The powerful story about the history of the Equal Justice Initiative can be found in the best selling book or movie called Just Mercy.
Bryan talks about the prisoner who sang “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder.
Learn more about the “The Montgomery Slave Trade” and the history of slavery in Alabama.
Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and talks about in his book The Sun Does Shine—which we also have discussion questions for! Kate also talked with Ray on the podcast.
Discuss this episode with a book club, friends, or bible study group. Here are some conversation starters:
There is a teaching resources for the Just Mercy book and Movie for teachers, just click here to download.
Kate: Oh, hey. Oh, my gosh. Today it is such a special day. Bryan Stevenson is stopping by our offices. Can I just say that again? Bryan Stevenson is coming to my office. Here at the Everything Happens project. And I cannot wait to talk to him. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a human rights organization committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment. He works with his incredible team to challenge racial and economic injustice and to protect the most basic rights for the most vulnerable among us. Bryan is just an unbelievable person, and he has an incredible staff. They have won reversals, relief or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. And he is the author of The New York Times best selling book, Just Mercy. You have to read it. It is so stunning if you’re also just the movie type. It was also adapted into a poignant movie starring Michael B Jordan. Bryan deserves every lovely award that he’s gotten, which is just about every award and honor an honorary degree for his work. And you will absolutely understand why. Okay. Can’t wait to talk to him. Here goes.
Kate: Well I’m here with Bryan Stevenson. He’s the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. And I always want to say ministries, that feels like a ministry, both lawyer, plausibly living saint and and I feel so lucky that we’re doing this today. Well, thanks so much for doing this.
Bryan Stevenson: Well, thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.
Kate: Sometimes when I hear about people’s account of vocation, they they find their life’s work, maybe because of, like, supernatural gifting. There’s they just happen to be excellent at something, and then it pulls them in. Or maybe there’s a moment of undoing, and then something crystallizes. And it seems like you were called into this vocation almost by a song.
Bryan Stevenson: No, I think that’s right. I mean, I grew up in a community where most of the adults hadn’t gone to high school, let alone gone to college. And it was this powerful intervention by lawyers into our community that made that community open up to public schools, to black kids. Because when my dad was a teenager, black kids couldn’t go to the public schools and there were no high schools for black kids. And so the expectation even of high school wasn’t something I could see or touch. But I went to high school and I think we were just so kind of energetic and excited to take it all in. And we played sports and we did music, and I went to college with that same kind of energy and that same kind of curiosity, and I was really focused on the now and not on the later. I was a philosophy major, and it was in my senior year that somebody came up to me and said, Now, you know, nobody’s going to pay you to philosophize when you graduate from college. And it kind of hit me hard because I hadn’t really thought about it. And I knew a lot of people were continuing education. I loved school. So I said, Well, I’ll do that. And I started looking into graduate programs in history or English or political science. And much to my dismay, I realized that to get admitted to graduate programs in history, English or political science, you have to know something about history, English, political science. But I didn’t really feel like I did, and I kept looking. And to be honest, that’s really how I found my way to law school, because it was clear to me, you don’t need to know anything to go to law school. And I ended up at Harvard Law School with that mindset. But I knew I wanted to do something about inequality and injustice and the poor and racial bigotry. And I was really frustrated because it didn’t seem like anybody was talking about that. I was not well-informed. I’d never met a lawyer before I got to Harvard Law School, but I had these aspirations, and after the first year I was so disillusioned, I actually left and I went to the School of Government to pursue a degree in public policy because I thought, that would be more fulfilling. And I remember the day two months into that program when I woke up and I looked in the mirror and I thought, Wow, I’m even more miserable here than I was at the law school. And it seemed as if they were teaching us to maximize benefits and minimize costs. But it didn’t matter whose benefits got maximized, whose costs got minimized. And I and I found that alienating went back to the law school and then took this course that did send me to the Deep South and eventually led me to a place that I felt very intimidated by death row in Georgia. And I was just supposed to tell someone that they weren’t at risk of execution any time in the next year. And I was so nervous and so overwhelmed when they finally brought this condemned man into the room. I remember he was burdened with chains in handcuffs on his wrists. He had a chain around his waist, shackles on his ankles. And I just was just overwhelmed by the visual of it. And when they had him on chain, I forgot everything and I just started apologizing. So I’m so sorry. I’m just a law student. I don’t know anything about the death penalty. I don’t know anything about criminal procedure, appellate procedures, civil procedure. And then I remember I said, but I am here to tell you that you’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year. And that’s when this man grabbed my hand and he said, wait, wait, wait, wait, say that again. I said, You’re not a risk of execution any time in the next year. And the man said, Wait, say that again. And I said, You’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year. And that’s when this man hugged me and said, Thank you. He said, You’re the first person I’ve met in the two years I’ve been on death row who’s not a death row prisoner or death row guard, he said, Because of you, I’m going to see my wife. I’m going to see my kids. I’ve been talking to them on the phone, but I haven’t let them come and visit because I was afraid they show up and I’d have an execution date and I didn’t want them to have to deal with that. And it really blew me away that just being in that place, I could have an impact on the quality of someone’s life, even though I didn’t know very much, and it just seemed like a special place where I felt for the first time, like being in the legal profession might empower me to do something. And then we started talking. Turned out we were exactly the same age. Had the same birthday, same month, same day, same year. One hour turned into 2 hours. 