Public Interest Lawyer Bryan Stevenson

Tavis commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech with Bryan Stevenson.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his prescient speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence" at the Riverside Church in New York City. It was a courageous and singular call to conscience, detailing where this country was betraying its ideals and mapping an alternative future, one based on justice and compassion.

This week Tavis and his guests commemorate the anniversary of Dr. King's speech, gauging where we are fifty years later on what King called the triple "evils of racism, poverty, and militarism."

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

EJI recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Mr. Stevenson’s work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards.

He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, and has been awarded 26 honorary doctorate degrees.

He is the author of award winning and New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy. In 2015, he was named to the Time 100 recognizing the world’s most influential people. He was named in Fortune’s 2016 and 2017 World’s Greatest Leaders list.

Follow the Equal Justice Initiative on Twitter @eji_org

Like Bryan Stevenson's Page on Facebook


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from New York. I’m Tavis Smiley.

50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his prescient speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, at the Riverside Church just minutes away from this studio. It was a courageous and singular call to conscience detailing where this country was betraying its ideals and mapping an alternative future, one based on justice and compassion.

So tonight we kick off a weeklong discussion commemorating the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech. We will speak with the guest about his anti-war, pro-social justice theme, and gauge where we are 50 years later on what King called the “triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism”. Tonight’s guest, Bryan Stevenson.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A look back at Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech with Bryan Stevenson coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: I’m joined tonight by Bryan Stevenson. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Just Mercy”, which I just read is about to become a film starring a great actor named Michael B. Jordan. So, Bryan Stevenson, congratulations on that.

Bryan Stevenson: Thank you, thank you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking when you first became aware of this “Beyond Vietnam” speech given in this city 50 years ago tomorrow.

Stevenson: Yeah. It’s interesting. I wasn’t aware of it. I certainly didn’t read it until I actually started practicing in Montgomery, Alabama. My office was right down the street from Dr. King’s church, so I would visit there often.

And in just collecting some of the things that he would preach on and he would talk about, I encountered his work in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And it was so impressive to me that Dr. King never rested on his laurels. He was not satisfied after the passage of the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act.

He still knew there was work to be done and he broadened his mission and his ministry and his teaching. And that’s when I found the speech that he gave at Riverside on the Vietnam War which I continue to believe is one of the most courageous and powerful and prophetic speeches that he ever gave.

Because it embraced a world view, a way of thinking about the American identity that was global, that transcended the boundaries of the south or even the borders of this country. And it was such a courageous speech that I never was able to forget it.

I was never able to kind of walk away from it, and it’s been instructive to me about what is required of leaders. Leaders have to frequently do things that are unpopular, that doesn’t help them build support and connections with people, but they have to do the things that their conscience requires of them.

You could see Dr. King in that speech struggling to get to that point. I remember the thing that I was moved by the most when I read the speech the first time is that it grieved Dr. King to have to talk about his country in this way…

Tavis: He called it, as you recall, a “vocation of agony.”

Stevenson: A vocation of agony.

Tavis: A vocation of agony, yeah.

Stevenson: And it just spoke to the difficulty of having to push this country in that way. And I think that oftentimes critics and people who challenge the government and the national identity seem to do it with this enthusiasm which undermines the credibility of their criticisms.

I think Dr. King in this speech, it was clear to me that he really wants the best for America. He loved this country. He wanted this country to meet its ideals, but he couldn’t be silent when we were engaging in such destructive, devastating war-making in Southeast Asia.

Tavis: You used the word a moment ago, Bryan, I want to come back to. I wanted to start this week off with you because I’ve such high regard, as so many of us do, for your work and your witness.

Stevenson: Thank you.

Tavis: So throughout the week, we have all kinds of guests on who I think are living out the true ideals of what King was talking about in this particular speech. So we start with you tonight. You used the word ministry a moment ago. Do you see what you do as a ministry?

Stevenson: I do, I do, because I don’t think we’re going to be free in this nation. I don’t think we’re going to get to the place we need to get in this nation if we don’t examine our hearts.

