True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality (2019) Movie Script

Chief Justice John Roberts:
We'll hear argument next today: Case 17-75-05,
Madison vs. Alabama. Mr. Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson:
Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court, it's undisputed
that Vernon Madison now sits on
Alabama's death row, unable to fully orient
to time and place. The authority
to execute someone who is not an immediate threat
is an awesome power. And that power
has to be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely. Bryan Stevenson ( voiceover ):
For most of my career, I've provided
legal representation to people on death row. 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. - All right,
thank you all very much.
- Reporter: Thank you. Stevenson:
I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do. I've been thinking a lot
recently about an incident that took place
when I was a little boy. My mom saved up enough money
for my sister and I to get on a church bus trip to the new Disney World
that had just opened up. I remember being
so excited about it, because not only were we going
to go to Disney World, we would be staying in a hotel, and the hotel
would have a swimming pool. And my sister and I had never
been in a real swimming pool. As we pulled into the hotel,
my sister started squealing. As soon as the bus stopped
she grabbed me, and we went streaking over
to this pool. I grabbed her hand
and we jumped high in the air and we landed in that pool, and it was as glorious as I had
imagined it would be. It was just unbelievable. And we were having such fun, and then I realized that chaos
had broken out around us. White parents were frantically
running into the water, snatching their children
violently out of the pool,
and I was looking at my sister, I was looking,
trying to figure out,
what is going on? Finally, there was one
little boy left in the pool, and this big guy came
and he snatched him by the arm and lifted him out of the water and the little boy started
crying hysterically. I turned to that white man
and I said, "What's wrong?" And he gave me this look,
and he said, "You're wrong, nigger." We got out of the pool
and I ran to my mom. And when I told her
what the man said, she looked at me and she said,
"You get back in that pool." She said, "Don't you let those
people run you from that pool." What I remember most vividly
from that trip is getting back in the pool and standing in the corner
of the pool holding my sister's hand
and desperately trying
not to cry. What do you do with a memory
like that? I still remember that, and the question becomes: Do the white kids
remember the day they were forced out
of the pool by their parents because two black kids
got into the water? Memory is powerful, it is a powerful force
in the way a society evolves. We have a constitution that
talks about equality, liberty,
and justice for all, and for decades, for centuries, we tolerated enslavement
of other human beings. We tolerated abuse
and violence against people. We tolerated bigotry
and discrimination. And in thinking about
what it would take to move this court
and this country to a place of greater resolve
when it comes to eliminating
bias and discrimination, it became clear to me that
we haven't really talked much about the legacy
of racial bias. I think there's
a kind of smog in the air that's created by the history
of slavery and lynching
and segregation, and I don't think
we're going to get healthy, I don't think we can be free...
until we address this problem. But to get there, we're going to have to be
willing to tell the truth. ( bell tolling ) Bryan Stevenson:
You know, I was just
going through my files a couple of days ago, and I actually had this pad
that had notes of an interview I did
with Rosa Parks. I had the great privilege of
knowing Rosa Parks when I was-- when I moved to Montgomery
in the 1980s, as a young lawyer I met
an extraordinary woman
who was the architect, really, of
the Montgomery bus boycott, she was an amazing person,
her name was Johnnie Carr. And Johnnie Carr was a force
to be reckoned with. And when I moved to Montgomery,
Ms. Carr called me up
and she said, "Bryan, I understand
you're a young lawyer and you've just moved to town."
I said, "Yes, I am." She said, "When I call you up
and ask you to do something,
what you're going to do - is you're going to say,
"Yes, ma'am.'"
- ( laughter ) One day
she called me up and said, "Bryan, I want to tell you,
Ms. Parks is coming
back to town, so we're going to get together
and we're going to talk. Do you want to come over
and listen?" I said, "Oh, yes, ma'am." And I listened to these women
talk for two hours. They weren't talking about
the things they had done, they were talking about
the things they were still
going to do. And finally, after two hours,
Ms. Parks turned to me,
she said, "Now, Bryan, tell me about
the Equal Justice Initiative. Tell me what
you're trying to do." And I looked at Ms. Carr to see
if I had permission to speak, and she nodded, and so
I gave her my whole rap. I said, "Ms. Parks,
we're trying to end
the death penalty, we're trying to do something
about racial bias, we're trying
to do something about the poor, we're trying to do something
about conditions
of confinement." When I finished,
she looked at me and she said, "Mm-mm-mm." She said, "That's going to
make you tired, tired, tired." ( laughter ) And Ms. Carr leaned forward and she put her finger
in my face and she said, "That's why you've got
to be brave, brave, brave." Stevenson:
In 1989, we set up this project here in Montgomery, Alabama, to provide legal services
to poor people, incarcerated people,
condemned people on death row. Alabama doesn't have
a public defender system, and there were just a lot
of people desperate for help. Randy Susskind:
Alabama has the highest
death sentencing rate in the country, per capita. And I think, you know,
from the very beginning, Bryan's sense was, we should do
as many cases as possible. Stevenson:
I think of
a wrongful conviction as any conviction where the law
has not been followed, where there have been illegal practices or policies. It doesn't mean that
the person is innocent. We represent a lot of people who did the things
they were accused of, but I think you can be
properly convicted and unfairly sentenced. We're gonna start moving
because of limited time... Sia Sanneh:
I think in law school
I conceived of myself as becoming a great lawyer and winning cases that
get people out of prison, and that is a huge part
of what we do. Stevenson:
So I just wanted
to get some reaction to that idea, make sure we were
comfortable with that. Sanneh:
But I think you have
to be more than a lawyer in the sort of technical sense. Stevenson:
I'd never met a lawyer-- ever-- until I got to law school, and my time in law school
was frustrating because I didn't meet lawyers who seemed to represent
something I wanted to do. And I tried to rationalize
accepting a career as a lawyer that I knew was not going
to be fulfilling. It was frankly
in the midst of that that I went to Atlanta, Georgia,
and spent a month with the Southern Prisoners
Defense Committee, and for the first time
I met a lawyer who seemed to represent
something that excited me. I do think that
the issue before us is how the death penalty
works in practice. And the fact of the matter is,
the death penalty-- and I practice in the Death Belt
states of the South-- and the evidence is undeniable that the death penalty
is a result of race, poverty, politics,
and the passions of the moment. One thing
that's immediately apparent with the death penalty
in the South is that it's about
race and place. You see lots of changes
in the deep South, but when you go
to the courthouse, nothing has changed-- it's like we're back
in 1940 or 1950. The judge is white,
the prosecutors are white, the court appointed lawyers
are white. And even in communities
that have fairly substantial
African American populations, the jury will be all white. So the only person of color
in the front of the courtroom is the person on trial. Anthony Ray Hinton:
You see that smoke comin'
outta there, boy? - Man: Yeah.
- Whoo! Woman:
How's it lookin', Ray? Hinton:
Oh, lookin' purty. The secret to a cookout... always have you
a taste-master. That's my taste-master
right there. He gonna let me know
if it's right. Oh, wait till you taste it! It's good, Mr. Hinton,
right on time. Hinton:
To me, life was good. Not a care in the world, just trying
to get up every morning and put one foot forward and do the best you can
and just enjoy life. It was just good to be who I was
at that particular time, at least that's what I thought. I found myself in a situation that I never should
have been in. I was 29 years old. Woke up, like any morning,
ate breakfast, and my mom asked me to go
out there and cut that grass. About 15 to 20 minutes
into cutting the grass, I just happened to look up and there stood
two white gentlemen at the edge of the back porch. I cut the lawnmower off
and I said, "Can I help you?" And one of them replied,
"We are detectives from the Birmingham
Police Department." And I said, "OK,
how can I help you?" And he said, "Well, we have
a warrant for your arrest." On our way to jail,
the detective turned around
and asked me, "Anthony, do you own a pistol?"