2 hours turned into 3 hours. And I was only supposed to be there for an hour, but I just kept talking and we were just lost in conversation. And then the guards came in after 3 hours, angry that I hadn’t ended the visit when I was supposed to. And they took it out on this man, threw them against the wall, pulled his arms back, put the handcuffs on his wrist tightly wrapped the chain around his waist, violently put the shackles on his ankles. And I remember begging them to be gentler, saying, look, it’s my fault. It’s not his fault. He didn’t do anything wrong. And they were shoving him toward the door. And I just felt so terribly. And then I remember how he planted his feet when he got in front of the door. And when they shoved him, he didn’t move. And then he turned around to me and he said, Bryan, don’t worry about this. You just come back. And that’s when he closed his eyes and began to sing a hymn. And he started singing, I’m pressing on the upward way. New heights I’m gaing every day, still praying as I’m onward bound. And then he said, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. And it was just a moment of clarity. Even the guards stopped and then they recovered and started pushing him down the hallway. And you could hear the chains clanging, but you could hear this man singing about higher ground. And when I heard that man saying, that’s when I knew I wanted to help condemn people get to higher ground. But I also knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey. And I realized that if he doesn’t get there, I don’t get there. And it just changed everything. I went back to Harvard Law School. You couldn’t get me out of the law school library. I needed to know everything. I was deep into understanding the jurisprudence necessary to help condemned prisoners learn in comedy and federalism and appellate procedure and habeas corpus. And all of these doctrines, for me, was something I had to do. And today, even some 35, almost 40 years later, I really do believe when people say, you know, if someone asks me, how have you helped people or how I tell them it’s not because I’ve worked hard. It’s not because I’m smart or anything like that. I really do believe it’s because I heard a condemned man sing and in that song understood things about the humanity of all of God’s children, about the yearning and the need to be an agent of redemption and change and restoration and freedom for all people. And so it did it came to me in a song. I think that’s an absolutely fair characterization.
Kate: It’s such a perfect right, that word vocation from vocato, to be called.
Bryan Stevenson: Yes. Yes.
Kate: Sung into purpose.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah. And I think we underestimate the things that we can hear that can summon us to places that we need to go. You know, one of the most formative people in my life was my grandmother, who was the daughter of people who were enslaved. And my family came from Caroline County, Virginia. And when I was a child, my grandmother took me there one time and I remember she made me put on my best suit and she said, We’re going to go someplace. And she got me ready and she did the whole thing. She was licking her fingers and wiping my face and getting everything. And so I thought we were going someplace really nice. And we started walking down a road that became a dirt road. And then we started walking through a field. And I remember it being really confusing because we were dressed but walking through a field and then we got to the shack and she stopped me. She said, We’re going to go inside and you’re going to hear something. I said, okay. And we went inside and the shack was empty and I didn’t hear anything. And I remember standing there watching my grandmother waiting to hear something. And then I remember seeing my grandmother cry. And I’d never seen her cry before. And because she was crying and I didn’t hear what I was supposed to hear. I started crying. And then my grandmother took me outside and I said, Mama, why were you crying? And she said, Oh, don’t worry about that. And then I said, Mom, I didn’t hear anything. She said, Oh, yes, you did. And I think I cried some more because I think I missed it. And I forgot all about that until many years later, when I was doing a paper in college and I went to interview my grandmother, spent like 3 hours asking her all these questions. And at the end of it, she seemed frustrated with me. She said, You asked me all those questions, but you didn’t ask me about that time I took you to Bowling Green and I just didn’t remember it, honestly. Yeah, I said, I’m sorry. I was supposed to ask you about that. She said, Yes, I took you to a house, but I didn’t tell you what that house was. It was a shack, but I didn’t explain what it was. And then I said, Well, what was it? She said, I took you to the shack where my father was born. And when in slavery and when I was a little girl, he used to take me there all the time and he’d say, Sit here, Victoria, and just listen and see what you can hear. And I was moved by that, but I didn’t fully appreciate it really, even until many, many years later, we started doing work on Slavery. We started doing work on Lynchings and we started to build these sites in Montgomery. And I remember being overwhelmed one day and I go down to the Alabama River, which is like 100 meters from my office. Sometimes I just sit there and because I’ve been doing this research, I knew that the river was the place where thousands of enslaved people were brought by boat. And I was sitting there and I started thinking about my grandmother and I started thinking about that story she told me. And then all of a sudden it did for the first time seem like I could hear the sounds of the enslaved being trafficked. And we’ve been doing so much work about lynching. And I started imagining what it would sound like to be surrounded by such hatred and bigotry. And I started thinking about growing up at the end of Jim Crow and hearing parents and adults make those sounds of indignation because they’d see these signs that said white and colored and the dehumanizing and humiliating architecture that they lived through. And then I thought about the sounds I hear when I go into prisons, which can be just so rooted in grief and suffering. And I was kind of hearing that. And then all of a sudden the sounds began to evolve. It wasn’t just the sound of people enslaved and lynched and segregated and in prison expressing their grief and their pain and their suffering. It was also the sound of people who were committed to struggle, committed to survive, committed to find a way, passing on something to people like me, to their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it felt like another calling. And it really has animated the work we’ve done in Montgomery to create these cultures.
