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'Just Mercy' Attorney Asks U.S. To Reckon With Its Racist Past And Present

Bryan Stevenson has fought for racial justice within the justice system for over 20 years. His memoir Just Mercy has been adapted into a new film. Now Stevenson wants the U.S. to reckon with its racist past.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk with one of the leaders in the fight against racial injustice within the justice system, Bryan Stevenson. His memoir, "Just Mercy," was adapted into the new film of the same name starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as the man on death row whose case Stevenson is appealing.

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people who've been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others who were wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. While continuing to work within the justice system, Stevenson has also started working outside the courts, trying to get people to better understand the racist aspects of American history.

Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative founded The Legacy Museum, which dramatizes racial injustice from enslavement to mass incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African-Americans terrorized by lynching, humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. The museum, the memorial and the Equal Justice Initiative are in Montgomery, Ala.

Bryan Stevenson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: You said you wanted to start the museum and the memorial because you started to notice a new resistance to civil rights in the state and federal courts. And you started to notice this about a decade ago. What was the change you were noticing?

STEVENSON: Well, I'm a product of Brown v. Board of Education. I grew up in a community where black children weren't allowed to go to the public school. There were no high schools for black kids. When my dad was a teenager, he couldn't go to high school in our county. And I remember how lawyers came into our community and made them open up the public schools. And that's what created the opportunities for me to go to high school, to go to college, to go to law school.

And the law had the power to achieve justice and opportunity that wasn't possible otherwise. That's why I wanted to be a lawyer. That's why I went to law school. And I still believe in the power of the law to help disfavored people, to help people who have been marginalized, to help people who will never have the political power to achieve the basic rights that they deserve through a political process.

And, you know, I spent 20-some years in the courts advocating for people. I didn't really want a lot of publicity. I didn't think that was helpful to the clients I was trying to serve. But it was about a decade ago that I began to worry that we weren't going to achieve the kind of change, the kind of reform, the kind of justice that I think is desperately needed in this country if we stayed in the courts alone. Absence...

GROSS: Do you think the courts have changed?

STEVENSON: I think the courts have changed. I think the political environment has become much more divisive and hostile to people who are disfavored. I think we're once again in an era where the politics of fear and anger are shaping how our institutions respond. And, yeah, I didn't sense the same kind of commitment to these basic rights around equality and fairness. We were losing cases in court that presented really dramatic evidence of racial bias.

I represent people who have been tried by all-white juries in counties that are majority-black. And we've been complaining about this phenomena of excluding black people from serving on juries. That's illegal. It's unconstitutional. And courts seem to be growing tired of trying to enforce that. They were starting to give up on any effort to kind of protect the rights of people of color to serve on juries.

We were presenting evidence of, really, overt bigotry in some of these cases. And the court seemed to be rationalizing it. It was almost as if we've now been acculturated to a certain level of bigotry and bias and exclusion. Wrongful convictions were epidemic, and yet the court didn't seem motivated to respond to that in a meaningful, structural or systemic way.

GROSS: So how did you think a museum and a memorial that looked at the history of slavery and what happened after Reconstruction and the lynchings and segregation - how did you think that would help create more equal justice in the U.S.?

STEVENSON: Well, I just felt like we had to introduce a narrative about American history that wasn't clearly being articulated. I think we are a post-genocide society. Think what happened to native people when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide. We killed millions of native people through famine and war and disease. Then we justified that violence by creating a narrative of racial difference. We said that native people are savages. And we used that rhetoric to justify the violence.

And it was that narrative of racial difference that got us comfortable with 2 1/2 centuries of slavery. And the great evil of American slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. It wasn't forced labor. It was this idea, this narrative that black people aren't as good as white people, that black people aren't fully human. Black people aren't evolved. They can't do this. They can't do that. And that narrative created an ideology of white supremacy. And for me, that was the true evil of American slavery. We passed the 13th Amendment that prohibits involuntary servitude, enforced slavery. But it doesn't say anything about ending this narrative of racial difference. And because of that, I don't think slavery ended in 1865. I think it evolved. And this wasn't a narrative we had actually articulated.

After the Civil War, there were a hundred years of terrorism and violence. Black people were pulled out of their homes, beaten, drowned, burned, tortured and lynched. And the law did nothing. Communities did nothing. The nation did nothing. And then when we got to the civil rights movement, we had this heroic moment. But that narrative of racial difference, this presumption of dangerousness and guilt continued past that era. And we're still burdened with it today. And so for me, talking about this became a real priority.

