Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson at UNC-CH August 17 2015

By Art Menius August 17, 2015

2015-08-17 18.03.23

Civil Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson spoke to a most student audience of 4,000 packing Memorial Hall on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill on August 17, 2015. The address culminated the summer reading program which chose his moving 2014 book Just Mercy (New York Times review here). I attended with Bessie Elmore, Cheryl McDonald, and Susan Simone of Durham non-profit Straight Talk Support Group, which serves the family and friends of incarcerated people.

Stevenson’s moving TED talk has been viewed 2.4 million times and counting. At Memorial Hall, a stage that welcomed Strom Thurmond in 1948 and Louisiana KKK leader David Duke in 1974, Stevenson demonstrated why that TED talk is so popular and his memoir about a miscarriage of justice so moving. His delivery is more conversational than lawyerly, but one can see the attorney building his case, using examples from his life and practice to buttress his four major points. No doubt many students will remember his moving stories of prejudiced judges, mentally ill defendants, growing up poor, seeking purpose in life, a spiritual singing murderer, and a prison guard redeemed from racism most that those points.

Stevenson’s key points in order were

  • “Proximity provides the power to change.” One can’t challenge injustice from a distance.
  • “Changing the narrative” is essential, a point made in most of David Korten’s books including the recent Change the Story, Change the Future (my review here). “We have allowed a narrative to exist that some children are not children” and can be tried as adults. “We have to change the narrative about racial inequality and the terrorism of white supremacy.” Americans have to create the space to have the conversations we need, including about slavery. Stevenson here provided a rare and vital point that most Americans think is an untouchable third rail: “We created a narrative about slavery and white supremacy that made us a slave nation. We have to talk about the myth of white supremacy and the terrorizing of people of color.” He contrasted this to Germany’s openness about the Holocaust and South Africa’s healing, asserting that truth and reconciliation are essential to changing the toxic American narrative.
  • “We have to protect our hopefulness,” for hopelessness creates inequality and prevents change. “The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.”
  • “We sometimes have to do things that are uncomfortable.” Progress doesn’t happen from doing what is comfortable.

Stevenson, Executive Director and cofounder of Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, concluded on a very personal note based on reflecting why he has helped so many broken people. “I do what I do because I’m broken too. There is a power in brokenness.”

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