDN’T GET ANYBODY TO PAY TAPGDERNGZ TO THAT.
THAT IS ONE OF THE CHALLENGES WITH OUR DEATH PENALTY TODAY.
WE FIND A LOT OF ERROR.
MR. HINTON WAS THE 156th PERSON EXONERATED.
PROVED INNOCENCE AFTER BEING SENTENCED TO DEATH.
THAT MEANS FOR EVERY NINE PEOPLE WE HAVE EXECUTED IN THIS COUNTRY, WE HAVE IDENTIFIED ONE INNOCENT PERSON ORN DEATH ROW.
IT’S A SHOCKING RATE OF ERROR.
WE WOULDN’T TOLERATE THAT ERROR IN MOST OTHER AREAS OF OUR LIVES.
WE WOULDN’T TOLERATE 1 OUT OF 9 PLANES CRASHING FROM THE SKY AND EVERYONE DYING.
AND YET WE TOLERATE IT IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE DEATH PENALTY.
AND THAT’S THE CHALLENGE THAT I SEE US FACING.

HOW HAS DNA AND FORENSIC TECHNOLOGY CHANGED THE EQUATION?

I THINK THEY HAVE HAD A HUGE IMPACT.
NO QUESTION THAT DNA IN PARTICULAR HAS HELPED US UNCOVER WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS BUT IT’S A SMALL SUBSET OF THE UNIVERSE OF CONVICTIONS.
DNA IS MOST EFFECTIVE IN CASES WHERE THERE’S BEEN SEXUAL ASSAULT OR BIOLOGICAL EVIDENCE YOU CAN TEST.
THAT’S A VERY SMALL FRACTION OF THE KINDS OF CASES THAT HAVE SENT MANY PEOPLE TO DEATH ROW OR PEOPLE TO PRISON FOR LIFE WITH NO CHANCE OF PAROLE.
WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS, BUT IT WON’T ACTUALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IF WE DON’T CREATE A DIFFERENT CULTURE, IF WE DON’T HAVE A MINDSET THAT ACTUALLY ABHORS WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS.
THAT DOESN’T INSULATE OUR PROSECUORS AND OUR POLICEMEN WHEN THEY MAKE MISTAKES.
WE HAVE TO CREATE A WHOLE NEW SYSTEM OF INCENTIVES.

ONE OF THE THINGS I HAVE HEARD YOU SAY IS WE DON’T DESERVE TO KILL.

MM-HMM.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

I THINK THE THRESHOLD QUESTION FOR THE DEATH PENALTY ISN’T DO PEOPLE DESERVE TO DIE FOR THE CRIMES THEY’VE COMMITTED?
I THINK THAT’S THE QUESTION A LOT OF PEOPLE FOCUS ON.
FOR ME, THE QUESTION IS DO WE DESERVE TO KILL?
DO WE HAVE A SYSTEM THAT IS SUFFICIENTLY RELIABLE, THAT WE CAN ENTRUST IT WITH THE ULTIMATE POWER TO TAKE SOMEONE’S LIFE?
DO WE HAVE A SYSTEM FREE OF BIAS AGAINST PEOPLE OF COLOR?
DO WE HAVE A SYSTEM THAT’S NONPOLITICAL?
DO WE HAVE A SYSTEM THAT IS GOING TO BE FAIR EVEN WHEN THERE’S ANGER AND FRUSTRATION.
WALTER WAS LARGELY CONVICTED BECAUSE PEOPLE WERE FRUSTRATED AND ANGRY THAT THE PROSECUTOR AND POLICE HADN’T SOLVED THAT CRIME.
THEY DID SOMETHING THEY SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE, THEY COERCED PEOPLE TO TESTIFY FALSELY AGAINST HIM, WHICH RESULTED IN A WRONGFUL CONVICTION.
A SYSTEM VULNERABLE TO THOSE KINDS OF PRESSURES IS ONE I DON’T THINK DESERVES TO KILL.

