On Sunday, I spoke by phone with Bryan Stevenson, a civil-rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human-rights organization that challenges convictions, advocates for criminal-justice reform and racial justice, and created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the victims of lynching and other forms of racial terror during the Jim Crow era. Stevenson, who was the subject of a Profile, by Jeffrey Toobin, in 2016, is also the author of a memoir, “Just Mercy,” which was made into a feature film last year. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Stevenson and I discussed the roots of police violence in both slavery and Jim Crow, how to change the culture of policing, and the frustration and despair behind this week’s protests.
What has been your biggest takeaway from the past week?
We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.
That ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is the legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged. This is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved. Next month will be the hundred and fifty-fifth anniversary of when black people gathered to celebrate the end of slavery: Juneteenth. They believed they would receive the vote, and the protection of the law, and land, and opportunity, and have a chance to be full Americans. They were denied all of those things because this ideology of white supremacy would not allow Southern whites to accept them, to value them and to protect them, and so, immediately after 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment, violence broke out. We are going to be releasing a report next month on the horrendous violence that took place during Reconstruction, which blocked all of the progress.
So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view black people as equals. It has changed, but that history of violence, where we used terror and intimidation and lynching and then Jim Crow laws and then the police, created this presumption of dangerousness and guilt. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, how educated you are, where you go in this country—if you are black, or you are brown, you are going to have to navigate that presumption, and that makes encounters with the police just rife with the potential for these specific outcomes which we have seen.
How do you think our current era of criminal justice and policing is a continuation of that past?
I think the police have been the face of oppression in many ways. Even before the Civil War, law enforcement was complicit in sustaining enslavement. It was the police who were tasked with tracking down fugitive slaves from 1850 onwards in the north. After emancipation, it was law enforcement that stepped back and allowed black communities to be terrorized and victimized. We had an overthrow of government during Reconstruction, and law enforcement facilitated that. Then, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, it was law enforcement and police and our justice system that allowed people to be lynched by white mobs, sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn, and allowed the perpetrators of that terror and violence to engage in these acts of murder with impunity. They were even complicit in it. And, as courageous black people began to advocate for civil rights in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, when these older, nonviolent black Americans would literally be on their knees, praying, they were battered and bloodied by uniformed police officers. That identity of violence and oppression is not something we can ignore. We have to address it. But, rather than address it, since the nineteen-sixties, we have been trying to distract ourselves from it and not acknowledge it, and not own up to it, and all of our efforts have been compromised by this refusal to recognize that we need to radically change the culture of police.
Now, the police are an extension of our larger society, and, when we try to disconnect them from the justice system and the lawmakers and the policymakers, we don’t accurately get at it. The history of this country, when it comes to racial justice and social justice, unlike what we do in other areas, is, like, O.K., it’s 1865, we won’t enslave you and traffic you anymore, and they were forced to make that agreement. And then, after a half century of mob lynching, it’s, like, O.K., we won’t allow the mobs to pull you out of the jail and lynch you anymore. And that came after pressure. And then it was, O.K., we won’t legally block you from voting, and legally prevent you from going into restaurants and public accommodations.
But at no point was there an acknowledgement that we were wrong and we are sorry. It was always compelled, by the Union Army, by international pressure, by the federal courts, and that dynamic has meant that there is no more remorse or regret or consciousness of wrongdoing. The police don’t think they did anything wrong over the past fifty or sixty years. And so, in that respect, we have created a culture that allows our police departments to see themselves as agents of control, and that culture has to shift. And this goes beyond the dynamics of race. We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.
Do you think this situation with the policy today has a specific purpose, and what is it?
It does. But the purpose was possible because of our unwillingness to recognize the wrongfulness of this racial hierarchy. Even the abolitionists, many of whom fought to end slavery, didn’t believe in racial equality. So, if you embrace white supremacy, then you are going to use black people and exploit black people and deny black people opportunities, because it advances that purpose. And a lot of white supremacy wasn’t even “purposeful.” What was the purpose of banning interracial marriage? What was the purpose of banning black people from coming into restaurants? It was about maintaining racial hierarchy, and that presumption or narrative that black people are dangerous, that black people can’t be trusted, that black people have to be controlled. And if it didn’t have an economic value, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t purposeful. The purpose was to sustain that hierarchy.