And when I went to South Africa, I noticed in Johannesburg that they have an apartheid museum, that they have places that make sure that people don't forget the injustice created by apartheid. Outside the constitutional court in Johannesburg, there are symbols and monuments and memorials that talk about the wrongfulness of apartheid.

I talked to people from Rwanda. And it was impressive to me that nobody in Rwanda wants anybody to come to that country and not be aware of the horrific genocide that took place. It is urgent that people who go there, for any purpose, leave with an understanding of the heartbreaking tragedy that that genocide created. They have a genocide museum in Kigali that actually has human skulls. That's how desperately they want to express their grief.

I went to Berlin, Germany. And in Berlin, you can't go 200 meters without seeing markers and stones placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to the Holocaust memorial. They're trying to change the narrative. They don't want to be thought of as Nazis and fascists. They want you to experience their regret and their shame. There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. But in this country, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about the Native genocide. We don't have institutions that are dedicated and focused to making sure a new generation of Americans appreciates the wrongfulness of what we did when we allowed lynching to prevail and persist, what we did when we created racial apartheid through segregation.

In the American South, where I live, the landscape is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We actually celebrate the architects and defenders of enslavement.

GROSS: Yeah. Well...

STEVENSON: And for me, that has to change if we're going to get to the kind of healthy place I think we need to get to.

GROSS: So you want to change the narrative. So that's why you were the force behind the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. Many of our listeners are not familiar with these yet and haven't been able to travel to Montgomery to see them, so can you briefly describe each of them for us?

STEVENSON: Yeah. So we created a museum that's a narrative museum. And when you come to our museum, first of all, it's located in a building that is the former site where a slave warehouse existed. And we want people to know that they're standing on ground where enslaved people were put in pens and held. And then it's a block from the auction space where enslaved people were taken to the square and sold, and it's a first-person experience.

We actually went through hundreds of slave narratives and took these accounts which are heartbreaking and devastating. And you come in, and you see the visuals that you would see if you were enslaved, going into a dark, dungeonlike space. And we have these pens that are slave pens, and they look empty. But when you walk up to them, it triggers a motion sensor, and a hologram will appear, and you'll see and hear an enslaved person who will give an account of how they were pulled away from their siblings, their parents, their children, how they were sold.

And getting people closer to the anguish and the suffering is part of what we're trying to do, and we - enter the museum, and you'll see slave auction books that advertise people for sale. You see the ads trying to recover people who have run away. And we go from slavery to lynching and then from lynching to segregation. And then you go from the segregation era to the contemporary era. And we have a whole exhibit where you sit down, and you pick up a phone, and you talk to someone who is incarcerated in prison today. And we had our clients record their personal accounts of what it was like to be a 13-year-old sentenced to life without parole, what it was like to be innocent on death row.

GROSS: I know one of the things you're trying to do with the museum and the memorial is create connections to the past and the present so we understand how certain injustices of the present are kind of logical outcomes of the past. And that's one of the reasons why you want to create this narrative - so that we understand that and can better change the narrative. So you've created, you know, like, direct connections, for instance, between lynchings and capital punishment.


GROSS: And your Equal Justice Initiative is very anti-capital punishment. And you've devoted a lot of your life to working with people who have unjustly been convicted and are serving sentences on death row. You work with people who have been executed. So talk with us about that connection that you see between lynchings and capital punishment.

STEVENSON: Well, in our lynching work, what we've tried to do is to make people aware of the fact that many people were lynched not because they were accused of a crime, but because they had committed some social transgression. And our legal system accommodated this lethal violence toward people, most of whom were innocent and certainly none of whom had been reliably tried in a way that you could impose that kind of punishment. And I think that's still true today.

Today, we have a legal system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. And I just think when you understand this history of racial violence and lynching, you begin to ask a different question about some of these contemporary issues. Issues like the death penalty for me aren't issues that we can understand by asking, do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed? The threshold question is, do we deserve to kill? And when you look at this long history of tolerating racial violence and racial bigotry and executing people for the simplest social transgression, I think it just changes your relationship to this.

You know, when I was in Germany, one of the most fascinating things to me is, you know, giving a lecture there about the death penalty and having German scholars stand up at the end of the lecture saying, well, of course, we can't have the death penalty in Germany. They said, it would be unconscionable if we had gas chambers somewhere where we were executing people, given our history. And then I thought about that on my flight back home. And I thought, what would I do if I were living at a time where Germany was executing people in gas chambers?