GROUND ZERO IS THE 1987 SUPREME COURT CASE, AND IN A 5-4 DECISION, THE COURT AFFIRMED THE DEATH PENALTY, THAT IT WAS CONSTITUTIONAL AND IT WAS JUSTICE POWELL WHO SAID APPARENT DISPARITIES IN SENTENCING ARE AN INEVITABLE PART OF OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.
WHEN YOU HEAR IT’S INEVITABLE, HOW DO YOU FEEL IN.

I’M HEARTBROKEN BY IT.
I THINK THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT TO CONCEDE TO BIAS AND THE INEVITABLE OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IS COMPLETELY INCONSISTENT WITH THE COURT’S OBLIGATION TO ENFORCE THE RULE OF LAW.
AS YOU MENTIONED, JUSTICE POWELL WROTE THE MAJORITY OPINION.
WHEN HE LEFT THE BENCH, WHEN HE RETIRED, HE WAS ASKED IF THERE WERE ANY OPINIONS HE WOULD LIKE TO DO OVER, IF HE HAD ANY REGRETS.
AND McCLUSKEY WAS ONE OF THE TWO CASES THAT HE IDENTIFIED.

DID HE SAY WHY?

HE SAID HE RECOGNIZED NOW THAT HE WASN’T ACTUALLY COMMITTING TO THE RULE OF LAW THE WAY HE SHOULD HAVE, AND HE REGRETTED THAT DECISION.
UNFORTUNATELY, IT WAS TOO LATE AND WE STILL LIVE UNDER THE CLOUD.

WHEN YOU SAY WE DON’T DESERVE TO KILL, ARE THERE ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, REALLY SEVERE CIRCUMSTANCES, CASES OF MASS MURDER, WHERE THE PERPETRATOR IS CLEAR?
I’M THINKING TIMOTHY McVEIGH AND THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING.

TO ME, IT’S NOT ABOUT THE OFFENDER AND THE VIOLENCE.
PEOPLE DO HORRIFIC THINGS, AND THEY HAVE TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.
I ABSOLUTELY BELIEVE IN ACCOUNTABILITY.
I BELIEVE WE HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO PROTECT PEOPLE FROM OTHERS WHO WOULD TRY TO HARM US.
WE DON’T HAVE TO EXECUTE ANYBODY.
BUT WE HAVE THE ABILITY TO CONFINE AND TO IMPRISON PEOPLE WITHOUT EXECUTION.
FOR ME, THE QUESTION IS, IS THERE A SYSTEM SO FREE OF BIAS THAT DOESN’T DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE POOR, THAT DOESN’T ALLOW POLITICS TO INFLUENCE THEIR DECISION MAKING, AND I CAN’T SEE THAT SYSTEM.
I DON’T SEE THAT SYSTEM.

YOU’VE BEEN MAKING THAT ARGUMENT FOR MANY YEARS NOW.
YOU HAVE EVEN MADE IT ON FIRING LINE IN THE PAST.
A YOUNGER BRIAN STEVENSON IN 1994 ARGUED, PARTICIPATED IN A DEBATE ON THE MERITS OF THE DEATH PENALTY AND DEMERITS OF THE DEATH PENALTY AND I WOULD LIKE TO SHOW YOU SOME OF YOUR ARGUMENTS.

THE STATE OF GEORGIA, WHEN A BLACK DEFEND IS SENTENCED TO DEATH AND 4 OF THE 12 JURORS SAY THAT THE KU KLUX KLAN DO GOOD THINGS IN THE COMMUNITY, WHEN THAT DEFENSE LAWYER SAYS I BELIEVE MY CLIENT IS GENETICALLY PREDISPOSED TO COMMIT CRIMES AND THAT’S WHY I’M COMFORTABLE WITH THE SENT BS.
THAT’S RACIAL BIAS.
AND THAT PERSON IS ON DEATH ROW TODAY.
AND YOU’RE OFFICE IS PROSECUTING HIM.
YOU SHOULDN’T STAND UP HERE AND PRESENT LIKE THERE’S NO RACIAL BIAS IN GEORGIA.