Kate: Oh that’s beautiful.
Kate: There’s a metaphor you might really like than that’s in a book I read recently. It was Jeremy Begbie and he was talking. When you are describing the like beautiful sonar connectedness, where one person’s humanity becomes your humanity, and then the truth rings through you both. He was describing Jeremy Begbie is like an amazing musician, but also a theologian. And he was saying, well, we always use these spatial relationships for people and the way we relate. More of me, less of you or of God. And if we if we imagine a sonar metaphor, there is no then we’re all more or less like objects displacing one another and then more like tuning forks. Where one like a note rings and then you feel the truth of it.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah.
Kate: And sometimes when we’re in the great joy of getting to learn other people’s stories. My producer, best friend, Jess and I always talk about, like, flicking the chord. When you feel it ring, and we’re like, where does it pass that test?
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, absolutely.
Kate: I love that. Love the, like, endless ring then of other people’s pain. And then. And then what it requires of us.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah. Yeah. I think we’re surrounded by some many opportunities to hear the things we need to hear. To see the things we need to see, to feel the things we need to feel. Even in places where we don’t expect them. Like on death row. Or at an empty river or in an abandoned dwelling that was inhabited by enslaved people. And I feel like, I’ve been really fortunate, blessed that people and places have at times been spaces where I can find truth and encouragement and knowledge and peace.
Kate: Your reasons, too, for choosing Alabama after law school? It made me think of when I guess as a historian, I love maps and I love maps of empires, because when you see moments of disruption and revolution, you can always they’ll be like a flare. And it’s almost like it shows to you like a crack in the world. And where especially in like, almost like tectonic plates like that, the failure of an ideal shows you like the brokenness in a way that you could never see if you were. You know, in the middle of Rome.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, yeah.
Kate: It sounds like you were you chose if you were going to, like, lay out a map of the inequality that you were about, to sort of see all the layers of the justice system you could spatially pinpoint. Alabama.
Bryan Stevenson: It’s a really interesting way to think about it, because I think you’re absolutely right. I didn’t even fully appreciate it. I mean, I knew that in 19 and the 1980, late 1980s, there were no public defenders in Alabama that people were literally dying for legal assistance. 1989, a quarter of the executions in the United States took place in Alabama, and there were no institutional resources. And so I knew that something had to be done. I had been, you know, working for three or four years. And so I said, I’ll go and and but as I as I continued to work there, this consciousness about the map, about the centrality of that space as part of this larger story of injustice and inequality and oppression and abuse. It became clearer and clearer and clearer to me. And I do think there is a story there that has informed, you know, the work that that we continue to do. Most people don’t really appreciate that the domestic slave trade, which shaped the American South in the 19th century, was different than the transatlantic slave trade, the abducting of Africans and putting them on boats and trafficked them across the sea. There was a port in Charleston, but most of those people were trafficked to the north or the mid-Atlantic. It’s only at the end of the 19th century that we see this movement of enslaved people from the mid-Atlantic States and the North to the Deep South. I mean, states like Alabama weren’t states until 1820. Mississippi, these were all jurisdictions that didn’t even have status until the 19th century. And Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas had rich, fertile land. And these white landowners came into this region and they needed enslave. So hundreds of thousands of people were trafficked to the Deep South. And Montgomery became one of those hubs. You know, that slave population of Alabama went from 40,000 in 1820 to 400000 in 1860. That’s a huge increase in a span of 40 years until they were all coming into the space. Literally down the street from my office. And then after emancipation, it was also the place where there was this violent resistance to equality and so the lynchings and terror and the violence that was used to sustain Jim Crow. And segregation was very resonant in that place. And then, of course, a century later, it was Rosa Parks and Dr. King and Joanne Robinson and Claudette Colvin and John Lewis and other amazing people who got together and felt called to challenge this. And the Montgomery bus boycott started. You know, the civil rights movement that led to so many changes in American society. And so and it is a powerful place. And when you understand that history, you begin to understand where you’re standing. And I do think there’s real value in understanding the map where we live, the space where we live, the history of where we live, because it tells a powerful story. And sometimes we’re a really important part of that story.
Kate: So you’re now a historian’s best friend. It’s always a strange moment when I realize the when of the horrible truth, the truth of our of our education. But what were the first sort of radical disparities that you learned about the justice system that that felt more glaring in Alabama? Then perhaps you’d seen before.
Bryan Stevenson: I mean, I think it became very clear to me early on that our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. That it was wealth, not culpabilit that was going to be the biggest factor in what was going to happen. And that was disappointing to me because that’s not what we were taught in law school. And and people had been silent about that reality. And because I was representing people who were poor, I knew that it wasn’t going to be enough just to kind of make this effort. We were going to have to talk about these structures and systems that disadvantaged our clients. And then, of course, the race stuff was very evident. You know, it just seemed like every time I was in court, I and my client were the only black people there, and none of the decision makers were ever black. I mean, the prosecutors would exclude black people from serving on juries. All the prosecutors were white. All the judges were white, and they weren’t troubled by the absence of diversity. In fact, they were counting on it to maintain a kind of status quo, to maintain, in their minds, a glorious past where I saw a horrific past, a past of violence and terrorism and and inequality and injustice. And so that conflict between those who were trying to preserve the past and those of us who desperately needed the past to become something different. Was a whole kind of extra legal aspect to the work that I was doing. And, and of course, it played out in the case as it played out in the rulings. I always sensed that people didn’t want to be proudly unjust. I always sensed that people thought what they were doing was not an injustice, but they were so kind of distracted and blinded by so many of these practices that they they were allowed to think that even though it was so patently unjust to me, you know, and I think those moments were always powerful moments for me when something happened that got people to look a little more carefully.
