On Saturday, June 27th, at ALA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, Bryan Stevenson won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction for his book, Just Mercy. Terry Tazioli, co-host of TVW’s Well Read, spoke with him backstage.
Terry Tazioli: I’m the host of Well Read, which is a national public television book show which you have been on, Bryan Stevenson, we’re here in San Francisco at the American Library Association conference where you have just won the 2015 Carnegie medal for nonfiction. Congratulations.
Bryan Stevenson: Thank you very much.
Tazioli: The book is Just Mercy. It’s a great book.
Stevenson: Thank you.
Tazioli: You’re welcome. I have a couple questions for you. There’s a wonderful story, let’s see if I can get a little bit of this right so I can get you going. You’re the founder and the executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative and have spent your life working with incarcerated people in this system of ours. Somewhere, way back in the early years of this, you met Rosa Parks, told her what you were doing, all the things you wanted to change in the world, and she said, “That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired. That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
Stevenson: That’s a great story. Before Rosa Parks, I actually met a woman named Johnnie Carr, who is the architect of the Montgomery bus boycott. And when I moved to Montgomery, she called me up and said, “Bryan, I’m the president of the Montgomery improvement association and I understand you’re a young lawyer. And if you’re a young lawyer, I may call you up from time to time and ask you to go someplace and speak. Sometimes, I may call you up and ask you to go someplace and listen.” And then she said, “And when I call you up and ask you to do something, you’re going to say, ‘Yes ma’am.’” And so I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
We’ve got a real problem in this country that we haven’t
dealt with the narrative of racial difference that
we created during the time of slavery.
She was an amazing person and she called me one day and said, “Rosa Parks is coming down town. And me and Miss Durr”—Virginia Durr was a white woman whose husband, Clifford Durr had represented Dr. King—“we’re going to get together we’re going to talk. Bryan do you want to come over and listen?” And I said, “Oh, yes, I do,” and then she’d sometimes ask, “now what does the word listen mean?” And I’d have to explain to her that I knew I wasn’t supposed to say a word. So I was, I was over there listening to Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr and Virginia Durr talking. It was so inspiring, because they weren’t talking about what they had done, they were talking about what they were doing to do. In their 70s and their 80s they were so full of energy and passion and life. I was really, really inspired. And after a little bit, Ms. Parks turned to me and said, “Bryan, tell me what the Equality Justice Initiative is, tell me what you’re trying to do.”
And I gave her my whole rap. I said, “We’re trying to do something about excessive punishment, about the death penalty, about children prosecuted as adults, about overincarceration, about racial bias against the poor . . .” I gave her my whole rap and when I finished she looked at me and said, “Hm, hm, hm, that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” And that’s when Ms. Carr leaned forward. She put her finger on my face and said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” And I’ve never forgotten that. Ms. Parks was a wonderful mentor. Her life and her character really shaped the way I try to approach the great challenges that we face now.
Tazioli: I think in a lot of ways it’s very appropriate, especially “brave, brave, brave,” these days. Here we are in the end of June and it’s been a couple weeks to be brave, with the shootings in Charleston. I’m also thinking that bravery in terms of what you’ve talked about as you’ve spoken about the book and your work, which is the narrative around slavery, and I know that’s a huge question and an equally huge answer. Could you talk a little bit about what you’re thinking is these days?
Stevenson: I really do think that we’ve got a real problem in this country that we haven’t dealt with the narrative of racial difference that we created during the time of slavery. There were lots of countries in the world that had slaves, that had slavery, but most of them were societies with slaves. We became a slave society. We actually made slavery a permanent hereditary status connected to race. And that was very unique among slave-holding countries and that identity, that character, that we gave slavery has haunted us, because I don’t believe the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude, or forced labor. I think the great evil of American slavery was this narrative—this ideology of white supremacy. And our thirteenth amendment doesn’t deal with that, and I’ve argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, but that it evolved. It turned into decades of terror and violence and the lynching and the hate that was manifest during the first half of the twentieth century.
We don’t do shame very well in this country,
we don’t acknowledge our mistakes.
Older people of color come up to me sometimes and they say they get angry when they hear people on TV talking about how we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time after 9/11. They say, “we grew up with terror. We were bombed and lynched and menaced our whole lives.” And so I think that that history has infected us. I think we are all burdened with a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that we assign to people based on their color. It’s the reason why I think these shootings of unarmed men have been so disruptive and painful in communities of color. It’s the reason why our criminal justice system is so skewed by disparities based on race. This presumption of dangerousness and guilt really undermines your ability to be tried fairly—to be regarded fairly. And think we’re not going to make progress until we talk about this. Until we commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.
We don’t do shame very well in this country, we don’t acknowledge our mistakes. We have great songs to celebrate our triumphs. We have a lot of habits and traditions that reinforce our strengths, but we haven’t done a very good job of giving voice to our failings and that leaves us vulnerable to replicating those feelings. One of the great challenges that I see, is that that same narrative of racial difference that legitimated slavery, that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that created decades of apartheid and Jim Crow, is I think evident in our criminal justice system. It is evident in this world of mass incarceration and excessive punishment, and people are still being victimized in ways that are painful and have to be addressed. And that’s why we’re spending more time talking about it. We’re trying to put up markers and monuments at the spaces in this country where the salve trade was active. We just put out a report on lynching. I want to put markers and monument in as many lynching sites in American as possible to get us to deal with that history in a more direct and honest way.
Tazioli: So I want to finish with a question. We’ve met before. And I know that I asked you this before and I want to ask you this again. You’ve been at this a long time. And I always wonder what sustains you?
I’ve had difficult days, I’m not going to lie about that.
Stevenson: You know, I feel really fortunate to have the kind of career where I have some latitude. I have some discretion about what we’re going to do. We can pick the things we’re going to keep fighting for and keep trying to make a difference to be tactical and strategic, to see the way the world is responding to what we’re doing and kind of come up with new strategies. That is very energizing. So, intellectually and programmatically, I’m allowed to be stimulated by new ideas—new strategies, new approaches. I think emotionally, psychologically, I really take great comfort in knowing that I am just part of a long line of people who have been fighting for justice. I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of people. And knowing that they had to do so much with so little, appreciating how much harder it was for them to do what they did compared to what I’m trying to do, it’s really instructive to me.
I’ve had difficult days, I’m not going to lie about that. You spend time on death row, you’re with people who are about to be executed, you see all of this pain and anguish—it can get to you. But I’ve never had to say, “my head is bloody but not bowed,” like the generation that came before me. I’ve got this wonderful team of lawyers and social workers and activists and educators, who are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me to try to do the things that we’re trying to do. That creates a community, and that’s very affirming. So I think it’s really the willingness to look back and to know that we have the capacity to move forward, that makes doing the work not only achievable but essential—necessary. Because there are a lot of people rooting for me, including people who have been long gone. I do feel that “cloud of witnesses,” if you will, sometimes cheering me on when I most need it, and that’s very, very gratifying.
Tazioli: Thank you, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Best wishes, not just for the book, but for all the work ahead—there’s a lot to do.
Stevenson: Thank you, so much, Terry.
Tazioli: Congratulations again, on the Carnegie.