In our society, rich and guilty is better than poor and innocent, according to Bryan Stevenson, author and activist lawyer, speaking to an audience of a thousand people at West Virginia University on the eve of the 2016 U. S. elections.
Stevenson should know. He lives in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal practice dedicated to representing the incarcerated poor. Through EJI’s efforts, over 150 death row inmates have been proven innocent and, literally, handed back their lives. The organization has defended hundreds of prisoners lacking access to public legal counsel.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” Bryan Stevenson
“Be ambitious to change the world!” Stevenson challenged, reminding his listeners – many of them students – that the academic environment tends to over-complicate the problems facing our world and make our outlook less hopeful. And while many politicians would have us angry and afraid, Stevenson doesn’t cede them any ground: “Be ambitious to create a more just and hopeful society.”
He suggests four strategies he believes are necessary toward this end:
- Be proximate to those who are marginalized (too many try to solve problems from a distance).
- Change the racial narrative that sustains inequality (confront past wrongs).
- Nourish and protect hope (no athlete or soldier succeeds without it).
- Be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable places in order to be a witness.
The Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 ended slavery and forced servitude, except as punishment for a crime. But it did not prevent the reign of terror that swept the South after Reconstruction ended, when many African Americans were effectively re-enslaved as sharecroppers, waves of refugees fled north, and lynchings were rampant throughout the South.
Though no one can belittle the gains made by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Stevenson worries about the increasing lightness of the civil rights narrative, which, he observes wryly, now reads “like a three-day carnival”: The first day, Rosa Parks sits at the front of a bus; the second, Martin Luther King leads a march on Washington; and the third, laws are changed and racism is over.
“If you get proximate to broken people and stay hopeful, you will be broken. But there is power in brokenness.” Bryan Stevenson
The reality is that, since the civil rights movement, lynching has been replaced by mass incarceration and capital punishment, disproportionately of people of color – to the point where, statistically, one in three black males born today will end up in prison. Thirty percent of black men, disenfranchised through incarceration, could not cast a vote this election season. In addition to race, Stevenson went on to cite mental illness, poverty, and the criminalization of drug addiction as contributors to the biggest prison population in history.
Stevenson’s work with the incarcerated, as well as his own experiences of racism, has convinced him that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” He and other Equal Justice Initiative lawyers have continued their crusade for justice despite death threats and bomb scares. As a result of their efforts, for example, a man arrested as a thirteen-year-old child walked free on November 10, 2016, after twenty-five years in a Florida prison. And a prisoner who had been confined for thirty years for a crime he did not commit voted in the 2016 election.
Headlines may imply that our nation is broken. Stevenson’s answer: “Stay hopeful. Hope enables you to achieve things. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. If you get proximate to broken people and stay hopeful, you will be broken. But there is power in brokenness.”
To learn more about Bryan Stevenson and Equal Justice Initiative’s work, read his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Injustice and Redemption.