DO YOU THINK SINCE 1994 AS A COUNTRY WE HAVE COME A LITTLE CLOSER TO UNDERSTANDING THE ARGUMENT YOU’VE BEEN MAKING ALL ALONG, THAT THERE IS RACIAL DISCRIMINATION THAT PLAYS INTO THE PRESENT DAY?

I THINK THERE’S A GROWING RECOGNITION THAT THE WEIGHT OF OUR HISTORY IS NOT SOMETHING THAT WE CAN CONTINUE TO IGNORE.
WE HAVE SEEN THE SUPREME COURT, WE HAVE SEEN OTHER INSTITUTIONS RESPONDING TO DRAMATIC EVIDENCE OF DISCRIMINATION, BUT FOR ME, THAT IS A CONSEQUENCE OF WORK THAT WE’RE JUST BEGINNING.
I THINK WE’RE JUST STARTING TO ACTUALLY CREATE A CONSCIOUSNESS ABOUT HOW WE’RE GOING TO DEAL WITH THIS LONG HISTORY OF RACIAL INEQUALITY.

THE WORK IS REFERRED TO AS NARRATIVE WORK.
WHAT IS NARRATIVE WORK?
YOUR WORK HAS SHIFTED FROM BEING ON THE FRONT LINES OF LEGAL DEFENSE TO NARRATIVE WORK.

YEAH, IT’S UNDERNEATH THE DE DEBATE, UNDERNEATH THE TOPICS YOU HEAR PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THERE ARE NARRATIVES THAT SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK.

STORIES.

STORIES, BUT IDEAS, VALUES.
FOR EXAMPLE, IN THE 1970s AND ‘IATES, WE DECLARED A MISGUIDED WAR ON DRUGS, WE SAID PEOPLE WHO WERE DRUG ADDICTED AND DRUG DEPENDENT ARE CRIMINALS AND WE NEED OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM TO RESPOND.
WE COULD HAVE SAID PEOPLE WITH ADDICTION AND DEPENDENCY HAVE A HEALTH PROBLEM AND WE NEED OUR HEALTH CARE SYSTEM TO RESPOND TO THAT.
THE REASON WE MADE THE CRIME CHOICE IS WE’RE THINK WE HAVE T THAT NARRATIVE BECAUSE I THINK FEAR AND ANGER ARE THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS OF OPPRESSION AND INJUSTICE.
IF YOU GO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WHERE PEOPLE ARE ABUSED OR OPPRESSED, THE OPPRESSORS WILL GIVE YOU A NARRATIVE OF FEAR AND ANGER.
THAT’S WHAT WAS BEHIND THE GENOCIDE IN RWANDA, BEHIND THE HOLOCAUST.
SO THE NARRATIVE HAS TO SHIFT.
AND SO WHAT WE’RE TRYING TO DO IS TO CHANGE THE NARRATIVE WHEN IT COMES TO OUR HISTORY OF RACIAL INEQUALITY.
WE’RE A POST-GENOCIDE NATION.
WHAT WE DID TO NATIVE PEOPLE WHEN EUROPEANS CAME TO THE CONTINENT, WE DIDN’T CALL IT THAT.
WE SAID NATIVE PEOPLE WERE SAVAGES AND USED THIS NARRATIVE OF RACIAL DIFFERENCE.
THOSE PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT, TO JUSTIFY THE VIOLENCE.
AND THAT NARRATIVE IS WHAT THEN GOT US COMFORTABLE WITH TWO AND A HALF CENTURIES OF SLAVERY.
I THINK THE GREAT EVIL, SLAVERY WAS THE NARRATIVE, THE IDEA THAT BLACK PEOPLE AREN’T AS GOOD AS WHITE PEOPLE.
THEY’RE NOT FULLY HUMAN, NOT EVOLVED.
THAT IDEOLOGY OF WHITE SUPREMACY THAT EMERGED WAS THE TRUE EVIL.
THAT’S WHY I ARGUED SLAVERY DOESN’T END IN 1865.
IT JUST EVOLVES.
THAT MEANS WE HAVE WORK TO DO.

