For newly named University Professor Bryan Stevenson, confronting America’s troubled history with race is the path to justice

When Dean Troy McKenzie ’00 clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the justice encouraged McKenzie and his fellow clerks to pay particular attention to a handful of outstanding lawyers when they argued before the Court. One of the advocates Stevens singled out was Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which provides legal representation to individuals who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in jail and prison.

On January 31, introducing the lecture marking Stevenson’s designation as a University Professor—a University-wide honor bestowed upon outstanding faculty whose work is exceptionally broad and multidisciplinary—McKenzie recalled Stevens’s advice from years before. “It’s a mark of Bryan’s life in the law that he was able to see that the way to be a successful advocate was not just to win cases, but also to create a new narrative about our country, about justice, and about all of our roles in pursuing a better society,” said McKenzie. 

Stevenson focused in his lecture on four themes: identity, narrative, hope, and compassion. “I am greatly honored to be a University Professor,” said Stevenson, “and it really is an evolution in my own work to now be thinking about how we bring disciplines together to confront the moment that we are in.” 

He cited the recently-released footage of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating by five Memphis police officers as the latest evidence of disturbing societal trends. 

“I’m worried about the American identity,” he said. “I’m worried about the identity of our legal system. I’m worried about our identity as people who have the capacity and the talent and the opportunity to make a difference, but haven’t yet made the kind of difference to shield us from the kind of wanton violence and brutality that we saw in that video.”

The national identity, Stevenson argued, has become overly punitive and violent. Beginning in the 1970s, he said, political rhetoric tapping into collective fear and anger has inspired more punitive policies. Those policies gave the US the highest incarceration rate in the world, resulting in racial and socioeconomic disparities that reverberate through every aspect of daily life.

The result is more violence, he said: “Mass shootings. Gun violence. Gang violence. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. Police violence. It’s all a manifestation of a collective failure to commit to a less violent society.” Stevenson added, “We cannot punish our way to a less violent society.”

The country will not make progress, Stevenson asserted, without a deliberate narrative shift: “The politics of fear and anger, in my judgment, that’s a threat to a democratic society, because when you allow yourself to be governed by fear or governed by anger, you will tolerate things you shouldn’t tolerate. You will accept things you shouldn’t accept.”

It was a narrative choice, he said, to treat drug addiction as a crime rather than as an illness, filling prisons with nonviolent offenders. Stevenson also invoked the narrative created several decades ago about “superpredators,” children who aren’t really children because they perpetrate violent crimes without remorse. Many states lowered the minimum age at which children could be tried as adults. He recalled representing a 14-year-old boy who had been repeatedly assaulted by adult inmates while in jail.

“The thing about law and narrative is that without attention to narrative,” Stevenson said, “the law will shift, the law will drift, the law will actually be a tool of oppression, and there’s no area where this is more evident than when it comes to race.”

The United States is still burdened by its history of racial injustice, Stevenson suggested, adding that collective healing is impossible until Americans confront the past and talk about it—whether the subject is the genocide of Indigenous people or the millions of Black people who were enslaved, racially terrorized, lynched, and disenfranchised. The North may have won the Civil War, he said, but the South won the narrative war.

Stevenson also looked beyond national borders. In South Africa, he said, public truth telling by both the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid had been crucial to moving forward. “You don’t have people in Germany saying, ‘Oh, we can’t teach our kids about the Holocaust because that might be uncomfortable or cause somebody shame,’” he said. He noted that EJI operates both a museum focused on the legacy of slavery and a memorial dedicated to the victims of racial terror lynchings.

Given the daunting challenges to making positive change, Stevenson acknowledged, it’s easy to lose hope. But, he said, “It’s important that you hold onto your hope.… Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” As an example of persistent hope, Stevenson mentioned his great-grandfather, who learned to read in the 1850s while enslaved, despite harsh anti-literacy laws, because of the belief that one day he would be free. Stevenson spoke also of his mother, who incurred debt to purchase the World Book Encyclopedia so her children could learn about what existed beyond their own experiences.

“They had a vision of the world bigger and better than the world that they could see,” said Stevenson of his family members. “I’m saying that we have to have that, too. And if we don’t have that, we will not end the violence, we will not end the police misconduct, we will not create systems that are fair and just for everyone.”

The final ingredient, Stevenson said, is compassion, particularly in a society whose legal system treats the wealthy better than the poor, and in which capital punishment is riddled with disparities and errors. “The death penalty is not an issue that we can resolve by asking, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’” he said. “I think the threshold question we have to ask is ‘Do we deserve to kill?’”

It is possible to make a real difference, Stevenson maintained. As a result of his prevailing arguments at the Supreme Court, for instance, more than a thousand people who were children convicted and sentenced to life without parole have been resentenced or released. “I want to use the space… [and] time I have,” he said, “to create an identity for each of us that allows us to be part of an era that changes the narrative, that advances truth and justice, that reinforces the hope that we have inherited, that allows us to actually uplift love and compassion in ways that can be transformative.”

Posted February 21, 2023