TSD Editor’s Note: Bryan Stevenson was a 2016 recipient of the Freedom Award, presented by the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.
While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.
He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.
“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.
Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.
He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.
Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.
Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.
While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.
Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.
In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.
The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”
Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.
“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”
Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”