Equal Justice Initiative
“I don’t think we’re free in America,” says attorney Bryan Stevenson, who sees an unwillingness to talk about the terrors of slavery and other racial-based violence as a continuing burden. But he also sees strength -- in the descendants of those who endured slavery. Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, offers his Brief but Spectacular take on race and justice in America.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, another in our Brief But Spectacular series.
Tonight, attorney a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, shares his thought on race and the legal system.
BRYAN STEVENSON, Founder, Equal Justice Initiative: I was doing a hearing in the Midwest. I had my suit and tie on. I was there early. It was the first time I had been in that courtroom.
And I sat down at defense counsel’s table, as I always do. And the judge walked in. And the judge said: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, you get back out there and you wait out there in the hallway until your lawyer gets here. I don’t want any defendant sitting in my courtroom without their lawyer.”
And I stood up and I said: “I’m sorry, Your Honor. I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Bryan Stevenson. I am the lawyer. And the judge started laughing, and the prosecutor started laughing, and I made myself laugh, because I didn’t want to disadvantage my client.
But, afterwards, I was thinking, what is it that, when this judge saw a middle-aged black man, it didn’t even occur to him that that man sitting at defense counsel’s table was the lawyer?
I worry about that judge. I worry that he’s sentencing defendants of color more harshly. I worry that he doesn’t value and accept the testimony of black and brown witnesses the way he does other people. I worry that a narrative of racial difference compromises his ability to provide fair and just treatment of all people.
I don’t think we’re free in America. I think we are burdened by our history of racial inequality. We have a history of horrific mistreatment of people based on color. And I think that narrative of racial difference that was cultivated to justify that mistreatment has created a kind of smog, and we have all been breathing it in.
If you read the 13th Amendment, it doesn’t talk about narratives of racial difference. It doesn’t talk about ideologies of white supremacy. It only talks about involuntary servitude and forced labor.
And, because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved. We had decades of terrorism and violence where black people were pulled out of their homes, burned alive, hung, beaten to death, sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn, and we never talked about that.
And then we had this era of civil rights resistance to racial segregation. And we have made progress, but we haven’t confronted the narrative of racial difference, unlike South Africa, where you are required to hear about the damage done by apartheid, unlike Germany.
In Berlin, Germany, you can’t go 100 meters without seeing markers or stones or monuments placed near the homes of Jewish families abducted during the Holocaust.
But, in this country, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. We don’t talk about segregation. And our silence has condemned us.
When I went to Harvard Law School, my first year, I didn’t want people to know I started my education in a colored school. I didn’t want them to know I was the great-grandson of enslaved people. I thought it might diminish me.
And then I realized that my power, if I have any, my strength, if I have any, my insight, if I have any, was shaped by those people who survived slavery. And it’s in that story of survival that I think we have some greatness that we can offer, and not just people of color, but all of us who’ve learned to overcome.
My name is Bryan Stevenson. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on justice in America.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch additional episodes of Brief But Spectacular on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.