‘The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—it is justice,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, Saturday night at the Ware Lecture at General Assembly 2017 in New Orleans. He received a standing and thunderous ovation that lasted over a minute at the conclusion of his remarks. Stevenson, a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned, gave UUs clear direction on the work that must be done to create a more just world, including fully accepting our history as a racist society.
“I’m not interested in punishing America for this history—I want to liberate America,” Stevenson said, because on the other side of confession comes freedom. Stevenson is author of Just Mercy, the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller and the UU “Common Read” for 2015-16.
Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. He has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger as unconstitutional.
There are four essential things that we must do to create a more just and equal world, Stevenson told UUs: Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, neglected, and abused; change the narratives that underlie racism and other inequalities; stay hopeful about creating justice; and be willing to do uncomfortable things. He has spent his much of life in proximity to the poor, neglected, and abused. Visiting a death-row prisoner to inform him that he would not be executed in the upcoming year led Stevenson to find passion in studying law and helped him identify his life’s work.
Unitarian Universalists took to social media to praise Stevenson’s speech, which weaved together stories from Stevenson’s childhood, education, and career, sobering statistics about mass incarceration, and a plan of action “of how to change the world.” Stevenson referred to the UU faith’s members repeatedly as “Universalists,” which caught the attention of several social media users. Unitarian Universalists are more commonly referred to colloquially as “Unitarians.”
“I can’t help but wonder if calling us Universalists was intentional,” wondered one UU attendee.
Changing the narratives that underline racism is critically important, Stevenson said. Oppressors justify oppression with a narrative of fear and anger, he said, which leads to a culture that tolerates injustice. For example, the narrative that many black and brown children who commit crimes aren’t children at all but rather are “super predators” created the school-to-prison pipeline. He urged UUs to resist fear and anger, examine how we treat poor children, and acknowledge that we live in a post-genocidal society given that more than 10 million native peoples died of disease or murder in the U.S.
Stevenson said that the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude, it was the narrative of racial difference that was used to justify slavery, which even the U.S. Supreme Court adopted. The period from the Civil War to WWII was an era of terrorism against black people, he said, and black people in northern cities fled the U.S. South as refugees and exiles from the terror in the South—“something that is very rarely discussed,” Stevenson said. Today, people of color are too often presumed dangerous and guilty, no matter their social class, age, or how much money they have, he said.
In South Africa, the history of apartheid is openly discussed, and in Germany, holocaust stones are placed in front of homes Jews were taken from and sent to camps, because Germany is trying to change the narrative. But in the U.S., we avoid discussion of slavery and lynching, said Stevenson, who has a project to put markers at every lynching site in the U.S.
Stevenson urged UUs to make a choice to do uncomfortable things, say uncomfortable things, and be in uncomfortable places, and to stay hopeful about creating racial justice. Hope makes us speak out, so fight against what makes you hopeless, he urged.
“Our hopefulness is the one thing we cannot compromise,” he said. “You are either hopeful or you are part of the problem.”