ONE THING YOU’RE DOING TO HELP WITH THAT WORK IS YOU BUILT AND FOUNDED THE LEGACY MUSEUM IN ALABAMA.
AND THE LEGACY MUSEUM HELPS TO TELL THE STORY FROM SLAVERY TO LYNCHING TO SEGREGATION TO MASS INCARCERATION.
AND I THINK OF THOSE FOUR COMPONENTS, PEOPLE ARE VERY FAMILIAR WITH THREE OF THEM.
BUT THAT LYNCHING WAS SUCH A CRITICAL PART IN BETWEEN SLAVERY AND SEGREGATION.
VERY EYE OPENING.

IT’S PART OF OUR HISTORY THAT WE ALMOST NEVER TALK ABOUT.
WE GO FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO THE CIVIL RIGHT ERA AS IF NOTHING HAPPENED IN BETWEEN.
WHEN IN FACT IT WAS A REALLY DARK PERIOD IN AMERICAN HISTORY WHERE THOUSANDS OF BLACK PEOPLE WERE PULLED OUT OF THEIR HOMES AND BEATEN AND DROWNED AND HANGED.
MILLIONS OF BLACK PEOPLE WERE TERRORIZED.
WE HAD THIS MASS MIGRATION WHERE 6 MILLION BLACK PEOPLE FLED THE AMERICAN SOUTH TO THE NORTH AND WEST.
AND SO FOR US, TALKING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS IN AMERICA DURING THAT CENTURY IS REALLY CRITICAL TO UNDERSTANDING WHERE WE ARE IN AMERICA TODAY.
WE CREATED A MEMORIAL THAT TELLS THE STORY.
WE HAVE BEEN TRYING TO CREATE A NEW ICONOGRAPHY.
WE WANT TO PUT UP MARKERS.
WE WANT TO DISRUPT THE SILENCE.
WE ACTUALLY SEND PEOPLE, COMMUNITY MEMBERS, TO GO TO THE SITES.
WE ASK THEM TO DIG SOIL AT THE LUNCHING SITE AND PUT THEM IN JARS WITH THE NAMES OF THE LYNCHING VICTIMS WITH THE DATES OF THE LYNCHINGS.
AND WE HAVE THOSE JARS ON DISPLAY IN OUR MUSEUM.
IT BECOMES A TANGIBLE WAY TO GIVE HONOR AND MEANING TO THE LIVES OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WHO WERE VICTIMS OF THE TERROR AND VIOLENCE THAT HAS REALLY REPRESENTED AN ABANDONMENT OF OUR COMMITMENT TO THE RULE OF LAW.
THE DEMOCRATIC GEOGRAPHY OF TODAY IS SHAPED BY THAT ERA BECAUSE WE HAVE MILLIONS OF BLACK PEOPLE IN CLEVELAND AND CHICAGO, DETROIT AND LOS ANGELES, AND OAKLAND, WHO DIDN’T GO TO THOSE COMMUNITIES AS IMMIGRANTS.
THEY WENT TO THOSE COMMUNITIES AS REFUGEES AND EXILES IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH.
AND WE’RE TRYING TO RECOVER THAT KNOWLEDGE, THAT UNDERSTANDING, AND WE USE THINGS LIKE THE JARS OF SOIL AND THE MONUMENTS AND OUR MEMORIALS AND THE STORIES OF SURVIVORS TO CREATE A NEW RELATIONSHIP.

AND A NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH HISTORY THAT TELLS THE HISTORY THAT WE CAN UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY IN ORDER TO REALLY ACCEPT THE HISTORY.
AND ON SOME LEVEL APOLOGIZE FOR SOME PART OF IT.

