50th Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Bryan Stevenson

Few people are better equipped to talk both about the South’s past and its potential than Bryan Stevenson, who will close out SECF’s 50th Annual Meeting.

Stevenson’s work as founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which is devoted to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment, first brought him to national attention. Originally focused on providing legal representation to death row inmates in Alabama, where it is based, the organization is now a national leader on issues of racial justice.

Following a 2012 TED Talk that has accrued over 5.8 million views and the 2014 publication of his best-selling and award-winning memoir, Just Mercy, Stevenson rose to further prominence. His most visible achievement, however, came last year when The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the related Legacy Museum opened in Montgomery.

The memorial, dedicated to victims of white supremacy, draws thousands of visitors every day to view the stark, minimalist columns etched with the names of lynching victims from hundreds of counties – most in the South. The Legacy Museum, a short walk away, uses powerful images, audio and artifacts to draw a direct line from the enslavement of Africans that started in the 1600s all the way to today’s mass incarceration of African-American men.

“I became focused on cultural spaces for people to deal honestly with the past. We’ve done a terrible job in America of talking honestly about slavery and segregation,” Stevenson told The New York Times recently. “I knew it was going to be significant because it hadn’t happened in America and it needed to be done. I just wasn’t sure how much interest there would be.”

The memorial and museum are only two of the many ways Stevenson has worked to provoke a national conversation around the racial injustice of the country’s past and present – one he believes is essential to future healing and reconciliation.

“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” Stevenson said when the memorial opened. “I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.”

One of the core beliefs animating Stevenson’s work is the power of mercy and redemption.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason,” he said in his TED Talk. “Ultimately, you judge the character of a society… by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

Stevenson believes these people ¬– often shunned, neglected and ignored – have the most valuable lessons to teach all of us.

“It’s the broken among us that can teach us the way mercy can heal. It’s the broken that can show us what compassion can do to restore. It’s the broken that can actually help us understand what justice feels like, it’s the broken that can teach us what it truly means to be human,” he recently told an audience in Charlotte. “We got to commit to getting proximate to the poor, and the excluded, and the neglected, and the incarcerated, and the disfavored. It’s only when we are proximate to those who have been pushed aside that we can truly understand the nature of the challenges that we face.”


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