And then what would I do if the people they were executing were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn't be silent about that. And yet we live at a time in America where we have these execution chambers that are disproportionately being used to execute black people after just coming out of this era where we tolerated lynching. And I just think, until we make the - that connection, until we understand that legacy, we can't have an informed conversation about what we're doing.

GROSS: Well, there's so much more to talk about. But right now we have to take a short break, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson. He's the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. And there's a new movie based on his 2015 memoir called "Just Mercy." We'll be back after we take a very short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson. He's the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons. They also challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and provide reentry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. He has represented many people on death row. Some of them have been executed. Some of them, he's managed to get them off. The Equal Justice Initiative under Brian Stevenson's direction also founded The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Let's talk a little bit about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which you helped create. You led the creation of it. And this is a memorial for the 4,000 people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death between the years 1877 and 1950 - so this is after the Civil War. Your group also commissioned a report about the history of lynching and commemorating all of the lynchings, like, documenting all of the lynchings that these researchers were able to document. I'd like you to share with us some of the things that you learned about lynching that you did not know before.

STEVENSON: Well, I think the scale of it was not something that anyone really appreciated. During our research, we were able to document about 800 more lynchings than had previously been documented. And I think what emerged to me that was really heartbreaking is that so many people were lynched just because they wanted to be free. Mary Turner was lynched in Georgia because she complained about the fact that her husband had been lynched. Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched in Birmingham, Ala., because she told schoolchildren who were throwing rocks at her that they shouldn't do that. And because she had the audacity as a black woman to scold these white kids, a mob formed, and they came to her home, and they lynched her.

Black people were lynched because they wanted better pay as sharecroppers or tenant farmers because they tried to organize things. Preachers were lynched because they talked about freedom. People were lynched sometimes because they didn't call a white man sir, because they didn't get off the sidewalk when white people walked past. And I just - it caused me to appreciate the absolute terror of living in a place where the most insignificant encounter might turn into an incident where you or your loved one could be killed. And that's the trauma - that's the weight that this history created that I don't think many people appreciate.

GROSS: You know, you're talking about trying to change the narrative of American history and make us remember and never forget the legacy of slavery and the post-Reconstruction era, the lynchings, all the injustices of that era. When you moved from the North to the South and - OK. You grew up in the south of Delaware, but you went to law school in New England at Harvard. Then you moved to Atlanta and from there to Montgomery. In Atlanta and Montgomery, you saw, I'm sure, many monuments commemorating the Confederacy and the generals of the Confederacy. Tell us about some of the Confederate monuments that you saw and what the impact of seeing them was on you.

STEVENSON: Well, I mean, obviously, in the Deep South, there has been this whole effort to create a landscape that defends and romanticizes this period of enslavement and violence. When I moved to Montgomery, there were 59 markers and memorials in downtown Montgomery that talked unapologetically about the glory of the Confederacy, that era. Alabama even today still celebrates Jefferson Davis's birthday as a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama is a state holiday. We do not have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.

Our two largest high schools are Jefferson Davis High and Robert E. Lee High. They're both 98% black. And you're just kind of required to accept this cultural environment that is hostile to the history that black people have had to endure, that is indifferent to the violence and degradation that slavery represents. And I just think it creates an environment that causes people to be dishonest about who we are and what we've lived through. And it contributes to a lot of the problems that we are struggling to recover from today.

GROSS: How do you think it contributes to the problem?

STEVENSON: Well, if you don't have a consciousness of wrongdoing, if you don't actually have a sense of shame about these horrific human rights violations, you're not motivated to make sure that you don't replicate those things. I think that's what's different about present-day Germany - they have banned the swastika. They do not want anyone celebrating or glorifying what happened during that horrific period of the Holocaust.

There is a commitment to making sure that every person understands what happened. Every schoolchild in Germany has to go to the Holocaust Memorial. They teach it. They're trying to create a consciousness. And even that's not always enough. There's a growing movement of white nationalism there, but there's at least this investment.

Most people in America know nothing about lynching. They know very little about slavery. We try to create these narratives that make it seem like slavery wasn't central to the Civil War. We try to romanticize this. And that's why today when we have evidence of bias and discrimination, there's not a responsiveness to it that there needs to be. Until we reckon with history, we're not going to get free.