You know, I’m one of these people that believes that justice only comes when the ideas in our mind are fueled by conviction in our heart. You can’t do hard things, difficult things, uncomfortable things just through intellectual analysis. You actually have to be persuaded that this is the right thing.

And, yes, for me, my work is ministry. I was actually speaking at a graduation event for people who have gone through a reentry program. I think of the community of people that I’m working with, people formerly incarcerated, people who were told that their lives have no value.

I represent people who were told that they should die in prison. My 13 and 14-year-old kids, we challenge that because I thought it was cruel to say to any child of 13, “You’re only fit to die in prison.” I just couldn’t make sense of that because of what I know about the human capacity to change.

When I was giving this talk, I was reflecting on what I would do if grace was ever put on trial, if redemption was ever put on trial, if rehabilitation was ever put on trial and God wanted me to be his advocate, I’d want the theologians on standby.

I’d want the preachers and the teachers nearby, but my first witnesses would be the formerly incarcerated. It’d be the condemned who had been resurrected from death row. It’d be those who have suffered through condemnation, told that their lives don’t have meaning and purpose, and yet persevered to be human, to be free, to be just.

And when you work in the community where I work, where you spend time with condemned prisoners on death row, children told that they have to die in prison, people wrongly convicted, you begin to understand the power of grace, the power of redemption, the power of hope.

Because people are actually hopeful in these dark and hopeless places when intellectually it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. Life without parole is a hopeless sentence. A death sentence is an incredibly difficult thing to hear. You’re told you’re so bad, you’re so worthless, your life has so little meaning that we’re going to kill you.

Yet I find in my clients, I find in the places where I work, this amazing hopefulness. You can’t do it without being impacted by that, without seeing what can happen when people are actually transformed. For me, that is about ministry.

I come from a faith tradition and me and my community, we read all of the teachings of the Apostle Paul, but we forget that Paul was once Saul, an accused felon. And I worry that in today’s political climate, we wouldn’t give Saul the chancre to be a leader of the church because we’re so intent on labeling people, reducing people to their worst act.

And, for me, it’s not just the need to stand with the condemned, the need to stand with the incarcerated, but it is a calling to advocate for redemption, advocate for second chances, advocate for recovery, restoration, rehabilitation. I identify with that moral force that compels you to keep pushing even when it’s not convenient, even when it’s not comfortable.

Tavis: You mentioned hope a moment ago. In this speech, “Beyond Vietnam”, King talked about this notion, talked about it in a variety of ways, this notion of hopelessness. I wonder whether or not you think in our society writ large — we’re going to talk a little bit later here about that triple threat that King referenced, racism, poverty, militarism.

But I wonder whether on these issues that I’ve just referenced and the ones that you work on every day, whether or not you sense a hopelessness in our society writ large.

Stevenson: Yeah. I do, and I think it’s the great challenge that we face in this country. I think we’ve become hopeless about what we can do to create the kind of connections between people that are healthy and human.

We’ve become the most punitive society on the planet. Our prison population went from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million. Today we’ve got six million people on probation or parole. We’ve got 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s in prison.

Here’s the statistic that really gets me. There are 70 million Americans with criminal arrests, which means that when they try to get jobs and they try to get loans, they have difficulty. Women going to prison increased 646% in the last 20 years. And when you step back and you look at what we’ve been doing, it’s hard to not characterize it as an exercise of hopelessness.

We give up on people very quickly. We give up on children. That’s why we have 13 states with no minimum age for trying a child as an adult. I think the great challenge we have in America is that we’ve got to revive hopefulness.

Because I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice, and justice prevails where hopelessness persists. And we see so much injustice in our communities, in our courts, in our criminal justice system, on the streets with police because we’ve allowed this hopeless mindset to emerge.

And that’s when you start hearing about law and order. That’s when you start hearing lock ’em up and throw away the key. That’s when you start hearing let’s not worry about undocumented people, let’s not worry about the poor, let’s not worry about people living in the margins of society.