And I said, "No." He said, "Do your mother
own a firearm?" I said, "No-- Ah, yes."
I said, "She own an old
.38 Smith & Wesson." My mom gave them the pistol. I asked the detective
at least 50 times, "Why am I being arrested?" Never would respond. I asked him again,
for the 51st time, "Why am I being arrested?" He said, "You wanna know
why we're arresting you?" He said, "You robbed
a restaurant manager
and you killed him." I said,
"You got the wrong person,
I ain't done none of that." He said, "Let me tell you
something right now. I don't care whether
you did or didn't do it. There's five things
that're gonna convict you." He said,
"Number one, you're black. Number two, a white man
is gonna say you shot him. Number three, you're gonna have
a white prosecutor. Number four, you're gonna
have a white judge. And number five, you're gonna
have an all-white jury." And he said,
"Do you know what that spells? 'Conviction.'" And sure enough,
they find me guilty. The judge said,
"Anthony Ray Hinton, it is the order of this court
that I sentence you to death. May God have mercy
on your soul." Tom Brokaw:
The Supreme Court was urged today to strike down
the death penalty because it is applied unequally
to black and white. Carl Stern ( voice-over ):
It was eight years ago
that arrests were made for the murder
of a white Atlanta policeman during a hold-up
at a furniture store. The man convicted
of pulling the trigger
was Warren McCleskey; he was sentenced to die
in Georgia's electric chair. The appeal was based
on death row studies showing that those
who kill whites are 11 times more likely
to be sentenced to die than those who kill blacks. William H. Rehnquist:
We'll hear arguments
first this morning in number 84-68-11,
Warren McCleskey
vs. Ralph Kemp. Stevenson:
Once I got involved in representing people
on death row, it was McCleskey
that began to illuminate the ways in which
our history of racial inequality was limiting the commitment
of the rule of law and disadvantaging
people of color. What was surprising
is that the United States
Supreme Court didn't question the data. The court said,
"Even though we believe you, we're not going to
strike down the death penalty because a certain amount
of bias in the administration
of the death penalty is, in our opinion,
quote, 'inevitable.'" And as a young lawyer
working on that case, that was a real crisis. It felt like the court
was abandoning the commitment
to equal justice, it was abandoning
the commitment
to racial equality. Susan Boleyn:
I believe that there is a presumption, at least
in Southern states, that Georgia prosecutors,
juries and district attorneys cannot fairly and impartially
administer the death penalty. And I'd like to tell you
that it's not 1950 anymore, we can fairly and impartially
administer the laws as narrowly drawn
under our constitution. Michael Kinsley:
Mr. Stevenson,
do you have a question? What has changed
that allows you
to support or assert that the death penalty
is being fairly applied now in ways that it wasn't
being applied in 1950? First of all,
as I'm sure you know,
Mr. Stevenson, we have more white persons
incarcerated on death row
for murders than we do
for black people. So-- How does that disprove
that race is not a factor? The bottom line is that there
are only 27% of the black-- of the population of Georgia
is black. Yet 75% of the people that
have been executed in that state are African American,
that's 25% more than the people
who committed murders, and it's 50% more than the
people who exist in that state. So do you want an answer
to your question or do you want
to tell me your statistics? I want an answer to a question,
but I want an honest answer. Your point of view
is that no person who is a black person in Georgia can get a fair trial,
according to you. You want to go
into generalized statistics because you cannot
face the fact as an attorney that there are people
who should be held accountable
of their actions regardless of their race. ( spectators applauding ) Stevenson:
The court in McCleskey said that he failed
because he didn't prove intentional discrimination
on the part of each of the decision-makers
in his case. And we started thinking
about that. It was like,
well, how do you prove that? Well, we need to start
asking questions about
the decision-makers. So we started
asking questions of judges, "Have you ever used the N-word? Have you ever hired people
of color to be clerks? Did you pull your kids
out of the schools
when integration came?" And the same questions were
appropriate for the prosecutor. And no one wanted
to answer those questions. I was persuaded, and still am, that the criminal justice
system revealed the problems of our history of bias against
the poor and people of color unlike few systems did. Stevenson ( in conference ):
In the state of Georgia, when a black defendant
is sentenced to death and four of the twelve jurors
who sentenced him say that the Ku Klux Klan do
good things in that community, when that defense lawyer says
that "I believe my client
is genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes,
and that's why I'm comfortable
with his death sentence," when the trial judge
and the prosecutor refer
to that black defendant as "colored boy"
throughout the trial,
that's racial bias. Kinsley ( striking gavel ):
OK. And Ms. Boleyn,
would you like to... Stevenson:
I think of McCleskey as a critical moment
in the court's relationship to not only the rule of law
and the Constitution, but to race. I had a hard time reconciling this commitment
to equal justice under law with this doctrine
of inevitability. And what that ruling meant is that not only
was there not going to be
an end to the death penalty... it meant that Warren McCleskey
would likely be executed. And I've had some hard moments, but that stands out. It created a sort of injury. An execution date
was scheduled, and Warren McCleskey
was executed. We are haunted, in America, by our history
of racial inequality. For me, it actually begins with the fact that we're
a post-genocide society. I think what happened
to native people
on this continent was a genocide. We forced these communities
from land through war and violence. We didn't call it a genocide
because we said, "No, these native people
are different. They're a different race." And we used this narrative
of racial difference to justify the abuse,
the exploitation, the destruction
of these communities. And that narrative
of racial difference is what then made slavery
in America so problematic. And you cannot understand
slavery in America without understanding
the role that the United States
Supreme Court played in making slavery acceptable, making slavery moral, making slavery legal. Slave owners
in the American South wanted to feel like
they were moral people. They were Christians. And to feel that and still
be owning other people, they had to say
that black people are different
than white people. And that was ratified
by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision. The Supreme Court says in 1857, "Look, black people
are an inferior race. They're not like white people. They're three-fifths human. And because of that,
they are not citizens. They are not protected
by the Constitution." And that decision not only allowed slavery
to persist, but it created
a racial hierarchy. It introduced--
formally, in the law -- this idea of white supremacy, this narrative
of racial difference. We then have this
bloody Civil War. The North prevails, we pass the 13th Amendment, which ends involuntary
servitude and forced labor. We pass the 14th Amendment,
which is supposed to
provide equal protection. We pass the 15th Amendment,
which is supposed to give
people the right to vote. And the reaction to that,
in many parts of this country,
was violent. In 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, 150 black people are murdered
by a white mob because they were protesting
their inability to be
politically represented. Congress says, "You know,
we can't allow that kind
of violence, we're going to have our federal
prosecutors prosecute those
people for that violence," and white people are convicted. And the United States
Supreme Court says, "No, Congress doesn't
have the authority to prevent that kind
of violent intimidation. States have rights, and the federal government
can't impinge on those rights. So, this era, I think, does something significant
to the credibility, the integrity of
the United States Supreme Court. It became a tool for sustaining racial violence,
white supremacy, and exploitation
of black people. Man:
We have dedicated ourselves
firmly to the belief that the best interests
of both races may be served
by segregated schools. Stevenson:
When the 1940s and '50s
come along and black people begin
organizing and protesting
and challenging this legal architecture of
bigotry and discrimination, the states used the same
rhetoric they'd been using
since the Civil War. There's nothing
in the Constitution
of the United States that says anything about
education or schools. The states authorize 'em and the states support 'em
and the states control 'em. Stevenson:
States say, "We can treat black
people any way we want to, and the federal government
can't do anything about it because we have states' rights." And that narrative
was given to them by the United States
Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall:
This is a part of the group of lawyers from all sections of the country who are here
