On December 5, more than 1,000 attendees tuned in to Cleveland Public Library’s virtual Writers & Readers event featuring lawyer, activist, and author Bryan Stevenson, who shared a moving presentation focusing on justice and equality.
“I really think this is a critical time in our nation’s history,” Stevenson said. “When in personal and economic crisis like we are today, it makes sense to pause and think: How did we get here, and what do we do? We need to figure out who we are and what we want for our nation and our community.”
Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the bestselling memoir Just Mercy, has dedicated his career to exonerating innocent death row prisoners and fighting inequalities in the criminal justice system. During his hourlong Writers & Readers keynote, held as part of the Library’s slate of Democracy 20/20 programming, he shared deeply personal stories along with broader discussions surrounding policy reform, racism, redemption, and how we might create a “new era of truth and justice.”
The Legacy of Racial Injustice
Stevenson opened his presentation by sharing a story from his childhood, when he and his sister were overjoyed to play in a swimming pool for the very first time while on a family trip to Disney World. Once they were in the hotel pool, however, white parents began pulling their children out, and one man called Stevenson a racial slur.
“Something about that moment got past my defenses. It shattered me,” he recalled. “The pain of that memory is a pain shared by millions of people in this country who’ve been marginalized and have had to deal with the legacy and history of racial injustice.”
That history has led to policy today that can have catastrophic consequences for marginalized citizens, he continued. He pointed out that the nation’s criminal justice system treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent. While it’s true people need to be help accountable for their actions, there also needs to be a commitment to justice.
“We need to get past false idea of people are their worst act,” he said. “Each of us is more than the worst we have ever done. When someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. If someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. If someone kills someone, they’re not just a killer. Justice requires that we recognize the other things they are.”
To achieve a more just society, Stevenson said Americans must grapple with their nation’s traumatic racial history. He pointed out that Berlin is covered in markers highlighting where Jewish families were abducted, which speaks to a culture that acknowledges the horrors of its history. America, meanwhile, has not done so with its own dark past of slavery, lynching, and civil unrest. To aid in this effort and to spur conversation, Stevenson, through the Equal Justice Initiative, helped create the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
“My interest is not in punishment but in liberation, and I believe truth-telling can set us free. We can no longer be silent about our history,” he asserted. “If we find the courage to engage in truth-telling, something good will happen. There is something waiting for us that feels more like freedom or equality or justice—but to get there, we have to do the hard work.”
An American Reckoning
To work toward a new era of truth and justice, Stevenson said we must do two things: first, reject hopelessness at all costs, no matter how difficult the task before us appears. Next, if we want justice to prevail, we must be willing to do things that are uncomfortable. Change is otherwise impossible.
Today, when Stevenson looks back on the swimming pool incident from his childhood, he finds himself wondering what the white people at the pool might remember. Do the white kids recall being forced to leave, and do their parents remember how they yanked their children out of the water at the first sight of two Black kids?
“My fear is they don’t remember and haven’t done anything to reckon with the wrongfulness of that moment,” Stevenson said. “Our failure to remember can be a barrier to creating the kind of just society we want to create. I want to talk about why we must remember—why we must reckon with the past.”
This free Writers & Readers event was sponsored by KeyBank. Just prior to his public presentation, Stevenson offered a Q&A to a small group of local law students, who raised thoughtful questions surrounding policy reform, accountability, the role philanthropy plays in the creation of a more just and equal society, and more.