I actually think we need an era of truth and justice in this country. We need to have truth and reconciliation. We need to have truth and restoration. And it's not because I want to punish America that I want to talk about these things. I actually want us to be liberated. I want us to get to a better place. I think there's something better waiting for us that we can't get to until we have the courage to talk honestly about our past. And there's very little evidence that we have done that in the United States.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which are all in Montgomery, Ala. We'll talk about the impact of slavery and racism on his family history after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson about how America's history of racial injustice continues to play out today. The new movie "Just Mercy," starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is based on Stevenson's memoir of the same name. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people who've been wrongly convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons.

Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Stevenson also founded The Legacy Museum, which dramatizes racial injustice from enslavement to mass incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African Americans terrorized by lynching and humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow. The museum, memorial and his office are located in Montgomery, Ala. Stevenson told me a very moving story related to the museum.

STEVENSON: We'd been doing this thing where we have people go to lynching sites, and we have them collect soil from the lynching site and put it in a jar. And in our museum, we have hundreds of these jars of soil that were collected from lynching sites. We have the name of the lynching victim. We have the date of the lynching. And it's been really powerful to give people an opportunity to do something tangible, to do something redemptive, to do something restorative. And people come, and they go to these places. We give them a memo, and it's really powerful.

And we had a middle-aged black woman come to one of our events. And she was nervous about going to a lynching site by herself. But after the meeting, she was sort of fired up. And we gave her the jar. We gave her the memo. She went out to this lynching site, which was in a pretty remote area. And she got really nervous, but she decided to do it. She went to the place where the lynching took place. She was about to start digging when a truck drove by. And there was this white man in the truck who slowed down and stared at her. And then she said the truck stopped and turned around and drove back by. And the man stared at her some more.

And then she said the truck stopped. And this big white guy got out and started walking toward her. She was very nervous. And we tell people that you don't have to explain what you're doing. If you want to say you're just getting dirt for your garden, feel free to say that. And that's what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and he said, what are you doing? She said something got a hold of me. And I turned to that man and I said, I'm digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in 1931, and I'm going to honor his life.

And she said she was so scared that she started digging real fast. And then the man stood there and he said, does that paper talk about the lynching? And she said, yes, it does. And then he said, can I read it? And she gave the man the paper, and he stood there reading while she was digging. And then he put the paper down and stunned her by asking, would it be OK if I helped you? And then she told me that this white man got on his knees. And she offered him the little plow to dig the soil. And he said, no, no, no. You use that.

And he started throwing his hands into the soil with such force. And his hands were getting coated with this black soil. And they were turning black. And he was putting them in the jar. But he kept throwing his hands. And it moved her. And she said the next thing she knew, she had tears running down her face. And he stopped and he said, oh, I'm so sorry I'm upsetting you. And she said, no, no, no, no. You're blessing me. And they kept putting the soil in the jar.

And they got the jar almost full. And she noticed toward the end that the man was slowing down and that his shoulders were shaking. And she turned and she looked. And she saw the man had tears running down his face, and she stopped. And she put her hand on this man's shoulder. She said, are you all right? And that's when the man said to her, he said, no. I'm just so worried that it might have been my grandparents that were involved in lynching this man. And she said, they both sat there with tears running down their face.

And at the end of it, he stood up and said, I want to take a picture of you holding the jar. And she said, I want to take a picture of you holding the jar. And they both took pictures holding the jar. And she brought this man back, and they put that jar on our exhibit together. Now, beautiful things like that don't always happen when you tell the truth about history, when you try to actually look for redemption and restoration, when you have every reason to be afraid and angry. But until we commit to some acts like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourself the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration.

I want a world where no black person has to be presumed dangerous and guilty. I want a world where my children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces are not having to navigate all of the obstacles that I've had to navigate. But we cannot get there if we're unwilling to have enough hope, enough belief, enough faith that if we tell the truth, we can get to something that looks like justice.

GROSS: You describe the Great Migration north, the migration in which millions of African Americans migrated from the South, where they faced beatings and unjust arrests, imprisonment and so on. They fled that for the North in the hope of seeking better lives. You describe that as fleeing domestic terrorism. You describe that period as a period of domestic terrorism. We have the language for that now. I don't think we had that language in the past.

So - and you say that, you know, the message was you could be killed if you stayed there. And the courts weren't going to save you. Your grandparents were part of that Great Migration. They lived in Virginia. Did they tell you stories about what happened to them that made them think it was time to leave?