in the Supreme Court for the purpose of arguing
the school segregation cases. We believe that
the proper place for the issue of segregation
is in a court. Stevenson:
When Brown vs. Board
of Education is decided, when the court makes this ruling that segregation in education
is unconstitutional, it's a watershed moment. It was finally the Court
not yielding to bigotry and bias and exclusion
and discrimination. And so, for them to declare
in 1987, in McCleskey vs. Kemp, that they were retreating, that these problems are,
quote, "inevitable," it was heartbreaking. I went to law school because I'm a product of
Brown vs. Board of Education. I started my education
in a colored school. It was that commitment
from lawyers to come into
communities like mine that made it possible
for me to go to a high school and to get to college. ( rain pattering ) So that's where my grandparents
used to live. They've fixed it up, actually. And this is all
kind of the black section
of Georgetown back in here. This was the segregated school
for black kids. That was where school ended
when my dad was a kid. It could take you to the sixth
or eighth grade, but after that,
there was no more school. So if you wanted
to go to high school,
you had to leave the county. And... this is the little church
I grew up in, Prospect AME Church. Stevenson:
My dad had lived with
segregation his whole life, had been taught to not draw
attention to yourself, not do anything that's
gonna get you at risk. It was a coping mechanism
that was necessary living in the community
where we lived. My dad was strategic
and tactical. My mom could be
strategic and tactical too, but she was also
prepared to react. And that reaction sometimes
would create some tension. If you went to the store, the store clerks
were always white, and what they would do
in those days is, the store clerks would
put your change down
on the table. They wouldn't put it
in your hand, they didn't
want to touch a black person. She would say,
"That's my money,
you have to give it to me." And I just think for her,
it was hard to stay silent. You know, when I went
to law school at Harvard, I, to be honest, I didn't-- I felt vulnerable. I worried that
I didn't belong there. I was around people
who could talk about how, for three generations,
their family members
had been lawyers or doctors. And I didn't want anybody
to know that I started my education
in a colored school. I didn't want people to know
that my great-grandparents
were enslaved. But then going to death row, seeing that struggle
made manifest, I realized that the things
I had been silent about are the things that
I should be talking about. Howard Stevenson:
Bryan, when we've watched him
argue in court-- I took both my sons to watch him
argue at the Supreme Court-- I can see my mother in him. But my parents didn't always
agree on what Bryan was doing. You know, "Bryan,
if they did something wrong, why are you defending them?" The fear was initially that when Bryan
started in Montgomery, they were getting
a lot of bomb threats. Christy Taylor:
I have the trepidation of
someone trying to harm him. I feel that in the back
of my spirit, to be protective of him, because people don't like
what he has to say or things that he's done. Howard:
Bryan's heart for this work became evident very early on. My father wanted him
to make a lot of money. I said, "Dad I don't think
he's going to have
that kind of a job. ( laughing )
I mean, you know, Bryan's not going to be
that kind of lawyer." But they came around because when they would meet the folks
that he was working with and see how their life changed,
that looked more like church. They were familiar with that. - Hello!
- Rev. Janet Maull-Martin:
Hi, Bryan, how are you? - I'm well, how are you?
- I am well, it's so good
to see you. Great
to see you too. I used to play
testimonial services when I was a little tiny, they didn't trust me
for the main service yet, so I would sit up there, and they'd say,
"You can play testimonial." And people would stand up
in these pews and they would give
their testimonies, and I talk about this
all the time. Lot of times
they'd be talking about how difficult
things had been. They'd talk about how
they didn't have enough food
to feed their families or something hard
had happened. But at the end of it
they'd start singing "But I Wouldn't Take Nothin'
For My Journey Now." You know, and I'd catch that key
and things would just pick up. And it was so formative for a lot of what
I'm trying to do now. And so this is
a precious place to me, it's a special place. It was a formative place
for all of us, me and my family, and so, it's good
to be back in here. Stephen Bright:
People who have a warrant
that says at some point you will be
strapped down and put to death, those people have
the most compelling need
for legal assistance of anybody in our society. Not only is the work
to represent them, but to also minister
to that person, to comfort that person, to support that person
and that person's family. We are gonna be able
to get some people
over to safe passage, but there are gonna be
other people that
that's not gonna happen. Hinton:
On December the 16th, 1986, they transported me to
Holman Correctional Facility where they house
death row inmates. When I got convicted, the prosecution
ran out that day and told the media
that the state of Alabama got the worst killer that ever walked the streets
in Birmingham off the streets that night. Only it wasn't true. When I got there,
they was in the process of executing four men. Thursday night is the night
they execute you. Never will forget the smell. And I asked the guard, I said, "Is there anything
you can give me to keep me from
smelling that smell?" And the guard looked at me
and he said, "No... but you'll get used to it. And by the way, one day, somebody will smell
your flesh too." How can another human being... ( expels air ) How can a human being... tell another person that? Stevenson:
In many ways, you can say that
the North won the Civil War, but the South won
the narrative war. If the urgent narrative
that we're trying to deal with
in this country is a narrative
of racial difference, if the narrative
that we have to overcome is
a narrative of white supremacy, the South prevailed. And that's what
we were dealing with at the beginning
of the 20th century, when we began an era
where white supremacy, racial subordination,
racial hierarchy, is going to be enforced
in a new way: lynching. Thousands of people
pulled out of their homes, burned alive, mutilated, tortured, hanged,
shot, drowned, sometimes in plain view, in front of
thousands of people. Sometimes the mob would drag them through
the black community, force people
out of their homes to see the brutalized body
of one of their neighbors, one of their loved ones. And oftentimes, a black person
who had been lynched, their body would be suspended
on a bridge or on a tree. And family members
couldn't retrieve that body, sometimes for days. The sheriff would actually
post someone to make sure that the body was still there
days later. It wasn't a secret. It wasn't
something that the Klan did. The people who perpetrated
these lynchings weren't people
wearing white hoods. There was no need
to wear a hood. You could actually pose
with the victim's body. You could carve their body up
and collect souvenirs. This was actually
a point of pride. Everybody was complicit. And lynchings were
largely taking place in communities where
there was a functioning
criminal justice system. But there was this idea
that black people weren't good enough
to even be criminal defendants. And black people were lynched, not just for some accusation
of murder or rape, they were often lynched because
of some social transgression. Not saying "sir"
to a white person
could get you lynched. Going to the front door
rather than the back door could get you lynched. Interracial romance
was the most incendiary. It was terrorism
in the most complete sense. These acts of violence were
intended to terrorize people
into not challenging, not resisting, not confronting
this racial hierarchy. And in that sense,
these lynchings weren't just about
those individuals. This was about the entire
African American community. I do think,
for African American families
in the American South, it was impossible
to not have a story about the violence and terror. My grandfather
witnessed a lynching. He told me about
seeing the mob, them dragging someone
to a spot, him running to hide, him looking through
this little slat in a building and watching this violence. The thing
that he would talk about was knowing
so many of these people, and that creates this challenge of how you live in a community where you have to pretend
to trust people who you know are capable of
engaging in the kind of terror and violence
that a lynching represents. Stevenson:
I've actually been representing
people on death row for about 31 years. Walter McMillian was
wrongly convicted and condemned to death
in Monroe County, Alabama, which is about an hour
and 45 minutes south of here. Monroeville is the community
where Harper Lee grew up and wrote
"To Kill a Mockingbird." And if you've ever been
to Monroe County, it's a community
that loves talking about "To Kill a Mockingbird." - ( laughter )
- And yet in the late 1980s, a black man
was wrongly convicted
and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Ed Bradley:
You didn't kill Ronda Morrison? No, sir, I ain't never seen
Ronda Morrison a day in my life.