RECOVER, REPAIR THE DAMAGE.
I REALLY DO BELIEVE THAT THERE’S SOMETHING BETTER WAITING FOR US IN THIS COUNTRY.
I THINK THERE’S SOMETHING THAT FEELS MORE LIKE FREEDOM AND EQUALITY THAN WHAT WE HAVE EXPERIENCED.
WE CAN’T GET THERE UNLESS WE’RE WILLING TO COMMIT TO A PROCESS OF TRUTH AND REPAIR.
TRUTH AND JUSTICE.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION.
FOR ME, THOSE THINGS ARE SEQUENTIAL.
YOU HAVE TO TELL THE TRUTH BEFORE YOU GET TO RECONCILIATION OR REPAIR OR JUSTICE.
THAT’S WHAT WE’RE TRYING TO FACILITATE.
SOMETIMES PEOPLE HEAR ME TALKING ABOUT HISTORY AND THEY THINK I WANT TO PUNISH AMERICA.
I HAVE NO INTEREST IN PUNISHING AMERICA.
MY INTEREST IS IN LIBERATION.
I COME FROM A FAITH TRADITION WHERE REDEMPTION AND RESTORATION AND REPAIR COMES AFTER CONCESSION AND REPENTANCE.
YOU CAN’T SKIP THE CONSAYING PART JUST TO GET TO THE REDEMPTION PART.
COLLECTIVELY AS A NATION, WE NEED TO THINK ABOUT THAT.
THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED IN SOUTH AFRICA AFTER APARTHEID.
THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED IN HRWANDA IN GERMANY, BUT IN THIS COUNTRY, WE HAVEN’T MADE THAT CONTRIBUTION.

ONE ELEMENT, I THINK WAS MADE BY MICHELLE OBAMA IN 2016 WHEN SHE ADDRESSED THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONINVESTIGATION.
WHERE WOULD LIKE TO SHOW YOU WHAT SHE SAID.

I WAKE UP EVERY MORNING IN A HOUSE THAT WAS BUILT BY SLAVES.
AND I WATCH MY DAUGHTERS, TWO BEAUTIFUL, INTELLIGENT, BLACK YOUNG WOMEN, PLAYING WITH THEIR DOG ON THE WHITE HOUSE LAWN.

AND YET, NOT ALL REACTIONS TO THAT WERE THE SAME.

YEAH.

THERE WAS COMMENTARY FROM CONSERVATIVE QUARTERS, FROM DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY, THAT FRANKLY TRIED TO IDENTIFY THAT THE WHITE HOUSE HAD BEEN BUILT BY SLAVES.
ONE COMMENTATOR EVEN SAID THE SLAVES WERE WELL FED AND PUT IN SAFE AND STURDY LODGING.

YEAH.
YOU KNOW, FOR ME, THAT WAS SUCH A POWERFUL MOMENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY, TO SEE AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN GIVING VOICE TO THIS REALITY.
BUT WE’RE SO UNPRACTICED IN TALKING TRUTHFULLY ABOUT OUR HISTORY.
IT’S NOT A SURPRISE THAT IT WAS MET WITH DIRISION AND CRITICISM.
WE HAVE BEEN PRACTICING SILENCE FOR A REALLY LONG TIME.
WHEN YOU DISRUPT SILENCE, PEOPLE GET NERVOUS.
THEY GET ANXIOUS.
BUT IT’S EXACTLY HOW WE RECOVER.
IT’S EXACTLY HOW WE MAKE PROGRESS.
SOME PEOPLE FEEL LIKE WE DON’T HAVE THE CAPACITY TO TALK HONESTLY ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO NATIVE PEOPLE AND TO TALK HONESTLY ABOUT SLAVERY AND LYNCHING AND SEGREGATION.
I THINK THOSE PEOPLE UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THIS COUNTRY TO SURVIVE.
THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY TO OVERCOME.
AND I JUST THINK WE ARE DOUBTING WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE A GREAT NATION WHEN WE CONTINUE TO ALLOW OURSELVES TO AVOID THESE HARD CONVERSATIONS THAT NEED TO BE HAD.

