Bryan Stevenson on His ‘Not Entirely Rational’ Quest for Justice

Bryan Stevenson. Photo: Nick Frontiero/Courtesy of HBO

Before I meet with Bryan Stevenson, I tour the museum he opened around the corner from his office. The heat in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, is more Arizona suburb than Gulf riverfront today, but thankfully, the Legacy Museum’s employees resist the impulse to blast subzero air conditioning to compensate. The museum has been operating for more than a year now. Though its subject is epic in scope — black history “from slavery to mass incarceration” — its most arresting feature is the row of booths nestled in the back corner. Beyond the slave-auction advertisements, lynching photos, and Jim Crow–era signs barring “Colored” entry to everything from bus depots to diners stands an approximation of a modern-day prison visitation center.

Each booth has a phone and a black leather stool in front of it and contains a screen with a life-sized video recording of a formerly incarcerated person in prison grays. Pick up the receiver and you can listen to them speak. They do so in plain and declarative sentences about prison life — the vindictive guards, the dwindling family visits, the hopelessness of a life where your worst mistake is a pretext for the disavowal of your humanity. Look to the nearest wall and you can see letters from prisoners to their attorneys — in some cases, written to Stevenson himself. Some are from children, scrawled on notebook paper that, in a kinder world, might have been used for homework assignments. Together they amount to an extended plea for mercy, each more plaintive than the last in its yearning for contact with a person who means them no harm.

“I appreciate your observations about the museum, because we were very motivated to make it first-person,” Stevenson tells me. We’re sitting across a table from one another in an eerily quiet conference room. Were he not dressed in funereal black and white, he’d look like a Buddhist monk: bald, clean-shaven, and serene, with a face that could be anywhere from 35 to 65 years old. (He’s 59.) Stevenson is one of the most accomplished defense attorneys in the country. For more than 30 years, he has represented people on death row and children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Alabama. He and his staff at the Equal Justice Initiative — the Montgomery-based criminal-defense organization he founded in 1989, whose offices we’re currently sitting in — have won reversals, relief, or release for over 135 death-row prisoners. He has argued and won five cases before the United States Supreme Court.

The Legacy Museum represents something of a late-career pivot for the veteran attorney. Ten years ago, Stevenson came to believe that Brown v. Board of Education would’ve been decided differently in 2008 than it was in 1954. “I don’t think the Supreme Court would do it,” he says of the landmark ruling that outlawed de jure school segregation. “We’re not sufficiently committed to equal justice under law.” The problem he identified was public sentiment. People did not fully appreciate the history behind the civil-rights gains that, he believed, the courts were becoming less interested in protecting. So Stevenson became a storyteller. He hopped on the lecture circuit and gave a TED Talk about the death penalty. He published a New York Times–best-selling memoir in 2014, titled Just Mercy. He has an HBO documentary, True Justice, about his life and work airing on June 26. In his efforts to reshape the public’s understanding of how racism affects society and criminal justice, Stevenson and his staff came up with two concepts that, last year, debuted as major cultural institutions: the Legacy Museum, which I visited before our meeting; and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, billed as the first monument to Americans killed by lynching, which preserves on iron slabs the names of more than 4,000 black victims murdered between 1877 and 1950.

Stevenson’s knack for galvanizing narratives is as evident in these facilities as it is when he speaks in public. In talks to large audiences, he dances fluidly between the measured intonation of a therapist and the soaring rhetorical fervor of a preacher. (He grew up in the black church in rural Delaware.) He has a wealth of personal anecdotes to illustrate his expertise and advance his provocative arguments. To make his case against the death penalty, Stevenson tells of a German scholar who once explained to him that her government could never execute people because the Holocaust had nullified its moral legitimacy to do so. (Stevenson thinks America’s treatment of black people should prompt the same conclusion here.) To make his case for “getting close” to the condemned and learning more about their lives, Stevenson recalls delivering what seemed like bad news to a prisoner, back when he was a young lawyer with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee: His organization hadn’t been able to stay the man’s execution, but he wouldn’t be killed within the next year. To Stevenson’s surprise, the man was ecstatic. Even as the prison guards tightened his shackles to return him to his cell, the man burst into song: “A higher plane, that I have found, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