God knows, I ain't. - Where were you
on the day of the murder?
- At my house. Did you ever go into Monroeville
on the day of the murder? - No, sir.
- You never went into town? Never went to Monroeville,
period. Stevenson:
There was a murder that took place
in downtown Monroeville. The police couldn't solve
the crime. The pressure
got so great on the police that I believe they decided
to arrest someone, even though they knew
that person wasn't guilty. And the person they chose
to arrest was Walter McMillian. We believe
they chose to arrest him because he was a black man who had had
an interracial affair - with a young white woman.
- What did he say? They told me that
I was going to prison
because of that nigger, and they didn't understand why
I wanted to mess with niggers. Stevenson:
The trial lasted
a day and a half, the jury actually returned
a verdict of life imprisonment
without parole, but in Alabama,
our elected trial judges have the authority to override
jury verdicts of life and impose the death penalty. And what happened in this case
is that the elected judge, whose name was
Robert E. Lee Key-- I know you think
I'm making that up,
but that's true-- - ( laughter )
- overrode the jury's verdict of life and imposed
the death penalty. I got involved in the case,
and we came up with some very dramatic evidence
of Mr. McMillian's innocence. I have never had a case where the state's only evidence
of guilt comes from one person. It turned out that the man
that they got to testify
against him, they had coerced him
to testify falsely. And for some very bizarre
reason which I'll never
understand, they tape recorded the sessions
where they were coercing him - to testify falsely.
- ( laughter ) Bradley:
Why should anyone
believe you now? Right is right
and wrong is wrong. And for a man to
straighten his own life out, he must tell the truth. Bright:
What lawyers are doing in cases
on behalf of their clients is telling their stories. We have to find out
what that story is, we have to document it, and then we have to tell it in
as compelling a way that we can. Stevenson:
It was so clear
that they had violated the law in so many ways. But when we presented
the evidence in court, the court ruled against us. This was a case that generated
a lot of strong feelings. I got death threats
during this case. And then we appealed the case, and ultimately, we were able to save Walter McMillian
from execution. For me, the innocence cases
are the hardest cases. I think people
think of that the other way. They think, "Oh, must be great
to work on a case where there's
clear evidence of innocence." But I know that
our system is capable of executing innocent people, of turning a blind eye. Bright:
The injustices
in these cases literally jump out at you
when you look at 'em: the race discrimination, the trial by ambush
in many of these cases, the terrible quality of lawyers that many people who are
sentenced to death get so that really, their trial
is just a legal lynching. Stevenson:
By the 1930s and '40s, there is a growing
anti-lynching movement. And eventually
the strategy was adopted that, "We're going to end
mob lynching by telling the mob
that we'll do it for you, "we'll do it indoors, you don't
have to do it outdoors." The reliability
of these proceedings, the fairness
of these proceedings,
didn't get much better. You have these show trials that last six or seven hours, and the same outcome. We're going to execute
this person. And you see the numbers
start to rise of legal execution, but in communities of color,
it's just legal lynching. People don't realize
that the case that mobilized Rosa Parks
and Dr. King here in Montgomery
was not the bus boycott. It was actually the arrest
of a young teen who was
wrongly accused of a rape, who was taken to death row, put in the electric chair, and forced to confess. And then they used that
to convict him and sentence him to death. And Rosa Parks was outraged,
and Dr. King was outraged, and they started
asking the governor and other people to intervene, and after a couple of years of
that advocacy they were told, "Not going to do anything,"
and that young man was executed. And the pain of that
was part of the story that then gave rise to
the civil rights movement. But it was about
this continuum of presuming black people guilty
and dangerous, no matter
what the evidence. It was about the way
our criminal justice system
functions. It was about lynching
and its legacy. Walter McMillian:
We, uh, we farmed, used to farm all that land
back there, boy. We used to farm the land, just a plow with a mule. My mama and my older brothers
and things. Then when I got older,
I took over, and my other brother,
he took over. That kept generations,
it kept going. Plenty of people plant
a lot of cotton around here. Stevenson:
Walter McMillian was born in a region of Alabama that had been part of
the plantation economy. When emancipation came,
these formerly enslaved people became sharecroppers
and tenant farmers, and that's what his family did. They didn't own the land
they lived on, it was a brutal,
difficult life. McMillian:
I started workin'-- I started workin' about,
oh, boy, I think I was somewhere
around about seven, about seven, eight years old,
something like that. Stevenson:
When Mr. McMillian
got out of prison, he wanted to just
resume his life. But he was never able
to get fully settled. He came and lived with me
for a while, he lived with his daughter,
he lived with his sister. Stevenson:
I think he was traumatized by his time on death row... and I don't think
there was really any way to fully recover from that. See, you just,
you're thinkin' about-- you always just be
lookin' back all the time. You know this man
done this to you, and he might do it again. ( crying softly ) It's rough, I'll tell you. Stevenson:
It didn't take long before the burden
of his incarceration began to manifest itself
with dementia. He began to show symptoms
of a kind of dementia that many doctors link
with trauma. I think that
our history of lynching casts a shadow over
the modern death penalty. And the cases of people
like Walter McMillian show the power of that shadow
to be destructive. We've now had 156 people
proved innocent after being sentenced to death. With less than 1500 executions, that means that for every ten
people that we execute, we've now proved
one innocent person
on death row. It's a shocking rate of error. Well, we tolerate that error because we have
a consciousness that says what happens to those people
isn't really that bad. It's the same consciousness
that allowed us to tolerate thousands of lynchings. And to understand
the consciousness that would give rise to that,
you have to remember how the courts
had created this idea that these black people
are not people, they're not fully human. And so in that sense, 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. I think that this line
is a very real one. And if we don't recognize
that line, we're not going to see the way
that line will continue to claim lives unfairly. ( playing piano ) ( continues playing ) For me, music is therapy,
it's a place to go. It's the only thing I do that takes me
completely out of my head. Like, when I try to exercise
or something, I'm still processing things, but when I play, usually,
I'm not thinking about anything. And so for me it's been
a real comfort, a real aid, in managing the challenges
that the kind of work we do
can create. Yeah. Sanneh:
Bryan is the work, there's no way
to separate him from the work. It's his full self
that he pours into it. He's gone on a path that almost
nobody else would have chosen, and he's done it at times that have been
incredibly lonely. Susskind:
After a long day,
he's getting calls, multiple calls, every night, from clients in prison
who have his home phone number. Some of these folks
don't have family members, and there's no one
in the world. On a Sunday morning, when most
of us are takin' a break... he'll call me from the road, he'll be driving to a prison to see an old client. Ya know, the client
doesn't need a legal visit, it's just basically,
he's just, as a friend, going to visit somebody just
so that they can get a visit. Christy:
For the most part,
he's on the go. I always say to him, in a mother voice, you know, "Eat. Rest your body.
Take time for yourself." You know, Howard and Bryan, we don't see each other
as much as we should. We have a bond
and a connection, it feels always right, and when we do get together
it's wonderful. ( chatter ) ( piano playing ) Christy:
Oh, now you get it!
( laughing ) ( Bryan continues playing ) ( stops playing, laughs ) That's a good one. Howard:
My oldest son, Bryan, who's named after his uncle, his mother and I
kind of agreed that we thought Bryan might
not have time for a family. And one of the reasons
we named him after his uncle was envisioning him just always
working and sacrificing that. Christy:
Let's do a Stevie Wonder song. - The kids know-- Oh, no, he's--
- ( Bryan playing ragtime ) Howard:
I used to worry about it
all the time. You know, needing his own
downtime, his own family, his own space. But, um, he's convinced us
that he's good. - ( chatter )
- I think I want to be a-- a-- - A designer.