When you reduce people to their crime and say that’s just a drug dealer, that’s just a burglar, that’s just a murderer, that’s just a whatever, you’re actually affirming a kind of hopelessness about what humans can be, what humans can do. I think we have to resist that in every respect.

Tavis: You mentioned justice. Dr. King advanced this notion, as you know, he advanced this notion that justice is what love looks like in public, that justice is what love looks like in public. It’s so easy to get just caught up with the poetic and the prose of King’s language. When you hear that phrase come out of King’s mouth that justice is what love looks like in public, unpack that. Interpret that for me.

Stevenson: Sure. I think it’s making the collective, making public, making our communal and governmental and societal relationships move one another, mirror what our private relationships look like with another. It’s not using power to demand something from someone else.

Because if you’re in a personal relationship and you’ve got more money than the other person, you can’t say, “Okay, you’re going to be my partner because I have more money and you’re going to do the way…”, you’re not going to get to love like that.

What love requires is a certain kind of humility, a certain kind of taking away the obstacles and the dynamics of who has power and who doesn’t, who has resources and who doesn’t.

True love emerges in something purely human and, collectively, we don’t do that very well. And the evidence of that, in my judgment, is that we have a political culture in this country where our politicians think that saying I’m sorry or I’m wrong makes them weak.

I believe that justice, the kind of justice that Dr. King is talking about, means that we have to be willing to say I’m sorry when we make a mistake, I’m wrong when we make a mistake, and that’s the way we become strong.

I think that, until we understand that true justice means being willing to acknowledge when we make a mistake — Dr. King in that speech was trying to get the United States government to simply acknowledge that our policies had failed, that we made some poor choices, and they were unwilling to do it because they thought that would give away too much power.

And if we don’t change the culture and if we don’t expect from our politicians a willingness to say I’m wrong, I’m sorry, we’re not going to get to that kind of justice.

You show me two people who’ve been in love for 50. I’ll show you two people who have learned how to apologize to one another, who’ve been willing to show their weakness, their errors to one another, and yet still press on. Collectively, we don’t do that very well in this country.

Tavis: I don’t mean to make you political, but since you went there, I’m going to follow you in.

Stevenson: Yeah.

Tavis: So Dr. King had to come up against a powerful president named Lyndon Johnson. He and Johnson, as you well know, had worked together on the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, ’64, ’65. Now here he is in New York 50 years ago tomorrow butting heads in the ultimate way with the ultimate president, a powerful president.

Because King is telling Johnson that you called for a war on poverty, but now you’ve gotten us engaged in a war in Vietnam. So he goes tête-à-tête with Johnson. Johnson basically disinvites him from the White House. It basically ruins that relationship, as you well know.

I raise that because King had to butt up against Lyndon Johnson. Many of us have to butt up against a guy named Donald Trump. And to your point about our leaders being willing to say I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a mistake, what kind of message do you think that the way Mr. Trump does things is sending to our communities?

Stevenson: I think it’s very worrisome. It’s the politics of fear and anger and I actually think that we will not get to a healthier place in this country. We’re not going to get to the kind of triumphant equality and liberation and justice that we seek if we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger.

Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice. You’ll tolerate oppression of other people if you’re afraid and angry enough. If you give in to fear and anger, you’ll actually tolerate abuse.

You go anywhere in the world where people are being abused, where horrific things are being done to certain kinds of people, if you ask the oppressors why are you doing what you do, they’ll give you a narrative of fear and anger.

They’ll say, well, we’re angry about what these people did. We’re afraid that these people will do that. I think we have to resist the politics of fear and anger wherever they manifest themselves, whenever they present themselves.

So saying we can’t have certain kind of people in this country because we’re afraid of their religion or we’re not going to have certain kind of people come into this country because we’re angry at their border politics, we’re not going to get where we’re trying to go.

I just don’t believe that it’s necessary — I mean, we’ve got complex issues we’ve got to deal with in this country. Immigration is an issue we’ve got to deal with. Terrorism is an issue we’ve got to deal with.

