True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality (2019) - full transcript

A look at how Alabama attorney Bryan Stevenson struggles to create more fairness in the legal system.

We'll hear argument next today:
Case 17-75-05, Madison vs. Alabama.

Mr. 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.

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.
- Thank you.

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,
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.

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."

When I call you and ask you
to do something, what you're going to do

- you're going to say,
- "Yes, ma'am.'"

One day she called me up and said,
"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 we're trying
to end the death penalty,

we're trying to do something
about racial bias, about the poor,

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."

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."

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.

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.

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...

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.

So I just wanted to get some reaction

to that idea, make sure we were
comfortable with that.

But I think you have
to be more than a lawyer

in the sort of technical sense.

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.

Even in communities with 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.

You see that smoke comin'
outta there, boy?


- How's it lookin', Ray?
- 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.

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 my 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?

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?


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."

The Supreme Court was urged today
to strike down the death penalty

because it is applied unequally
to black and white.

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 convincted 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.

We'll hear arguments
first this morning.

Nr 646811, Warren McCleskey
vs Ralph Kemp.

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 of a certain 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 was abandoning
the commitment to equal justice,

was abandoning the commitment
to racial equality.

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.

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.

Do you want an answer to your question
or will you 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.

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.

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.

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 the defense lawyer says: "I believe
my client is genetically predisposed

to commit violent crimes, so 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.

OK. And Ms. Boleyn,
would you like to...

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,

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.

The Congress said:
"We can't allow that kind of violence,

we'll have our federal prosecutors
prosecute those people for violence,"

and white people are convicted.

And the United States Supreme Court

"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.

We have dedicated ourselves firmly
to the belief

that the best interests of both races
may be served by segregated schools.

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 control 'em.

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.

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.

The proper place for the issue
of segregation is in a court.

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.

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.


...this is the little church
I grew up in, Prospect AME Church.

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 in those days 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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!
- 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.

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.

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...

How can a human being...

tell another person that?

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 one 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.

Those perpetrating 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.

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."

And yet in the late 1980s,

a black man was wrongly convicted and
sentenced to death

for a crime he did not commit.

- 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?

- You never went into town?
- Never went to Monroeville, period.

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.

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.

The trial lasted a day and a half,

the jury 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...

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.

The man they got to testify against him,
they had coerced him to testify falsely.

For some very bizzare reason
which I'll never understand,

they tape recorded the sessions
where they were coercing him

to testify falsely.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

By the 1930s and '40s, there is
a growing anti-lynching movement.

And eventually
the strategy was adopted that,

"We'll 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It's rough, I'll tell you.

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.

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.

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.

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.

After a long day, he's getting calls,
multiple calls, every night,

from clients in prison
who have his home phone number.

Some of them 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.

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.

Oh, now you get it!

That's a good one.

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.

Let's do a Stevie Wonder song.

The kids know... Oh, no, he's...

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.

I think I want to be a... a...

- A designer.
- Designer.

- Oh, beautiful!
- Scientist, inventor, adventurer,

- 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...

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...

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.

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.

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.

Mr. Stevenson,
we'll be equally as lenient

on the time considerations
of your argument.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

All rise.

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 was not worth the truth.

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 don't know how much longer
I can do this."

And year after year went by.

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".

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?"

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: 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...

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 said, "What's your name?
Where are you from?"

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.

and you go back over there
and 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."

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,

then I remember trying to say
to this child as insincerely as I could,

I said, "Look, man, you know,
I don't 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

When Richard Nixon claims power,
he uses the same trope:

"We've got to have law and order."

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.

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 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.

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."

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.

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 happened 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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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 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.

We challenged life without parole

for kids who had been convicted
of non-homicide offenses.

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.

Ray! Ray!

- Oh, my God!
- Ray!

Oh, I love you so much!

Oh, my God, Ray!


Oh, Lord. Thank you, Jesus!

Oh, Ray, I love you.

Oh, Lord.

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.

Our 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.

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.

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."

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."

To the west and to the east,
to the north and to the south...

I'm not so much worried
about the system

as I'm worried about the people
that control the system.

What I want to use
for a subject this morning is,

bad things happen to good people.

- Amen.
- Bad things happen to good people.

Nobody in the state of Alabama,
governor, lieutenant governor,


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.

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.

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 it,

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.

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.

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.

Be careful.

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,

and 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.

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

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.

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.

...six, eight, we don't
want to integrate!

Two, four, six, eight,
we don't want to integrate!

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?
- I'm not goin' to school with niggers.

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!

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 diffeences between people
who are black and people who are white.

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.

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.

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.


Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Most people think 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.