Kate: Yeah. It is so strange too the role of I mean, maybe it’s true of the good things, too. We don’t love in general. We only love in particular. The story of one particular death row inmate and his obvious. Obvious to you immediately in a sense was sort of galvanized. I wonder if you could tell the story of Walter McMillan.
Bryan Stevenson: Sure. Yeah. Well, I mean, he was one of several people I met. He was convicted and sentenced to death in Monroeville, Alabama, which is the home of Harper Lee, where she grew up and wrote the great novel To Kill a mockingbird in that community. After some pushback, initially embraced the story. And so when you go to Monroeville, it’s like a shrine To Kill a mockingbird. All the streets are named after characters they put on a play every year. Everybody takes great pride in being associated with that story. And I met Mr. McMillan, who insisted on his innocence. I read the record, it became really clear to me that they had not proved his guilt. Then I met his family, started talking to people, and then I was absolutely persuaded of his innocence. And we just started fighting. And I thought we could just explain to people that he was with his family 15 miles away.
Kate: You need more information. I am here to provide that information.
Bryan Stevenson: You probably can’t know this. You didn’t know this, but he was actually with 30 people at his home raising money for the church when this crime took place 11 miles away. All of them were with him. They all know he’s innocent. You need to respond to this and allow him to go. And instead of reacting to that with shame and horror, they were like, nope, not going to do that. And they just pushed even harder, you know, to get him executed. And I think the struggle was illuminating that it was so obvious that he was innocent and yet they were so committed to maintaining his guilt. It became clear to me that this wasn’t about guilt or innocence. This was about power and using power to kind of advance these long existing narratives about who’s dangerous and who’s not. And it was it was a challenging case in a lot of ways, but it was also a powerful case because I saw the community come together and people find their voice and find their courage and find their strength. And when we finally went to court, I mean, the courtroom was packed full of black folks and people, poor people, poor white people who had come he had worked with and they were there looking for justice. And that for me was really exciting. You know, the intensity of the hearing. You know, I wrote about after the first day, the prosecutors were mad that the courtroom had been filled with so many people of color and supporters of Mr. McMillan. So the next day they didn’t let his people come in and they changed the courtroom around. They put a metal detector inside the courtroom door that you had to walk through. And then they positioned this huge German Shepherd dog who had to walk past to get inside the courtroom. And they were telling black folks, so you can’t come. You can’t come in. And when I got there, I went to go into the courtroom and the deputy so you can’t come in. I said, Well, I’m the defense attorney. I think I have to be able to come in. He said, Let me check. And he ran and came back is where you can come in. And they filled the court, half filled the court with people who were supportive of the state. And I was really angry. And I walked through this metal detector and they positioned this huge German Shepherd dog you had to walk past to get into the courtroom, complained to the judge. Judge didn’t do anything. And I went outside and explained to the black community and the leaders that they had done something really unfair. But we’ll get we’ll get this sorted out for tomorrow. And they said fine. And they started identifying people to occupy the few seats that were left. And they identified this older black woman named Mrs Williams. And she was so honored to be identified as a representative. And I was inside when they finally started letting people come in. And I saw this beautiful older black woman walk through the doors of that courtroom with such dignity and such grace. And she held her head up high and she walked through the metal detector. But when she got in front of the dog, you could see the fear just paralyzed her. And she stood there and her body started to tremble and shake. And then I saw tears running down her face. And then I heard her groan loudly and watched her turn around and run out the courtroom. Other people came inside. We had a good day in court and sort of forgotten about her until I was walking to my car that evening and when I was walking outside, she was sitting outside and she came over. When she saw me, she said, Mr. Stevenson, I feel so bad. I said, Oh, Mrs. Williams, don’t you worry about what they did. She says, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I was supposed to be in that courtroom. I was meant to be in that court. I should have been in that courtroom and I failed. I said, Mr. Williams, please don’t feel bad. They shouldn’t have done what they did. She says, No, no, no, no. I let everybody down today and I just feel it and she started crying. I said, Please don’t worry about this. She said, No, no, no. I was meant to be in that courtroom. She said, but when I saw that dog. All I could think about were those protests where they put those dogs on us. I thought about Selma in 1965, and she walked away with just tears running down her face. I felt terribly. Her sister told me the next morning that when she got home, she didn’t talk to anybody. She didn’t say anything, but they could hear her praying all night long and she was praying, Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog. And the next morning she called the ministers and said she wanted another chance to be a representative on the trip from the house to the courthouse, her sister said, she kept saying, I ain’t scared of no dog. I ain’t scared of no dog. And I was inside the courtroom the next day when when they opened the door and there was Mrs. Williams. And you can hear her saying audibly, I ain’t scared of no dog. And, oh she walked through the door and she walked through the metal detector and she walked up to that dog and she said, I ain’t scared of no dog. And she walked past the dog and sat down on the front row of the courtroom and she looked at me. Mr. Stevenson, I’m here. I said, Mrs Williams. It’s good to see you. And then I started working on my papers. And then a few minutes later she said, No, Mr stevenson, you didn’t hear me. She said, I’m here. I looked. I said, No, I do see you. I’m glad to see you here. And the judge walked in and everybody stood up when the judge walked in. And then everybody sat back down. And I noticed that people were staring. And I turned around and Mrs. Williams was still standing and the courtroom got really quiet and they were looking at her. And that’s when she said one last time she said, I’m here. And it became clear to me then she wasn’t just saying I’m physically present, but she was saying is, I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to stand up to injustice. And I really have come to believe that sometimes the two most important words we can articulate when we’re trying to minister, when we’re trying to help, when we’re trying to serve, when we’re trying to be a friend, when we’re trying to do something hard and difficult. The two most challenging, but sometimes the most important words are I’m here. And it is that expression of presence in places that are difficult and challenging that represent something so much more powerful than a lot of the other words that we can say. You don’t always have the answers. You don’t always have the skills. You don’t always have the knowledge that you’d like to have. But if you have the willingness to be present, it’s amazing what you can do.