But we can deal with it rooted in a commitment to the rule of law, a commitment to justice, or we can deal with it out of fear and anger. I’m afraid that we’re not hearing much leadership these days that is in opposition to the politics of fear and anger, and I think that’s a destructive path.

Tavis: In this speech, King talked about fear. He talked about anger. But he also then talked about revenge. Talk to me, then, about what you see in this present moment vis-à-vis governmental revenge, societal revenge. Talk to me about the notion of revenge because King went deep that night…

Stevenson: Yes, he did.

Tavis: Talking about this notion of revenge.

Stevenson: Dr. King, I think, shed light on the fact that revenge and this instinct for retribution is something that insecure people do, weak people do, people who don’t understand their power to do something better than simply replicate the violence and anger and mistreatment that they have experienced.

That was the whole theory behind the politics of nonviolence. He said I’m going to lift up my community and show them that we are human beings even while we’re being treated as less than human.

And he understood that that was critical not just to make a point about the priority, the better way, but he also wanted people to stay connected to their hearts, to their humanity. And you can’t stay connected when you give in to this instinct for retribution and revenge and responding to violence with violence. And I do think largely our culture is still very vulnerable to that dynamic.

You know, I represent people on death row and, for me, the question of the death penalty isn’t whether people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed. People have done some terrible things. I’m not going to try to justify that. But the threshold question is do we deserve to kill?

And if you have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, if you have a system that is corrupted by the politics of race and bias, if we don’t exercise our power responsibly and reliably, we don’t deserve to kill.

And even though that instinct for retribution and revenge is powerful, the call to do better, to be honest, to be true to who we are, I think, is even greater. Dr. King, I think, understood. You know, that scripture, “To whom much is given, much is required”, I think he understood that.

And we’re a great nation. We’ve got a nation with a lot of resources. We’ve got a lot of influence. We’ve got a lot of power. So that means we are required to do more than to use that power to intimidate, to oppress, to abuse.

And it’s just a vision of what a great nation could be and I think he had a vision that we could be a greater nation if we resisted the instinct for the immediate satisfaction of retribution and revenge that only provokes more violence, more despair.

Tavis: We quote King on the things we want to quote him on, most principally, “I have a dream.” We love that particular refrain. We never quote King on the death penalty. We never quote him when it comes to this very controversial and troublesome societal issue. Talk to me about King and his view of the death penalty.

Stevenson: Well,  you know, Dr. King was very consistent. I mean, he had a world view that talked to a whole range of issues. He didn’t believe any person was their worst act, including the sheriffs that beat him, the white leaders that jailed him. He actually continued to believe that they could be more than his oppressor. And that belief system meant that the didn’t want to judge people in the harshest way possible.

And he rejected the death penalty because he saw it as an offense to what humans can do, can aspire to. He saw it, you know, he would invoke the scriptures. He talked about when Jesus was confronted with the woman in adultery. Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

He wanted to save her life not because he just thought that that was the only thing to do, but he wanted to save her life because he believed that it would judge and condemn those who would stone her as much as unfairly judge her.

I think our political culture and sometimes even our religious culture has not followed Dr. King the way they should. We’ve got a political culture now where when the adulterine woman is presented and they’re told that Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, people say, well, okay, I’ll start throwing.

And it’s why I talk about how we now need people who are willing to be stone catchers. We’ve got to actually stand in front of those who would be condemned and targeted and menaced and catch these stones. I do think that there is this notion that we haven’t really dealt with honestly.

I think we’ve actually gotten too celebratory about the civil rights movement broadly. I really do. Everybody gets to celebrate the civil rights movement in America. We don’t ask any qualifying questions. We don’t ask people what policies they’re now supporting in relation to that movement.

And I’m worried about it, to be honest, because I hear people talking about the civil rights movement and it’s starting to sound like a three-day carnival. On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus [laugh]. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington, and on day three, we changed all the laws and racism was over.

And when we reduce the work of Dr. King and those heroic fighters to something that simplistic, we miss the true calling of the civil rights movement, which was against mass incarceration, against the death penalty, against demonizing people, against racism, against the kind of phobias that have emerged in our political culture.