STEVENSON: Yeah, they did. My grandmother was an amazing storyteller. And, you know, the line between me and slavery is actually very short. My great-grandfather was enslaved in Virginia. She told me how he learned to read as a 12-year-old boy, even though it could have cost him his life. It might have caused him to be sold. And, yeah, she would tell me these stories. She would talk about how after Emancipation, all the black people in their community would come to their home every night, and my grandfather would stand up and read the newspaper.

And it made her so proud that he had that power. And he would read the newspaper because he wanted people to be aware, alert and mindful of the threats that still existed in their community. And she said it was empowering that he could read, but it would sometimes be terrifying to know about all of this violence that was going on everywhere. And when she came of age, she left. She left Virginia for Philadelphia.

And she would talk to my mother about this history. She believed in the power of education. She didn't have a lot of formal education, but she gave that desire to read to my mom. And my mom gave that to me. We grew up poor in the rural South. We didn't have a lot of money. We didn't have a lot of things. But my mother went into debt to buy the World Book Encyclopedia so we would have a portal to a larger world. And there is something about that history that continues to shape my own thinking.

GROSS: Did you learn stories about your great-grandparents and what they experienced as slaves?

STEVENSON: I did, yeah. My grandmother, you know, would tell me about the brutality of enslavement that was shared with her by her father. His father was sold away. His name was John Baylor (ph). He was sold away, and it devastated the family.

And he would talk about how he tried to do everything right so that he would never be sold away from people he loved, and yet that threat was always there. And so, yeah, she talked about it. My people from Caroline County, Va., Bowling Green, Va. - I still have relatives there. And there is a richness when you begin to understand these places.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson. He's the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He also founded The Legacy Museum, a history museum chronicling enslavement to mass incarceration, chronicling the injustices that African Americans have been subjected to from slavery on.

And then he also founded The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes thousands of black people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death after the Civil War. The new movie "Just Mercy" is an adaptation of his memoir of the same name. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents people who've been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, abused in state jails and prisons or are unjustly serving time on death row. They oppose capital punishment. He also founded The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

How have you dealt with anger? You know stories about your great-grandparents' enslavement, the discrimination that your grandparents, parents and you have faced. You know about the continuing injustices in the legal system that African Americans face and the continuing injustices outside the legal system. You have every reason to be really angry. Anger is a great motivator, but it could also be very unproductive once you're trying to get the work done. So can you talk a little bit about how anger has worked for you and if it's worked against you at any point and how you've tried to channel it?

STEVENSON: Well, I've always understood that anger, as an end, doesn't achieve anything. I guess, in some ways, I'm tired of just being emotional about this history. I want things to change. I want to see real change. And I represent people who are so much more vulnerable than I am. I mean, that's the thing about my work that allows me to put in context my own emotions.

You know, I go into jails and prisons. I stand next to condemned people who are facing execution. I spend time with mothers whose children have been taken away and condemned to die in prison. I've been next to kids who've been abused in jails and prisons, who were being threatened. And when you're working with a population like that, who is so vulnerable, you have to be willing to figure out a way to help them. And you can't let your emotions be the end of the story.

It wasn't the end of the story for people who were enslaved, who found emancipation and still found a way to love one another, to create another generation. It would've been completely understandable if emancipated black people said, we are done. We are through. We're going to just get revenge. And we're going to wreak havoc and violence on these communities.

People who were tortured and terrorized through lynching still found a way to create love and create another generation. My parents endured the hardship of segregation and still loved one another enough to create another generation. And so for me, there has to be this commitment to something better.

And that's why I think you have to be hopeful to do the kind of work that we need to do in this country. We can't be governed by fear and anger. In fact, I think fear and anger are sometimes the essential ingredients of injustice and oppression. I get angry, absolutely. My grandfather was murdered when I was 16. I've seen a lot of violence. I hate violence. I've seen a lot of abuse...

GROSS: How was he murdered?

STEVENSON: He was living in the projects in Philadelphia, and several young kids broke into his house and tried to steal his TV. He tried to stop them, and he was stabbed to death. He was 86 years old. And it's just so maddening to think about an environment that produces children that would kill someone for a TV.

And I guess I want to do something about that. I want to create a different environment. I want to deal with the crisis of trauma that exists in so many poor neighborhoods and communities. I want to create systems of justice that are more responsive to people who are poor and vulnerable. I want us to get to a better place.

