Chris Hedges writes a long, inspiring profile of Bryan Stevenson for Smithsonian magazine. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, was awarded the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for social justice. (He’s also a graduate of my alma mater, Eastern University.)
Hedges’ article is a hefty piece, but it’s well worth your time. You will feel sadness, anger and hope, sometimes all at the same time. Hedges tells Stevenson’s remarkable story, and in doing so conveys Stevenson’s important message: “Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us as a Society.”
Here’s a taste:
It was here in this square — a square adorned with a historical marker celebrating the presence in Montgomery of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy — that men and women fell to their knees weeping and beseeched slave-holders not to separate them from their husbands, wives or children. It was here that girls and boys screamed as their fathers or mothers were taken from them.
“This whole street is rich with this history,” he says. “But nobody wants to talk about this slavery stuff. Nobody.” He wants to start a campaign to erect monuments to that history, on the sites of lynchings, slave auctions and slave depots. “When we start talking about it, people will be outraged. They will be provoked. They will be angry.”
Stevenson expects anger because he wants to discuss the explosive rise in inmate populations, the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color and the use of life sentences against minors as part of a continuum running through the South’s ugly history of racial inequality, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching.
Equating the enslavement of innocents with the imprisonment of convicted criminals is apt to be widely resisted, but he sees it as a natural progression of his work. Over the past quarter-century, Stevenson has become perhaps the most important advocate for death-row inmates in the United States.
… EJI’s office is in a building that once housed a school for whites seeking to defy integration. The building is in the same neighborhood as Montgomery’s slave depots. For Stevenson, that history matters.
Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”
In opening a discussion of American justice and America’s racial history, Stevenson hopes to help create a common national narrative, one built finally around truth rather than on the cultivated myths of the past, that will allow blacks and whites finally to move forward.
… Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible. He quotes to me from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He tells me an elderly black woman once called him a “stone catcher.”
“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith. … But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.”