You can’t celebrate the life of Dr. King and the civil rights movement and be talking about banning Muslims and banning Mexicans. You can’t do those two things honestly, but when we don’t listen to all of what Dr. King said, that’s what happens. You’re right. We start quoting the things that work for us.

Tavis: You’ve referenced a number of times in this conversation, Bryan, I’m glad you did, the fact that before King was anything else, he would proudly tell you were he here tonight that he was a minister. He was a preacher of the Gospel.

So you’ve quoted him many times, you referenced bible edicts any number of times in this conversation. One of the things that King raised in this speech that night, you’ll recall, he was speaking to a group of clergy and a laity.

Stevenson: That’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: So the place, Riverside Church, was filled with ministers that night from all across the country. And King raised this thing that night that it’s impossible to say you love Jesus and be a racist.

Stevenson: That’s right.

Tavis: You can’t love Jesus and be a sexist. You can’t love Jesus and be a xenophobe. Since you raised the notion of the way things are happening in this political culture, what do you make of the fact that so many people profess to love Jesus embody these other ugly characteristics?

Stevenson: Well, I don’t think we’ve actually been called to reconcile our faith with our lives, with our politics, with our day-to-day living. And I think that’s one of the great challenges that we face. I think that the faith community has to be challenged to be more honest about what it means to be people of faith.

You know, during the civil rights era, there were people who would be outside of churches, Southern Baptists holding up signs that said, “Segregation forever”, “Segregation or War”. And there wasn’t a moral tension in taking a position that you had to be oppositional to people because of their color. And I think we don’t do our members well.

We don’t do our communities well when we don’t challenge them to understand that to love God, to love means do you have to love your brothers and sisters? It’s not ambiguous. This is not something that’s confused in the bible or in the scriptures. It’s true for Islam and Judaism and other great religions as well.

You can’t actually be at war with your brother and sister and be at peace with God. I think our churches have too often become places where we don’t talk about these critically important moral issues, and I think Dr. King was very insistent on that.

And he was with the church at Riverside on this night, but at times he’d criticize the church faith leaders for their silence around segregation and the civil rights movement, and I think he understood that this was the community that he had a special obligation to speak to.

Tavis: Let me offer this as the exit question, Bryan, because I could do this with you for days. I’m so glad to lead with you tonight.

So in the two minutes I have left, King opens this speech essentially by saying, as you referenced earlier, that I’ve come to this place tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. There is a time when silence becomes betrayal. So I ask you in 2017, what is it that we are being silent about in our society right now that we are betraying the best of who we are?

Stevenson: Well, I think we continue to be burdened by our history of racial inequality. I don’t think we’re free yet. I think we’ve got some work to do to free ourselves from the narrative of racial differences. Still, it’s in the atmosphere that still haunts us. You know, we’re a post genocide society.

Before white settlers came, there were millions of native people here and we killed them by the millions, and we haven’t talked about that. I think we’re still burdened by the legacy of slavery. For me, the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude or forced labor. It was the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to legitimate slavery.

If you read the 13th Amendment, it doesn’t talk about narratives of racial difference. It only talks about servitude and forced bondage. And because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it evolved. We’ve gone through decades of terrorism, with lynching, Black people pulled out of their homes, and we haven’t talked about it.

So I think we’ve got to become vocal about that history. If you go to South Africa, you are required to learn about apartheid. If you go to Rwanda, you’re required to learn about genocide. In Germany, there are markers everywhere about the holocaust. But we don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation.

I think we’ve got to become more vocal about that. Our landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy and I think there’s a moral challenge right now for us to take a big step forward on truth about racial inequality and reparations about how we recover.

Tavis: We’re in New York all this week. Tonight Bryan Stevenson. Tomorrow night on the 50th anniversary of this “Beyond Vietnam” speech, our guest, Dr. King’s longtime friend, Harry Belafonte. Bryan, thank you for your insight and thank you for your work, brother.

Stevenson: Thank you.

Tavis: Until tomorrow night, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 7, 2017 at 9:32 am