And it doesn't mean that those emotions don't weigh on you. I just think about the people who've come before me. I mean, segregation is heartbreak. It's insulting. It's infuriating. And yet, the generation who came before me would put on their Sunday best, and they would go to a bridge or to a park or to a rally where they knew they were going to get beaten and bloodied and brutalized, and still, they went. And it wasn't just anger that got them there. It was hope. It was faith. It was belief.

And so those are the things that I try to hold on to. I have to believe things I haven't seen. We couldn't have gotten, you know, 140 people off death row if I wasn't willing to believe something I hadn't seen. We couldn't build this museum or this memorial if we weren't willing to believe things we haven't seen. I went to Harvard Law School. I'd never met a lawyer until I got to law school. And I just think that has to be the orientation that sustains and defines what we do. It can't end with anger. It can't end with fear. We get to a better place, we get to justice when we get past fear and anger.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson. He's the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He also founded The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The new movie "Just Mercy" is an adaptation of his memoir of the same name. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents people who've been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, abused in state jails and prisons or are unjustly serving time on death row. They oppose capital punishment. He also founded The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

If it's OK with you, I want to play a short excerpt of the interview we recorded in 2014, after the publication of your memoir "Just Mercy," which was adapted into a film. And this is a story that you told about when you were practicing at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. You'd been with the committee for about four years. You were a practicing lawyer. You were in your 20s, and you'd just moved into a new apartment in Atlanta, Ga. You got home after a long day at work, and you were sitting in your car with the radio on, listening to the end of a recording by Sly and the Family Stone. As you were listening to your radio, waiting to go to your new apartment, a police car stops. And you didn't know why it had stopped until you realized the police were coming for you. And I want to play you telling the story of what happened.


STEVENSON: Yeah, it was late at night. I'd been working, actually, on a case involving a young man who had been killed by police in Alabama. And I was just really enjoying the fact that my radio was playing. It didn't usually play, and I was listening to these songs sitting outside my apartment, and then the police car pulled up. And I was curious what they were looking for. And they shined the light on me, and I realized that, oh, they're here for me. And I got out of my car. I was going to explain to them that this is where I live. And before I could say a word, the police officer pulled a gun, pointed it at my head and said, move, and I'll blow your head off. And I saw him standing there. His hands were shaking. I was terrified. And I had this moment of just crisis. And I put my hands up, and I began saying, it's OK. It's all right. It's OK. It's all right. And I was completely confused. I had a moment where I thought, these aren't real police. They were actually Atlanta SWAT officers, which meant that they didn't wear the traditional police uniform. They were all dressed in black - black boots, black pants, black shirt.

And he was just so menacing and threatening, and he kept saying, move, and I'll blow your head off. And a second officer got out of the car, came behind my car, came up behind me, threw me on the back of the vehicle and wouldn't let me reach in my wallet to get my driver's license to show that this is where I lived. And it just turned into this horrible ordeal where they kept me out there for 15 minutes. Neighbors were coming out. People were complaining about other burglaries in the neighborhood. They were asking the police to interrogate me about their missing items. You know, ask him if he has my vacuum cleaner. Ask him if he took my cat. Then it was sort of surreal and terrifying. One of the officers did a completely illegal search of the vehicle - went inside the car, started digging around, opened up the glove compartment. I had, like, Bazooka bubble gum and M&M candies that he went through and then tossed aside. And I could never persuade them that I was there legitimately. And after they found nothing in the car and they confirmed that they didn't have a warrant for me, I asked them to apologize, and they wouldn't. The officer who left said, you should be lucky you got away. Next time, we'll get you.

GROSS: You say in the book that your first impulse was to run.

STEVENSON: No one had ever pointed a gun at me like that before. I was terrified. I just, you know - a kid growing up in the country - yeah, that was my first instinct. And I was, at that point, a lawyer who had done police misconduct in civil rights cases for several years. And so I knew to say, it's all right. It's OK. But I had to take control of that situation and calm everybody down. And that's terrifying.

GROSS: So let's just imagine for a second if you weren't a lawyer, if you didn't...


GROSS: ...Have experience, if you hadn't thought a lot about what people do when confronted with the police that gets them into trouble - honestly, you might have been dead, right?