Kate: I think, courage of a witness.
Bryan Stevenson: Yes, indeed.
Kate: That co-suffering.
Bryan Stevenson: Yes, exactly.
Kate: Like I will put my toes, curl them around the edge and I will stare it down with you.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, that’s right.
Kate: That is an intense. I love and that is is a beautiful thing to be near.
Bryan Stevenson: Yes, indeed.
Kate: And you are here. Thank you.
Kate: There’s a kind of witnessing that it changes when you describe when you describe the grind of like the inhumanity of all of the horrible bits, like the way that moving through the process can like strip away the feeling that man got back when he’s saying. I think the thing that surprises me so much is when there’s still an incredible capacity to love.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah.
Kate: And I and that maybe even the more you’re in a broken system, if some beautiful magic of the Holy Spirit happens, yeah, you can. You’re able to continue to love, but maybe it changes who you love. Your witness reminded me of this book I read recently. She was a a friend of the podcast her name was Sarah Sentilles and she wrote this beautiful book called Stranger Care. Right. That legal, I think term of course. You know where you can raise a child that is not your blood. And she’s talking about the brokenness of the foster care system. It’s a lovely account. But she was talking about the, the people thought that the miracle was that she was going to raise a child that wasn’t hers. And when she and, you know, as she’s moving through the horror of the pain of endless fracture everywhere, the the wearing down and then the desire then to demonize all of the people, especially those who continue to hurt you in the midst of the system. And she said she thought the miracle wasn’t loving the baby, whose love was like lightning in her heart, but it was that she could somehow possibly learn to love that child’s mom. And then those foster care workers who she and those participating in systems that perpetuated brokenness. When I when I read and see you, I think there are something about the transformation of then who we decide is worthy of our love that feels like it goes directly up against this. The experience of actually being in the system in the first place.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. You know, I read a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr when I was a college student, and I used his quotes at the beginning of my book. And it’s justice is the instrument, but love is the motive. And I do think if our quest for justice is our desire for justice isn’t rooted in a kind of love of everyone, not just those on whose behalf we’re seeking, just for the love of everyone. Because I think of an injustice like a terrible disease, you know, and it’s it’s this kind of infectious, kind of toxic thing. And you don’t want anybody burdened by the attributes of that illness. And you’re trying to shield people who are most vulnerable, who are likely to be victimized by the injustice. But you want everyone to be free of this horrific malady that causes you to not see humanity and to see dignity and see personhood and and to see grace and redemption. And I do think you have to you have to yearn for a kind of love that you can give to any and everyone.
Bryan Stevenson: It’s yet, you know.
Kate: Grossly indiscriminate.
Bryan Stevenson: Grossly. Yeah. I talk about this person I met in my book and when I was we won these cases banning life without parole sentences for children, too. I was going around the country representing a lot of kids and I was going to New Orleans a lot. Because that had Louisiana had one of the highest rates of child sentencing of to death in prison of any state. And I was back there a lot and kept going to court, going to court. And I was representing these two people who spent nearly 50 years in Angola, a plantation prison in the state of Louisiana. And it was always this woman in court when I would go there and she would just watch me. And and finally, we got a court to grant relief for this man who is now blind, who’d been in prison for nearly 50 years. And it was such a powerful moment because when she granted relief, there were all of these people in prison in the jury box waiting for their sentencing hearings. And the court was filled with those people. People just actually started to applaud when they heard the story. And it was one of those moments. And when I was leaving, we had to wait a couple of hours to get the papers. This woman I’d seen so often was sitting on the steps, and she called me over and she told me her story about how her son had been murdered and she had come to the court a lot to be a part of these proceedings, to demand justice. And when these young people were finally convicted of this crime, she didn’t feel vindication and justice. She felt just overwhelmed because she saw their mothers sitting in the courtroom crying. And she said she just felt compelled to go over to them and put her arm around them. And she said, for the last I don’t know how many years. She said, for years. I come to the courtroom and I look for people who are just suffering, whose hearts have been broken because they’ve lost somebody or because they’re about to lose somebody who’s going off to prison. And I just. And then she said to me, she says, I know what you are.