- Designer. Bryan:
Oh, beautiful! Scientist, inventor,
adventurer, - game-maker...
- Christy: That's a lot. And the richest
and most famous man
in the world. - Besides you.
- Oh, wow, well, you'll-- you'll definitely
be able to be richer, that's for sure. Um... Stevenson:
I've never really
spent a lot of time thinking about
what I don't have. There are times, obviously,
when you feel like you're-- you have a different life,
I have a different life,
you have a different situation. I love children,
I love my nieces and my nephews and all of that. But it never feels to me-- It's never felt
like a sacrifice. It just feels like, you know, I have the opportunity
to do these amazing things
with amazing people, and I feel really privileged
to do that. ( chatter ) Hinton:
I wrote Mr. Stevenson a letter. I said, "Mr. Stevenson,
I would like for you
to become my lawyer, but before you say yes or no, all I ask is that
you read my transcript." I said, "And if you find one
thing in my transcript that points to my guilt, do not
worry about becoming my lawyer. Stevenson:
When I met Anthony Ray Hinton, years after we'd won freedom
for Walter McMillian, it was very sobering for me, because he was actually
on death row before Walter McMillian. Walter did six years
on death row before
he was released. Mr. Hinton had already been
on death row for 14 years
before I met him. And the evidence of his
innocence was just as dramatic, so we immediately
start working on the case. Judge McMillan:
Mr. Stevenson,
we'll be equally as lenient on the time considerations
of your argument. Thank you, thank you,
Chief Judge McMillan. I represent the petitioner in
this matter, Anthony Ray Hinton. Let me first
start out by saying that this is
an extraordinary case. We have alleged
in the court below, as we have represented
to this court, that Mr. Hinton is innocent. Hinton:
I said, "Mr. Stevenson, if no two guns is alike," I said, "I know that the state
of Alabama is telling a lie." I said, "I need you to hire
a ballistics expert," and I said, "I need you
to get a Southern white man." I said, "All of my life
I lived in the South, and I know how the South work." I said, "They only gonna believe
one of their own. I need that Southern white man
to just tell the truth." Stevenson:
We have now alleged that we have done testing by some of the best experts
in this country, that establish that
there is no match between this weapon
and the projectiles. Stevenson:
Once we got involved
and we were able to get the best gun experts
in the country
to look at the evidence, and they quickly concluded
that this gun was not the weapon
that was used in these murders, we thought we could get
a quick resolution. Judge McMillan:
Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. I'd like to thank both counsels for your excellent
presentations. At this time, the court will be
in recess for five minutes. Bailiff:
All rise. Hinton:
We took this new evidence
to the Attorney General, whose name at that time
was Bill Pryor, and asked him
to reexamine the bullets. His staff was quoted as saying, "It would be a waste
of the taxpayer money, and it would be a waste
of his time." And although it would
only take one hour, that is one hour that
he was not willing to take. And for not doing his job, George W. Bush appointed him to
a federal lifetime appointment. Sixteen years went by, three different
attorney generals. My life was not worth one hour. My life worth
was not worth the truth. Stevenson:
There would be a lot of times when the weight of all of this would get to both of us. You know, you keep hoping that
this is going to be the month and we'd get a ruling, and it
wasn't the ruling we needed. And I just think your capacity
to maintain hope in the face of such irrational
resistance is challenged. You know, there would be days
when he'd say, "I just don't know how much
longer I can do this." And year after year went by. Bright:
There's a huge difference
between law and justice. Law says that if a person misses
a deadline by a day, even though
it's an innocent mistake, that person is gonna be denied
any relief in the court. That's not justice. Justice would say: Let's look
and see what happened and do the right thing. Susskind:
The most difficult thing,
at least for me, is, I can file motions,
I can appeal losses, I can challenge your conviction,
challenge your sentence. That's what I have to offer
as a lawyer. But then ultimately no court
agrees with you that there's an injustice
in the case and your client gets executed. It actually happened
to three of my clients in a row, all within a one-year period. You want to just lean out
the window and scream, "Does anyone see
what's happening here?" Stevenson:
In 2009, we got involved
in a case of a man who didn't have a lawyer, who was scheduled to be executed
in 30 days. This was after
the court had ruled,
in Atkins vs. Virginia, that you can't execute
the intellectually disabled. And it turned out
this man did suffer from
intellectual disability. So I went to the trial court
and said, "You can't execute him."
But the trial court said, "Too late, somebody should have
raised that years ago." I went to the state court,
they said, "Too late." The appeals court said,
"Too late." The federal court said,
"Too late." We got to the day
of the execution and I was waiting on a ruling from the United States
Supreme Court. Finally the call came, and the ruling was that our
motion for a stay of execution was due to be denied. And I then had to do
the hardest thing I do
in my job. I got on the phone
and I told this man, "I'm so sorry, but I can't stop
this execution." And then the man did the thing that I dread the most
in my work: He started to cry. And then he tried
to say something to me, but in addition to being
intellectually disabled, he had a speech impediment
and he began to stutter. And in this moment, he kept
trying to say something, and he just couldn't
get a word out. And I didn't know what to say,
I just was holding the phone. And my mind began to wander... and I remembered going
to church one Sunday
when I was a little boy. My mom had taken me to church. I remembered being in church
talking to my friends and seeing this
little skinny kid
I'd never seen before. I asked that little boy,
I said, "What's your name?
Where are you from?" And I remembered how
that little boy also couldn't
get his words out, and he started to stutter. And then I remembered:
I laughed. And my mom saw me
laughing at this little boy and she came over
and she grabbed me by the arm and she pulled me aside... and she said, "Bryan,
don't you ever do that. Now you go back over there
and you tell that little boy
you're sorry. After you tell that little boy
you're sorry, I want you to hug
that little boy. After you hug that little boy, I want you to tell
that little boy you love him." And on the night
of this execution
what I remembered was walking over
to this little boy and saying, "Look, man, you know,
well, you know, I'm sorry." And then I remember
lunging at him and giving him my little boy
version of a man hug, and then I remember trying to
say to this child as insincerely
as I possibly could, I said, "Look, man, you know,
you know, I don't know, well,
you know, well, um, I love you." And what I'd forgotten was how
that little boy hugged me back. And then I remembered
how he whispered flawlessly
in my ear, he said, "I love you too." I was holding the phone,
and tears were running
down my face. Finally, my client
got his words out. He said, "Mr. Stevenson,
I want to thank you
for representing me." And then he said,
"I want to thank you
for fighting for me." And the last thing
that man said to me, he said, "Mr. Stevenson, I love you
for trying to save my life." He hung up the phone,
they pulled him away, they strapped him to a gurney,
and they executed him. I hung up the phone and I said,
"I can't do this anymore." I was sitting there in agony thinking about why
I do what I do. I kept thinking about
how broken he was. My clients have been broken by
poverty, broken by disability, broken by trauma, broken
by bias and discrimination. But what I realized that night that I had never
realized before, is that I do what I do
because I'm broken too. Stevenson:
People sometimes say to me, "Oh, it must be overwhelming
and difficult to represent people
on death row, to be fighting against
the system," and it is. The truth is that if you stand
next to the condemned, if you fight for the poor, if you push against systems
that are rooted and heavy, if you keep pushing
and you keep fighting and you keep doing,
you're going to get broken. What I realized is that I am
part of the broken community. And when you realize that,
you don't have a choice in standing up for
the rights of the other broken. And so when I feel overwhelmed,
I go into the conference room and I look out the window
and I think about the people who were working here
60 years ago trying to just
create more justice. Sometimes I go to Dexter,
Dr. King's church. We're at the heart,
even the birthplace, of the modern
civil rights movement. ( applause on archive footage ) Stevenson:
And the images that
we like to show of Dr. King are him giving
these brilliant speeches about the moral arc
of the universe. But the image that I think
best captures his courage is the image of him in
a Montgomery police station with his arm being pulled
violently behind his back, where he's being arrested
because he has organized a protest
against racial segregation. Martin Luther King Jr.:
Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of
our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested because
she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Stevenson:
When you look at our history
when it comes to race, order is a defining
characteristic. Every time it seems
that people of color have some moment of progress, there is a reaction
against that, and the reaction is usually
to criminalize and use the criminal
justice system to reshape, redefine what's just happened. So when people start
protesting, what do we do?