STEVENSON: No question; and, you know, I - you know, I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do a lot of things that people do. And if the officer had found something in my car, it would not have been legal or appropriate for me to be arrested or prosecuted under those circumstances. But that happens all the time as well. And then the narrative would have shifted, and no one would have had any sympathy for the fact that I was just sitting there, minding my own business, trying to get into my own apartment. And I think the great burden for me from that experience was knowing that most of the kids in that neighborhood weren't prepared for that. And I was running around, you know, going up to strange, young kids saying, do you know what to do when this happens? Are you ready? And I was overwhelmed with this sense of fear and anxiety about whether kids were prepared to manage that and survive.

GROSS: So that was Bryan Stevenson, recorded in 2014 after the publication of his memoir "Just Mercy."

Bryan Stevenson, listening back to that now, I want you to connect that story to what we've been talking about during this interview today. We've been talking about how you can't just rely on the criminal justice system to change racial injustice in America. You have to change the narrative. This was the criminal justice system coming after you. It was the police coming after you, putting a gun to your head, threatening you for being on your block, about to enter your own apartment. So connect this story to the larger issues that we've been talking about today.

STEVENSON: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is I asked those police officers for an apology so I could feel better about what happened, so I could know that they weren't going to do this over and over and over again, that they had some consciousness that what they did was wrong. And the absence of that apology is what made it even more terrifying for me. It's what made me worry about what those police officers were going to do to other black men. And I do think it's why I feel so strongly that we have to have a bigger conversation than the conversations we have just in legal cases, just in litigation. We have to have a bigger conversation about what it's going to take to repair all of the damage that has been done by centuries of bigotry and bias.

You know, in the 1950s and '60s, we thought we could just end blocking black people from voting. We could just end segregation, and everything would be OK. The truth is we really needed to do something reparatory. We needed to repair the damage that that long history had created. And there's an urgency. I just - yeah, I think too many people have been burdened for too long to stay silent a second longer. And that's what young people are saying when they go out into the streets when people are killed - black people are killed, unarmed, by the police. What they're saying is, we are so exhausted by this. The weight of this is too much.

You know, I have to continue to navigate these presumptions of dangerousness and guilt. It still happens to me now. I go places where I'm presumed dangerous and guilty. I don't know if I mentioned this before, but, you know, I went into a court not too long ago, right after I'd argued that case at the Supreme Court. Had my suit and tie on, I was sitting at defense counsel's table. The judge walked in. And he saw me sitting there, and he got angry. He said, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. You get back out there in the hallway. You wait until your lawyer gets here. And I had to stand up and apologize. 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. I made myself laugh because I didn't want to disadvantage my client. My client came in. It was actually a young, white kid I was representing. We did the hearing. But afterward, I was thinking, what is it - when this judge saw a middle-aged black man in a suit and tie sitting at defense counsel, that it never occurred to him, that's the lawyer? What that is is the legacy of this narrative of racial differences. It's a presumption of dangerousness and guilt.

And I'm now 60 years old. And I can tell you that when you have to constantly navigate these presumptions, when you can be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or a journalist, a student, be doing your best, not meaning harm to anybody and still be presumed dangerous and guilty, I can tell you as I get older that it's exhausting. And I just want something better for people in this country. I want something different for the next generation.

GROSS: So your memoir "Just Mercy" has been adapted into a film. Michael B. Jordan plays you, and Jamie Foxx plays the - your client, who is on death row. And you succeeded in getting him out because he was unjustly convicted. How is it changing your life to have a movie adaptation of part of your life?

STEVENSON: Well, it's surreal. I mean, I never imagined during all those years that one day, there'd be a movie about that and somebody as spectacular as Michael B. Jordan or someone as talented as Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson and Rob Morgan would be bringing this story to life. But it's been really affirming. It's surreal, but I'm very excited. I'm very proud of the film. I think it gets it right. And Michael was so good. He wanted to get everything right. He was very committed to being authentic, and I was really honored by that. The one thing I told him he didn't have to be authentic about - I said, now, you can keep that "Black Panther," "Creed" body when you play me. I won't have any objections...


STEVENSON: ...If you look like that.

GROSS: All right, Bryan Stevenson, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. And thank you so much for your work.

STEVENSON: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which are all located in Montgomery, Ala. The new movie "Just Mercy" is adapted from his memoir of the same name.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be actor Tim Roth. He stars in the new movie "The Song Of Names" and in the streaming TV series "Tin Star." He's in the Quentin Tarantino films "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Hateful Eight." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper.

I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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