Kate: That’s always ominous.
Bryan Stevenson: And then she said, you’re a stone catcher like I am. And and we sat down next to each other and just started talking about, you know, the the Scripture where Jesus is confronted by those who are ready to condemn the woman who has been caught in adultery. And they want to trick him. And they and they and they say, you know, tell us what to do. We’re going to the scriptures, tell us we should cast stones and kill this woman. And of course, we read that, you know, Jesus makes marks in the ground and then very in a disruptive way says, you know, we’ll let whoever of you was without sin cast the first stone. And they’re challenged by that, convicted by that, and they all walk away. And he just says to the woman go and sin no more. And what’s powerful for me about that story is that it required a certain amount of consciousness for those who condemn to recognize that they were not without sin and put down their stones, and that we’ve gotten to a point in our contemporary struggle where we have made our identity and our religiosity and our our self righteousness so much a part of our identity that we don’t have that consciousness. We throw the stones anyway, even though Jesus is still saying Let Him, who was without sin cast the first stone. And I just think that that means that some of us can’t just shake our heads and be outraged by that. Some of us actually have to position ourselves in front of the condemned, in front of those who would be the objects of this. And we have to catch those stones, and I want to catch the stones that are thrown at my clients. I want to catch the stones that are thrown at children. I’m going to catch the stones thrown at people who are suffering from trauma and addiction and abuse. And I want to catch them because I don’t want them to be battered and beaten and destroyed by this unjust anger and violence. But I also want to catch them to give those who cast the stones an opportunity for one more chance. To hear what we are supposed to hear to be called to what we’re supposed to be called to, which is not condemnation and judgment, but to justice and mercy. And in that respect, I think you’re right. You do have to you have to have a kind of consuming love that gets you to see everybody. If your love is the kind that can only flourish when you blind yourself to these people and their needs and these people and their needs, I just don’t think it’s going to be that kind of love that endures, that lifts and transacts.
Kate: It does always feel like watching. I used to. I spent my twenties studying faith healers. As I know the feeling of standing there, hoping that a thing like the suspension of the laws of gravity might happen. But I think people get that feeling when they see someone. Either forgive. They see someone somehow whole. They see someone give up on a position that they once had. I had Ray Hinton’s been on the podcast. And that is the miracle feeling of being near him. That is a kind of completeness.
Bryan Stevenson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. No. Anthony Ray Hinton. Wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, wrongly condemned to death for crimes that took place in Birmingham in the 1980s. Spent nearly 30 years on death row in Alabama. Didn’t talk for the first three years on. He was on death row because he was just so angry and frustrated and unnerved by what had happened to him. And then he began to find his voice and just never gave away his hope as a remarkable human being, this incredible spirit of joy and spirit of compassion. And I had the great privilege of representing him. And for 16 years we fought and we’d go back and forth and it was a rollercoaster. And sometimes, you know, we’d get an adverse ruling. And it was the hardest thing for me to call him up and say, Ray, I’m sorry, but the court ruled against us. And even in moments like that, he would often say, You need to take care of yourself. He wouldn’t even comment on you need to go home and you need to do something nice and just the kind of spirit he has. And we eventually prevailed and got the case overturned after going all the way to the US Supreme Court. And I remember talking with him on the morning of his release because he had to be released in that jail. It said, We’re going to release him at 9am and I was there at 730. Let’s go. You know, I didn’t want him to. And they refused to let him out until the 9:00. So we were back there and I was even mad about that and.
Kate: It this not enough? You want that extra hour and a half of his life? I mean.
Bryan Stevenson: Really, it’s just it’s they’ve taken 30 years that they can’t get back to you. Here’s an hour and a half that they could give you.
Kate: I’ll take it.
Bryan Stevenson: But we were talking and I was still feeling, you know, just provoked by it all. And he was telling me that he had been up all night, and he said Bryan, I made it an important decision and I said what’s that and he says, I’ve decided I have to forgive them for what they did to me. He said, I can’t hate them if I walk out of here hating them, they’ll still have me in prison because hatred is a kind of prison. Our unwillingness to forgive creates a kind of constraint on our hearts, on our spirit. And, you know, he embodies that powerful truth, that powerful freedom. That comes with understanding that without forgiveness, without compassion, without a desire to create space for those who who’ve harmed us to recover, we don’t ever recover ourselves. And yeah he’s a beautiful human being.
Kate: You can’t ask anyone ever to do it. But if you ever see it.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s why in our work, we’re really trying to create this new era of truth and justice, what we say we want when we invite people to our sites, the museum and the memorial, and this work we’re doing on the race and the history, we want an air of truth telling because we think that truth telling opens us up to all kinds of things that we will now feel obligated, feel motivated to do.