YOU SAY THE OPPOSITE OF POVERTY IS NOT WEALTH, IT’S JUSTICE.

I AM PERSUADED THAT SOMETIMES WE TALK TOO MUCH ABOUT MONEY IN AMERICA.
I REALLY DO BELIEVE THAT THE OPPOSITE OF POVERTY ISN’T WEALTH.
I BELIEVE THE OPPOSITE OF POVERTY IS JUSTICE.
WE HAVE GENERATIONAL POVERTY.
MY DAD WAS A SMART PERSON.
HE WAS HARD WORKING.
HE WAS REALLY, REALLY DEDICATED TO THE THINGS HE DID.
HE COULDN’T GO TO HIGH SCHOOL BECAUSE OF UNJUST RACIAL BIAS.
AND THEREFORE DIDN’T HAVE THE OPPORTUNITIES THAT I’VE HAD.
IF WE HAD DONE JUSTICE, WE COULD HAVE ACTUALLY CREATED OPPORTUNITIES FOR HIM SO WE DIDN’T HAVE TO GROW UP POOR.
THAT’S WHAT I MEAN, IS THAT WHEN WE CHALLENGE THE UNJUST STRUCTURES AND SYSTEMS, WHEN WE DON’T ALLOW PEOPLE TO REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL BECAUSE WE’RE PUTTING BARRIERS IN AND BOUNDARIES THAT ARE SHAPED BY UNJUST PRACTICES, WE GIVE RISE TO THE KIND OF POVERTY THAT WE SEE.

AND THE PRISON POPULATION GREW 700% BETWEEN 1972 AND 2009.
IT’S DOWN 7% SINCE 2009, AND PRESIDENT TRUMP JUST LAST YEAR SIGNED THE FIRST STEP ACT, WHICH SHORTENS PRISON SENTENCES FOR NONVIOLENT DRUG OFFENSES.
MANY SAY WHO ARE IN FAVOR OF IT AND AGAINST IT THAT AT LEAST IT WAS A FIRST STEP.

I THINK WE’RE ALL GRATEFUL THAT WE MADE SOME SMALL STEP, BUT IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT TO RECOGNIZE WHAT THAT LAW IS AND WHAT IT’S NOT.
FIRST OF ALL, THE FIRST STEP ACT ONLY APPLIES TO PEOPLE IN SETTLED PRISONS.
ONLY 10% IN AMERICA’S JAILS AND PRISONS ARE IN FEDERAL CUSTODY.
THIS APPLIES TO A VERY SMALL PERCENTAGE OF THE 10%. I SUPPORTED IT, I THINK IT’S A GOOD THING, BUT WE’RE DELUDED OURSELVES IF WE THINK THIS IS SOME HUGE STEP FORWARD WITH REGARD TO MASS INCARCERATION.
BECAUSE IT JUST DOESN’T DEAL WITH THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM.
AND THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM IS WE HAVE TOO MANY PEOPLE IN JAILS AND PRISONS WHO ARE NOT A THREAT TO PUBLIC SAFETY.
WE’RE 5% OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION BUT 25% OF THE WORLD’S IMPRISONED.
WE HAVE LOT OF WORK TO DO.
WE HAVE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WE COULD RELEASE TOMORROW AND THE CRIME RATES WOULD NOT GO UP, BUT WE WON’T BECAUSE THERE’S STILL TOO MANY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE TOUGH ON CRIME, WHO ARE KIND OF WEDDED TO THAT NARRATIVE OF FEAR AND ANGER.

IT SEEMS TO ME SOME OF IT GREATEST PARTNERS IN THE REFORMS THAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT HAVE BEEN SORT OF SURPRISINGLY IN THE RED STATES IN THE SOUTH.