We call them criminals. Dr. King is convicted
of a crime for organizing
the Montgomery bus boycott. That frame is a constant frame
in American history. That's what gave rise
to convict leasing. What happened in the 1870s
when Reconstruction collapses, is that states immediately
began criminalizing all kinds of conduct
by black people that they would never
criminalize for white people. Oh, if six black people
are together after dark, that's a crime. If black people try to get a job
without a letter from their former slave owner,
that's a crime. They start arresting
people of color and convicting them
of these made-up crimes, and they were leased
to commercial entities. It was a new kind
of enslavement. The label "slave" is replaced
with the label "criminal." But it created the same ability to oppress and to control. Using crime and criminality has been an effective tool
throughout. So, in the 1950s and '60s, when people start
protesting and marching, they're criminalized. And it is
the criminal justice system, it is those who wear uniforms, that become the foot soldiers of this effort to sustain
racial inequality. President Richard Nixon:
When the nation with
the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued
by unprecedented lawlessness, then it's time
for new leadership for the United States
of America! ( crowd cheering ) ( sirens wailing ) Stevenson:
When Richard Nixon
claims power, he uses the same trope: "We've got to have
law and order." Nixon:
And to those who say
that law and order is a code word for racism, our goal is justice--
justice for every American. My car hasn't been involved
in no burglary. Stevenson:
As we move into the 1970s, everybody is talking about
getting tough on crime, and we commit now to build a new institution that
will operate that control, and we're gonna call it
mass incarceration. And the prison population
begins to grow. We go from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. We become the society
with the highest rate of
incarceration in the world. We've allowed
the criminal justice system
to be the repository of what we do with our rage,
our anger, our frustration, when we've had
moments of progress with regard to civil rights
and racial justice. We do it to everybody.
We do it to women. The percentage of women
going to jails and prisons has increased 646%
over the last 25 years. We do it to children. We began lowering
the minimum age for trying children as adults. We did it to the mentally ill,
people with disabilities. We spent $6 billion
on jails and prisons in 1980, $80 billion last year. And the people who profit
from that industry have a perverse incentive to
make sure no one is released. And the more people
we incarcerate, the more money they make. And it's not unlike
the economic dynamic that allowed us
to keep enslaving people. It's the reason
why this statistic about one in three
black male babies going to jail or prison is an indictment on this country and our failure to recognize
this historical legacy. Stevenson:
My grandparents were from
Caroline County, Virginia. But in the early 20th century, they, along with
lots of other black people, went north, and ended up
in Philadelphia, and that's where
my mother was raised. My grandfather ended up
living in the projects in South Philadelphia, and when he was 86 years old, some young kids broke in
and tried to steal his TV, and he said "No,"
and he was stabbed to death, he was a murder victim. I was 16 years old. I saw the pain and anguish
that created in our family. The question we asked was:
"Why? Why did this happen? Why would these young kids
act like that?" When I go into poor communities
and I sit down with young boys and I try to have an honest
conversation with them, they'll say, "Mr. Stevenson, I know I'm gonna be in prison
by the time I'm 21." 'Cause they're living
in communities where 80% of the young men of color
end up in jail or prison. And so they say to me,
"Mr. Stevenson, I've got to
go out here and get mine while I can." But a bigger question is, why was my grandfather
in South Philadelphia living in the projects
in his mid-80s? And that has a lot to do
with this history. It has a lot to do
with that era of lynching. It's why 6 million black people
fled the American South in the first half
of the 20th century in one of the largest mass
migrations in world history. The black people in Cleveland,
the black people in Chicago, the black people in Detroit,
in Los Angeles, in Philadelphia,
in Boston, in New York, came to these communities as
refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. ( onlookers shouting ) Stevenson:
Those communities
have never been given the opportunity to recover in the way that
I think they should. And that creates
conditions today that are very problematic. What's happening
to too many of our children
in these communities where people fled
from violence and terror is that they're
still being terrorized. Yeah,
no guns this time. Stevenson:
They live
in violent neighborhoods, they go to violent schools, and by the time they're five, they actually have
a trauma disorder. Threat and menace
becomes a defining reality
in the lives of these children, and when you're constantly
dealing with that year
after year after year, at the age of eight if somebody
comes to you and says, "Hey, I got a drug,
why don't you try this?" And for the first time in
your life you have three hours where you don't feel threatened
and menaced, what do you want? You want more of that drug. And if somebody
at 10 or 11 says, "Hey, man, why don't you
join our gang, we're gonna help you fight
all of these forces that are threatening
and menacing you, and you say, "Yeah," instead of seeing that choice as a choice that
that's a bad kid, we ought to see that choice as
a choice of a larger problem. We've got 13 states
in this country with no minimum age for
trying a child as an adult. I've represented
nine- and ten-year-old kids facing 60- and 70-year
prison sentences. We started putting
13-year-old children in prison with sentences of life
imprisonment without parole, we've condemned them to die
at 13 and 14. Sanneh:
I came to this work
through the death penalty, and so I think I felt that I emotionally
was prepared for anything. One of the first cases
I worked on with a young teenager, I went and drove
to a county jail after hearing from a relative that they had a nephew
who'd been arrested, charged with a felony and was
being held in the adult prison. I got there, and there was this 14-year-old
African American kid in the hallway chained to a pole in an enormous orange jumpsuit that was so big for him it was
completely covering his hands. And I remember just the sight
of all these people coming and going around him... just completely unaffected
by that. It's the first time
I remember being in a prison and really having
to dig my nails into myself to prevent myself from crying. Stevenson:
In 2005, a case called
Roper vs. Simmons, the Supreme Court struck down
the death penalty for children. Alabama had one of the largest juvenile populations
on death row, that when that decision
came down, we started talking with them
about the fact that they weren't
going to be executed. I think some of us
expected joy and relief, but what we got instead was, "I'm just getting a different
kind of death sentence. I'm going to die in prison
through incarceration rather than execution." It made us start
to think more critically about the propriety
of a death-in-prison sentence for any child. We impose life without parole
on people we think
will never change, are beyond redemption and hope. All children change. They grow. And to condemn them
at any point during that process
seems unfair. Newscaster 1:
The Supreme Court heard
arguments today about the propriety
of imposing life sentences on some of the country's
youngest criminals for crimes that
do not involve murder. Do they belong
behind bars forever? Or should they have a chance,
someday, at freedom? Newscaster 2:
The cases before the court
today were both from Florida, a defendant who was 13 when
he raped a 72-year-old woman and a 16-year-old who committed
armed burglary and assault. We're very hopeful that we can
create the kind of jurisprudence that sentences children
rationally and appropriately, and we concede that some kids
are gonna have to be punished, and have to be sent to prison, but we don't believe
that any child, particularly a child of 13, should ever be condemned
to die in prison. And we'll wait to see
what the court says. What about the argument
that you don't know what the child's
going to become? Well, I think that's right,
we don't know, but we do know that when
we intervene with children our chance of success
is so much greater than when we intervene
with adults. Which is why we shouldn't
condemn children in the way
that we condemn adults. My brother colleague is here, I'll turn things over to him
at this point. Bright:
One of Bryan's great gifts is to be able to see how
you can take one body of law and apply it somewhere else. He used the death penalty law and he started challenging
these life-without-parole
sentencings for children, that that no matter what
somebody does, you have to take into account
their youthfulness, their lack of maturity,
lack of judgement, and all those things, in trying to come up
with a sentence that's proportionate
to the crime. Stevenson:
We challenged life
without parole for kids who had been convicted
of non-homicide offenses. And then we challenged
mandatory life-without-parole
sentences for any child, where the court
doesn't even consider the fact that we're talking about
a 15-year-old or 16-year-old or 17-year-old. And we won these cases
at the U.S. Supreme Court. To punish people
constitutionally we have to be committed
to fairness, we have to be committed
to reliability, and we have to be committed
to punishments that are humane. Because how we punish, how we treat the disfavored, the marginalized, the poor, the condemned,
the incarcerated, doesn't just say
something about them; it says something about us too. I really believe
it's the broken among us that can teach us the way
compassion is supposed to work. It's the broken
that can teach us the way mercy
is supposed to work. It's the broken
that can show us the power of redemption
and justice. - ( camera shutters clicking )
- ( reporters clamoring ) Ray! Ray! ( wailing ) - Oh, my God!