Kate: Well, of course, there is an enormous debate right now about public forgiveness. Which I’m Sure you are mired in every day. And then there’s a often a thick Christian script that a totalizing kind of forgiveness, which is sort of like feels like it’s just like passing the boulder to the to those who have suffered under the weight of the greatest cruelty and then says carry that too. I never want that. And then of course there are those where truth only feels like loaded weapons.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, yeah.
Kate: There’s a searing ness to it that also accidentally sometimes consumes. The things it was that just sort of burns everything.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I think in many ways we haven’t really seriously investigated what the harms are and therefore we haven’t really positioned ourselves to thoughtfully talk about what the remedies are.
Kate: I think that’s why I love all the language of witness. Where the word requires to have suffered with as opposed to to have casually consumed.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah. That’s right.
Kate: Lightly peruse the conclusions. The skipping to the end piece, the cheapness of that kind of.
Bryan Stevenson: Because I mean, we we’ve gotten good at performative reconciliation and performative apology and performative. And I just think we have to understand why that doesn’t work because it’s not rooted in, you know, you you well know that in the health context, nobody signs up for a painful and difficult treatment. You don’t no one says, oh, I want chemotherapy, I want radiation. But it’s when you get these devastating diagnoses and you realize that the absence of treatment is going to it’s going to cause harm or death or whatever, that you begin to kind of think differently about what you have to do. And I think in a lot of ways we’ve just been silent about so many of the harms created by our history that we have to engage in this process of dying. What did this do? So, you know, 6 million black people fled the American South during the first half of the 20th century. They left land that they owned. They left opportunities to build wealth that was there for them, but they had to give it up because of terror and violence. They moved to places like Chicago and Cleveland and Detroit where they went, not as people looking for new economic opportunities, but as refugees and exiles. And when you understand that, you think differently about a wealth gap in America today. You think differently about what it means to be isolated in a community where there’s been generation after generation of of of of suffering and disconnection. So all of these things have to be understood if we’re going to actually be effective at creating repair and creating restoration and creating remedy. And I just think that’s always true. I mean, one of the things I think we have to embrace, we have a culture in America that is very resistant to apology. You know, our politicians never want to say, I was wrong.
Kate: No, but there’s the last line it goes. But it made me who I am.
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, exactly. And I think that resistance to saying I’m sorry has really cultivated something very unhealthy because people who really love each other, people who really care about each other, and most of the people I know who’ve been in loving marriages for 40 or 50 years are people who have learned how to apologize to one another when they inevitably do something that is harmful. That’s not right. And it’s that capacity to apologize, to address the horror that sustains the love. It’s not, Oh, my love is so great that I will never make a mistake. I couldn’t possibly say anything that harms or offends or do anything. No. And that’s why we have to learn the geography of apology and to express it when it needs to be expressed and to not fear it as something that condemns us. What it does is it it actually helps us acknowledge things and and learn things that that can direct us. But it’s very foreign in our in our society.
Kate: We’ve I mean, I’ve the intimacy of forgiveness and repentance, forgiveness and lament. I mean, there so I study the history of positive thinking. And Americans, of course, pioneered it and perfected it. You can even hear it in an interview where you say something hard, but then your voice has to go up. It’s, you know, and the like all that’s the sweetness of those minor notes that we have to play for people to hear the whole song. Every time I tread into the deep waters of talking about forgiveness, one of the first, especially for people who have suffered, there’s an immediate desire to know if people really deserved it. And they deserve language is such a, let me pre know. And I, it made me think of this conversation I had one time with Philip Yancey. And he wrote a lovely memoir. It’s a beautiful title. Where the light fell. He wrote his whole life about grace because. And the thing he hadn’t told was that his family had been consumed by unforgiveness, like each person in hope and in desperation sort of cannibalizing the other. Right. And tells the story of his grandfather, who really who had done terrible things and in the delusion and confusion of his final year on Earth, had imagined that his daughter had finally forgiven him at last and clutched his granddaughter instead. And tears are streaming down his face. And he said, You’ve come back to me at last. And he writes, He was hallucinating grace. When I read the story, I was struggling with the questions because I knew I couldn’t say, well, this man deserves to be. You live, you have to help people understand the complicated web of fighting for people where they don’t have to pass the deserved test.
Bryan Stevenson: Yes. Yes. I mean, I think that’s such an important frame, at least for me. You know, the biblical injunction that the prophet Micah says is, you know, God requires of us that we do justice and we love mercy and we walk humbly and there’s no deserved language. It doesn’t say do justice for those who deserve justice. Love mercy for those who deserve it. It’s do justice. Love mercy, period. Love mercy. And then walk humbly. And the humbly thing is important, too. And people skip over that sometimes because in many ways the thing that gets in the way of doing justice in loving mercy is sometimes it’s pride. It’s just fear of what it means to be someone who is just when anger and indignation seems like it’s more appropriate, it’s merciful when vengeance and retribution seems more appropriate. And that’s where the humility of appreciating that we’re all capable of harming and healing, we’re all capable of offending and being offended is so important. But yes, I think mercy isn’t really mercy until we give it to the undeserving. You know, forgiveness isn’t really forgiveness if it’s not surrounded by some objective assessment that this is undeserved because otherwise you’re just giving someone what they are due. It’s not really.
Kate: Youre just getting your taxes done. Everyone gets what they deserve.