One-on-one, Stevenson is warm, gracious, and relentlessly on-message — though not so much that he evades my questions. He approaches each query as an opportunity to expand its premise, challenge its assumptions, or expose whom it lets off the hook. I ask if he believes that prisoners should have the right to vote — a position that Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed in April. “What’s interesting to me is how everybody tries to reduce the issue to something like a litmus test,” he replies. “It’s not even about the prisoners and the right. It’s about all of the optics of, ‘Where are you on this kind of spectrum?’ And I guess that’s sort of what troubles me. Because the closer you are with imprisoned people, or even people coming out of jails and prisons, the more you can actually begin to understand what are the needs, what are the issues, what are the priorities. And I just would love all of the candidates to get closer to populations of imprisoned people.”

Barriers to such proximity abound — as evidenced in places like Stevenson’s own Legacy Museum. The testimony from prisoners showcased in the booths in the back corner are conspicuous, in part, because such testimony rarely sees daylight. That is by design. “That personal account is so powerful that there is always a reaction against, to limit it,” Stevenson says. In prisons today, such repression includes security crackdowns that target communication. A nationwide prison strike last summer drew minimal coverage in part because there were few channels for getting the word out. In-person visits are being increasingly restricted and replaced by glitchy and exorbitantly priced video calls. Prisoners turn to contraband cell phones to maintain their relationships, prompting alarmist press coverage and administrative hand-wringing. “Prison officials say, ‘Oh, it’s dangerous. They can arrange hits and blah, blah, blah,’” Stevenson says. “It is such a misguided and inaccurate portrayal. If you got every prisoner’s phone out and looked into it, they’re calling their mom, they’re calling their sisters, they’re calling their brothers.”

But prisoners’ narrowing options for communicating seems an especially pressing concern for Stevenson, whose narrative work is so enriched by their stories and the often shocking details therein. He remains undaunted. He points to The Gulag Archipelago — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 book about Soviet prisons — as an example of how irrepressible such stories are. “You’re not going to be able to silence something as compelling as the sort of oppression that I see,” he says. This strikes me as a dubious leap of faith — at odds, at least in theory, with the reality that few restrictions exist on how opaque administrators can make prisons if they want to. “I think my hope is not entirely rational,” he concedes when pressed. “I guess it’s just rooted in this belief that truth crushed to earth ultimately rises again.” Irrational belief is not a sentiment that I expect him to admit, but he’s right: Belief in the unlikely, even the unseen, is essential to thinking that stories from behind bars will inevitably reach daylight. It is a degree of faith echoed in the biblical metaphors that Stevenson deploys in his speeches, that inform his calls for America’s moral transformation. “I don’t think you can do this work if you’re unwilling to believe things you haven’t seen,” Stevenson says. “And for many people that’s what— faith creates that relationship.”

Faith allows him to imagine an Alabama that does not exist. It keeps at bay the indifference of the cosmos and fuels his conviction in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Faith, Stevenson says, is why he’s here: “It wouldn’t make sense for me to be in Alabama if I didn’t believe.” Indeed, his adoptive home state is both an outlier and exemplar of the excesses of mass imprisonment and capital punishment. Like much of America, Alabama imprisons and executes black people at wildly disproportionate rates. Unlike most of the country, it executed prisoners overall at higher rates per capita than all but five other states between 1976 and 2015. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults automatically for some crimes here, including burglary. Stevenson’s efforts to transform the status quo have met roadblocks at every turn. But imposing though they are, the signs keep pointing him to what he would call higher ground, fueling his sense of belief. “I have, now, 30 years of amazing things that have happened that reinforced that belief,” he says, before departing for another engagement. “I can see it’s not entirely scientific and rational. But I do think it’s entirely well-founded.”

Bryan Stevenson’s ‘Not Entirely Rational’ Quest for Justice