THAT’S RIGHT.
ABSOLUTELY.
YOU KNOW, IF YOU HAVE AN IDEOLOGY THAT ABHORS BIG GOVERNMENT, YOU ABSOLUTELY OUGHT TO BE APPALLED BY MASS INCARCERATION.
IT’S THE LARGEST SEGMENT OF THE GOVERNMENT SPENDING, INCREASINGLY, BECAUSE WE INVESTED SO MANY BILLIONS INTO THIS INDUSTRY, AND IT IS A INDUSTRY.
WE HAVE PRIVATE PLAYERS NOW THAT ARE BENEFITTING BY HAVING THESE HIGH LEVELS OF INCARCERATION.
THAT’S A REAL THREAT.

YOU RECENTLY WROTE IN ‘THE NEW YORK TIMES’ WE’RE AT ONE OF THOSE CRITICAL MOMENTS IN AMERICAN HISTORY, WE’LL DOUBLE DOWN IN ROMANTICIZING OUR PAST OR ACCEPT THERE’S SOMETHING BETTER WAITING FOR US.
HOW ARE WE MORE FREE AFTER WE RECONCILED WITH OUR PAST?

I THINK WE CAN TRULY EMBRACE WHAT’S BEST.
THERE WAS A TIME WHERE THE BEST BASEBALL PLAYERS COULDN’T PLAY BASEBALL.
THE BEST BASKETBALL PLAYERS COULDN’T PLAY BASKETBALL.
OUR SPORTS WERE A SHAM.
THEY DIDN’T ACTUALLY REFLECT WHAT HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO WHEN THEY COMMIT TO PRAUSDZ, BUT WHEN WE BROKE DOWN THOSE BARRIERS AND BEGAN TO SEE WHAT A TRULY INTEGRATED SPORTS WORLD COULD CREATE AND WHAT WE HAVE SEEN IS MAGICAL, IT’S SPECTACULAR, AND I THINK THE SAME OPPORTUNITIES AND THE SAME KIND OF SPECTACLE OF GREATNESS AWAITS US, BUT WE HAVE TO BREAK DOWN ALL THE BARRIERS, AND THOSE BARRIERS STILL EXIST IN BUSINESS.
THEY EXIST IN ECONOMICS.
THEY EXIST IN EDUCATION.
THEY EXIST IN TOO MANY AREAS OF OUR LIVES.
THE GREAT THING THAT WE CAN BECOME IS WAITING FOR US WHEN WE ACTUALLY COMMIT TO LIMITING THE BARRIERS.
THE SAME IS TRUE FOR GENDER.
HOW LONG DID WE NOT ALLOW OUR MOST GIFTED AND TALENTED JOURNALISTS AND FILMMAKERS AND STORY TELLERS AND POLITICIANS HAVE THE PLATFORMS THEY DESERVE BECAUSE WE DIDN’T THINK WOMEN SHOULD BE IN THE SPACES WHEN THE BARRIERS HAVE COME DOWN AND WE STILL HAVE MORE TO TAKE DOWN, WE BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND WHAT ALL OF OUR COMMITTED TALENTS AND COLLECTIVE POWER CAN LEAD US TO ACHIEVE.
BUT AS LONG AS WE PUT RESTRAINTS BASED ON COLOR OR GENDER OR BIAS SHAPED BY SOMETHING ELSE, WE’LL NEVER BE THE GREAT SOCIETY THAT WE’RE MEANT TO BE.

THANK YOU FOR THE WORK YOU DO.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR BEING A LEADING LIGHT OF THIS GENERATION AND FOR RETURNING TO FIRING LINES.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
GREAT TO BE BACK.

FIRING LINES, WITH MARGARET HOOVER, IS MADE POSSIBLE BY —
THE MARGARET AND DANIEL LOBE FOUNDATION.
ADDITIONAL FUNDING IS PROVIDED BY — CORPORATE FUNDING IS PROVIDED BY STEVENS INC.

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