Bryan Stevenson: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And I think what’s powerful in the writings of people like Mr. Yancey and so many of the other folks is that they they explore the multiple ways in which those who suffer. I mean, when you suffer a lot, it can distort your capacity to be generous, to be kind, because you’re so weighed down by the injury, by the harm, by the pain that you’re dealing with. You know, we expect grace and tenderness from those who suffer when in fact, we should expect less. But it and so when you find a way to, despite all of that, to express something that sounds like compassion, it sounds like I went to Africa for the first time not that long ago and I missed I was supposed to be in Abuja in Nigeria, and I missed my connection in Lagos, and they had this young lawyer meet me. It was like midnight, and they said, Oh, he’s going to take care of you and get you to the airport tomorrow morning. Young lawyer, beautiful young man, he was just so enthusiastic and he says, I’m going to take you all around. And and I was really tired. I said, Well, okay. And he took me through the streets of Lagos and we were out and he was telling everybody, this is lawyer from America. And these women were coming out and they were trying to sell me shea butter because they didn’t think I had what I needed in America. And they were bringing out all of these people. We were going everywhere. And I find this, oh, man, this is so wonderful. But I’m really tired and I’ve got to give a speech tomorrow morning up there. He finally said, okay, one more place to take you. And we went down to the to the coast. And it was this kind of not very impressive, a lot of, you know, American. I remember Pizza Hut and all these kinds of fast food places in the rocks, concrete, boulders, and we climbed over them. And then there was the coast. It wasn’t beautiful. It was just dark, but it was the ocean. And we got down there and I stood there and he stood there and I noticed that he got really quiet. And then I looked over and I saw a tear running down his face. And he turned to me and he said, Well, I wanted to bring you here so I could say, I’m sorry. This is where we lost you. And for the first time, I realized I was standing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a place of my ancestors reckoning with the fact that I’d been stolen. And this young man had the presence of mind to feel some culpability, to feel the weight of having not been stolen yet.
Kate: And you felt found in that moment.
Bryan Stevenson: And I stood there and wept like I had never heard before. But it just it’s it’s it’s extraordinary how we sometimes have within us the ability to show forgiveness and mercy and grace and. you know, he took me to his house and had this young little kid who was so excited, are you going to sleep on my little area? And he wanted to talk and he went and I had all of a sudden all of this energy. And I think I was up all night with this child. And it was beautiful. It was extraordinary. It’s the thing I remember most about that trip.
Kate: Oh, my word. Well. Look, you prophet of hope, I love the way we are found in each other’s efforts and in each other’s pain and it is so beautiful to see you pour yourself into the world.
Bryan Stevenson: Oh, well thank you.
Kate: Thank you, my friend.
Bryan Stevenson: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you for this, my honor.
Kate: Wow. What an amazing person, right? It’s like what a privilege. And also you my dears. This is an incredible community of people who understand what it feels like to be delicate and to be in delicate systems. And when we are in these broken systems or being squeezed by them, crushed under them somehow, or working with long, long patience to fix them, it somehow changes who we love. Have you felt that? It’s suddenly we find ourselves wur hearts pulled toward the vulnerable and the sick and the ones who could use a second chance. Our hearts crack open to see others who are also experiencing the weight of systems too large for them to shoulder alone. So I thought maybe we could close with a blessing from Jessica and I’s new book of blessings, which is called The Lives We Actually Have, and it’s a blessing for anyone who is tired of broken systems. Okay, here goes. Oh, God. I am done with broken systems that break the very people they are meant to serve. Harness this anger, channel it into worthy action, and show me what is mine to fix and what boundaries to patrol to keep goodness in and evil out. Blessed are we who are appalled that brute ignorance can so easily dominate over decency, honesty and integrity. Blessed are we who choose not to look away from systems that dehumanize, deceive, defame and distort. We who recognize that thoughts and prayers are not enough. We who stand with truth over expediency. Principle over politics. Community over competition. Oh, God. How blessed are we who cry out to you? Empower us to see and name what is broken. What is ours to restore. Guide us to find coherent and beautiful alternatives that foster life, hope and peace. Help us use our gifts with one another in unity. Blessed are we who choose to live in anticipation, our eyes scanning the horizon for signs of your kingdom. Heaven come down as we wait in hope and act with courage.
Kate: Bless you my dears, have an absolutely beautiful week. But oh wait, before I go, I wanted to let you know that our new book comes out in February. That’s the one that’s the book of blessings called The Lives We Actually Have. And the point is that it is meant to do the work of actual blessing, which is to say, not wait for your perfect day, not wait until something good happens to say something spiritual, but to bless all of our real imperfect, sometimes garbage, sometimes lovely days. And if you preorder a copy, you can get a free pennant. It’s like an eight by 18 inch felt pennant. Kind of like the kind you would get for college. And it’s so cute. And you can hang it in your office or your living room and it says, bless the lives we actually have. If you’re interested, just go to katebowler.com slash blessings book to learn more. A really special thank you goes to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And to my incredible team. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Gwen Higginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. And I would really love to hear what you loved about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and maybe even what we could do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 9193228731. Okay. I’ll talk to you next week. And in the meantime, come find me online at Katecbowler.This is everything happens with me, Kate Bowler.