- Ray! Oh, I love you so much! Oh, my God, Ray! Oh! ( sobbing ) Oh, Lord. Thank you, Jesus! Oh, Ray, I love you. Oh, Lord. ( sobbing ) We wanna thank
all of y'all for bein' here. This is a very, very happy day. It's a tragic day too, because
Mr. Hinton has spent 30 years
locked in a five-by-eight cell where the State of Alabama
tried to kill him every day. His case, in my judgement,
is a case study in what's wrong with our system. He was convicted
because he's poor. We have a system that treats you
better if you're rich and guilty than if you're
poor and innocent,
and his case proves it. We have a system that is
compromised by racial bias,
and his case proved it. We have a system
that doesn't do the right thing when the right thing
is apparent. A prosecutor should have
done these tests years ago, and they didn't,
and that's a shame. Hinton:
One day Bryan
came to the prison. He said, "Ray,
the judges in Alabama... just not gonna do
the right thing. I want to take your case to the United States
Supreme Court." Two years later,
the United States Supreme Court did something that
it had never done in the history
of the court: All nine judges ruled that
I was entitled to a new trial. ( cameras clicking,
onlookers chattering ) Stevenson:
Right before
Mr. Hinton was released, we were talking. He was telling me,
"I can't hate people. I don't want to stay in a prison
when I leave here." He said, "It's gonna be hard, but I think
I've actually decided that I'm going to forgive." Hinton:
Every day I have to
live with the fact that I lost 30 years
of my life. The system,
some people would say, "It worked because you got out." And to those people I say, "If the system had worked,
I never would've went in." Lester Bailey:
To the west and to the east, to the north
and to the south... Hinton:
I'm not so much
worried about the system as I'm worryin'
about the people
that control the system. Preacher:
What I want to use for
a subject this morning is, bad things happen
to good people. - Amen.
- Bad things
happen to good people. Hinton:
Nobody in the state of Alabama, governor, lieutenant governor, senators... have had the decency to say, "Mr. Hinton, we're sorry." I truly don't want to believe that they haven't apologized because of the color
of my skin. I guess men of power feel that they don't
have to apologize to a man of no power. ( water running,
dishes clattering ) Stevenson:
We've got a political culture
where our politicians think that if they say "I'm sorry,"
that makes them look weak. I actually think being willing
to say "I'm sorry" when you've made a mistake is how you become strong. You show me two people who
have been in love for 50 years, I'll show you two people
who have learned how to
apologize to one another, to navigate the hardships,
the complexities, to show humility
when they offend. And I don't think we've done
much thinking about that in this country. I feel like we haven't learned
collectively to apologize. And when I think
about the courts, I don't think that
they're excluded. I think the United States
Supreme Court should apologize for its role, its complicity, in fostering a society
that has excluded, marginalized and brutalized people of color
for two centuries. I still believe in
the rule of law. I just have come to recognize
that we're not going to achieve
the justice that we need, the equality we seek,
if we stay in the courts alone. The people with power
are unwilling to get proximate. They won't do
uncomfortable things. ( chatter ) I remember
when I was a little boy, my grandmother
would come up to me and she'd give me these hugs and she'd squeeze me so tightly I thought she was
trying to hurt me. My grandmother would see me
an hour later and she'd say, "Bryan, do you still
feel me hugging you?" And if I said no,
she would jump on me again. She wanted me to understand what proximity can mean,
how it can empower you. My grandmother was an expert in fostering reflection. And because
she was the daughter
of enslaved people, she understood
the power of narrative. Her father would talk to her
every day about what he went
through as an enslaved person. And she had these various
strategies and tactics for getting me
to understand things. One of the things she did
when I was younger, she said, "We're gonna go
to Bowling Green, Virginia." She said,
"Bring your best suit." We got down there,
it was the middle
of the summer, a hot day. We start walking down
this dirt road. I said, "Mama,
where are we going?" She said, "Don't worry." We got to this field and there was a shack
in the middle of the field. She said, "We're gonna
go inside this shack," and when we go
inside this shack, you're gonna hear something."
I said, "OK." I was standing in there,
and I couldn't hear anything. And then I noticed
that my grandmother was crying. I'd never seen her cry before. And when she started crying,
I started crying. She squeezed my hand
and she said, "Stop crying." I said,
"But I didn't hear anything." She said, "Yes, you did." I said, "No, Mama,
I didn't hear anything."
She said, "Yes, you did." I moved to Montgomery in part because
that's where the courts were. At the time when I moved here, I didn't know about the history
of the slave trade. This was a community shaped by slavery... and when I started
realizing that, things began to change. I'll sometimes walk
down to the river, which was a portal for
the domestic slave trade. And I was sitting down there
one day thinking about my grandmother. That shack was the slave cabin
where her father was born. And all of a sudden,
sitting there, it felt like I could hear
the sounds of enslaved people
coming into that river. And I understood what
my grandmother was teaching me. I can hear it. When I go into jails
and prisons, there's a sound. And it's the sound
of suffering. It's the sound of agony.
It's the sound of misery. And when you hear that misery, when you understand that,
it will push you to do things that you won't otherwise
be able to do. There's a history
of untold cruelty that hides in silence
in this country. And I think there are things
we can hear in these spaces that can motivate us. ( chatter ) Stevenson:
We are so thrilled, so thrilled that
so many of you are here. We think something really
important has to happen
in this country. We think we've got to change
the narrative when it comes to race
and racial inequality. I don't believe that
people who live in Alabama, I don't think that people
who live in America, are free. We're going to ask you
to do something brave today. We're gonna ask you
to go to lynching sites
and bear witness. We're gonna ask you
to go to lynching sites and recover
a part of this history
that has been hidden. We're going to give you jars, and we're going to ask you
to go to these sites and to put the soil in the jar and to honor and remember the lives of
these victims lost. When you go into these sites, sometimes they're uncomfortable. They're places
that feel very desolate, they're places that feel
even a little menacing. And so, it is in many ways an act of courage and bravery
to go back and do it. ( rain pattering ) Boy:
On January 2nd, 1901, a black man named Louis McAdams
was lynched near Wilsonville. Mr. McAdams had been accused of attempting to murder
a prominent white merchant. The vast majority
of documented lynch victims never had a chance
to stand trial for their alleged crimes... and like Mr. McAdams, took the presumption
of innocence with them
to the grave. Man:
Be careful. Stevenson:
When we bring these jars
of soil into a space like this and we put them on display,
we just make tangible, we make visible, this history
of terror and suffering, and we would resurrect
the lives of these people who have been forgotten, who were never honored,
who were never protected. When I see the jar,
it tells its own story. There's a variation in color, down on the Gulf Coast,
where its sandy and light, in the Black Belt,
where it's really dark
and rich, in the northern part,
where the clay is red. There's this geographic story, but there's also a story
about our history. There's sweat in that soil, the sweat of enslaved people; there are the tears
of people who suffered when they were being
brutalized and lynched; there's the blood
of these victims. But there's also hope
in that soil. People say to me,
"Why do you want to talk
about all these bad things? I don't want to hear about
native genocide, I don't want
to hear about slavery, I don't want to
hear about lynching, I don't want to hear
about all that bad stuff." I think there is a need
for a cultural movement that pushes us
to remember more. For me, it is
about truth-telling in a way that is designed
to get us to remember. And not just remember
for memory's sake, but get us to remember
so that we can recover, we can restore, we can fight,
to claim a different future. Stevenson:
So, there are a few things that we think have to happen
in this country that have not happened. In South Africa,
there was a recognition
that after Apartheid they could not recover without
truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda,
there is a recognition
that there won't be recovery without truth
and reconciliation. If you go to Germany today, you can't go 100 meters
in Berlin, Germany, without seeing markers
or stones or things that have been put in the ground
to mark the places where Jewish families
were abducted and taken
to the concentration camps. The Germans actually want you
to go to Auschwitz and reflect soberly
on the history of the Holocaust. In this country,
we do the opposite. Stevenson:
We're living in a region
where the landscape is littered with the iconography
of the Confederacy. When I look around and I see the iconography of the glory
of enslavement and the era of lynching, I say we're not
a very healthy place. And a lot of it emerged
in the 1950s, when people are talking
about civil rights. Students ( chanting ):
...six, eight, we don't
want to integrate! Two, four, six, eight,
we don't want to integrate! Stevenson:
This cultural movement
was designed to make it feel like it was every
white person's duty to fight against integration. Why did you come out of school? Because I'm not goin'
to school with niggers. Stevenson:
I don't think we've done
a very good job in this country of understanding how vast and intense the opposition
to civil rights was. We don't want no niggers
in school with us! Stevenson:
I think the civil rights
community won the legal battle, but the narrative battle
was won by people who were allowed
to hold onto this view that there are differences
between people who are black
and people who are white. Stevenson:
And that's why I think this
narrative of racial difference survived the civil rights era. I think we have to pay attention
to the narrative battle. We've got to do better
at creating a narrative that pushes us
into a new place. I don't think we've created
many places in America where we tell
the history of slavery or the history of lynching,
the history of segregation in a way
that motivates everybody-- black, white,
brown, young, old-- to feel inspired to say,
"Never again." And that's the genesis
behind this effort that we're now engaged in to build a memorial
and to build a museum. Stevenson:
We divide the museum into eras. You have Era One,
which is on slavery, Era Two, which is on lynching, Era Three,
which is on segregation, and Era Four on
mass incarceration. We call this a narrative museum because on this wall
we actually present a thesis, a story, about the history of
racial inequality in America. Stevenson:
I want there to be repair
in this country not just for
communities of color that have been victimized by
bigotry and discrimination, I want it to be for all of us. I don't think we can get free until we're willing to tell
the truth about our history. I do believe in truth
and reconciliation, I just think that truth and
reconciliation is sequential, that you can't have
the reconciliation
without the truth. I feel like
we're doing something
important in Montgomery. It is a place where,
if we can show that truth
can set us free... that means we can
probably do it anywhere. ( indistinct chatter ) Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey! ( laughter, chatter ) Stevenson:
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Stevenson:
You know, my grandmother died
when I was college, it was before I made any
decision to go to law school. And I think if my grandmother
gave me anything, she gave me the confidence to
believe things I haven't seen. I'd never met a lawyer before, I certainly never met
a black lawyer before. So I had to believe
I could be one, even though
I had never seen one. We had to believe we could
create an institution that
could help condemned prisoners in a state that was very
hostile to condemned prisoners. We had to believe
we could build a museum and create a national memorial that honors thousands
of victims of lynchings, even though there wasn't
really precedent for that. ( crowd applauding, cheering ) Stevenson:
Tonight we are taking
this broken history, this denial of inequality
and injustice, and we're trying
to do something with it. Montgomery is not a perfect
place, it's a broken place, because we haven't done
all the things we need to do
to get to justice. But I am persuaded tonight
that we can do it. And tonight I want you
to join us in making the beginning of this movement,
this legacy museum, this memorial
for peace and justice, more than a monument,
more than a statue,
more than a place. We want you to help us
make it a movement. We want to create something
that is lasting and changing, and we believe tonight
that if we believe in freedom, if we believe in love, we can create
a more just society. I want to thank all of you for being with us,
standing with us, fighting for us, but mostly,
staying with us, as we try to create
a better tomorrow. Stevenson:
God, we want every heart,
every spirit, every mind, every soul
that walks through this place to remember. But we don't want them
to just remember, we want them to be inspired,
we want them to have hope, we want them to have courage, we want them to have faith. When they leave this place,
we want grace and mercy and love
to order their steps. Thank you, God bless you, please be with us always. ( all applauding ) Stevenson:
We have a monument
for every county in America where a lynching took place. And we have a replica
of each of those monuments at the memorial site. And we're asking communities
to organize and come and claim
their monument and bring it back
to their community. There are hundreds of lynchings where thousands of people
were complicit, were involved. Those lynchings represent
a particular need for communities to say more,
to do more, to memorialize these spots, to commit to
protecting themselves from that legacy
perpetuating racial bias
for another generation. I believe we're all more than the worst thing
we've ever done. We are a slave state,
but we're more than slavers. We are a lynching state,
but we're more than lynchers. We're a segregation state,
but that's not all we are. The other things we are create an opportunity to
do things that are restorative, that are rehabilitative,
that are redemptive, that create possibilities
of reconciliation and repair. I get frustrated when I hear
people talk about how "If I had been living
during the time of slavery, of course I would have been
an abolitionist." And most people think that if
they had been living when mobs
were gathering to lynch black people
on the courthouse lawn, they would have said something. Everybody imagines that if they
were in Alabama in the 1960s they would have been
marching with Dr. King. And the truth of it is, I don't think
you can claim that if today you are watching
these systems be created that are incarcerating
millions of people, throwing away the lives
of millions of people, destroying communities,
and you're doing nothing. I think there's
something better waiting for us
in this country than another century
of conflict and tension and burden, because we won't
face the legacy of our past. I think it's important
that we understand all the brutal,
all the ugly details, because those are the things
that actually give rise to what might allow us
to one day claim something
really beautiful. We've been 'buked And we've been scorned We been talked about Sure as you' born But we'll never Turn back No, we'll never Turn back Until we've all Been freed And we have Equality We have hung Our heads And cried For all those Like Lee Who died Died for you And died for me Died for the cause Of equality But we'll never Turn back No, we'll never Turn back Until we've all Been freed And we have Equality And we have Equality