Truth-Telling Still Has Its Place in 2024. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative Continues to Cement This Fact in Stone

History is one of the greatest gifts human beings have at their disposal. History teaches, informs and negates falsities and efforts of erasure. If you identify as a Black American with direct generational ties to the American South, you are likely more aware than most of how important history is. Black folks with family lineages majorly connected to the United States’ contributions to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade are no stranger to hearing that they have no history.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has largely combatted this narrative with the formation of their Legacy Sites. These sites have become integral to the understanding of America’s infrastructure and the ability to follow the connective tissue that forms the America we know to be today.

Their latest Legacy Site—Freedom Monument Sculpture Park—resolutely dismantles the perception of African American history in a way that has never been available to the public before. Through holistically detailing the subjugation and maltreatment of Indigenous Americans prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slavery to the impact of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, this rich, storied, and nuanced history is beautifully illuminated through multimedia elements that engage all of the senses while touching the heart and mind. Through written and auditory storytelling, actual historical artifacts, film and art, Black history comes alive and can renew the spirit of any skeptic who doubts the importance of DEI or otherwise.

Visitors can enter the 17-acre park on the Alabama River waterway and be taken back in time through the industrial sounds of the railroad that once transported (and was built by) enslaved Black people en masse. Upon completion of the park’s winding path to liberatory knowledge, these visitors can also, physically, see themselves reflected in history. What may be the greatest treat of the entire experience is the use of technology to find one’s family name listed in a towering “book of names” that lists the nearly 5 million Black people who adopted surnames in 1870 census. All of the documented 122,000 of the names are shown on this massive sculpture.

Image: Equal Justice Initiative/ Human Pictures.

The collective of the Legacy Sites are an ode to the ancestors and a sacred hymn book for the future and reminder of what is and has always been possible: truth. This is ultimately how Bryan Stevenson intended it.

Stevenson—author of Just Mercy, civil rights attorney, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative—has instituted some of the most groundbreaking work surrounded social justice and equity that this country has seen while making it tangible to be understood for all audiences. The Legacy Museum is the manifestation of EJI’s initial work to draw connections from American slavery to mass incarceration, racial terror and oppressive policy in the country. In a fact sheet provided by the museum, they share, “The Legacy Museum provides a comprehensive history of the United States with a focus on the legacy of slavery. From the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact on the North and coastal communities across America through the Domestic Slave Trade and Reconstruction, the museum provides detailed interactive content and compelling narratives. Lynchings, codified racial segregation, and the emergence of over-incarceration in the 20th Century are examined in-depth and brought to life through film, images, and first-person narratives.”

Image: Equal Justice Initiative/ Human Pictures.

It continues, “Situated on a site where enslaved Black people were warehoused and forced to labor in bondage, the Legacy Museum offers an immersive experience with cutting-edge technology, world class art, and critically important scholarship about American history.” This emphasis is evident in the housing of their highly celebrated and awarded National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018. This deeply emotional memorial honors the documented and known victims of racial violence “for visitors to reckon with challenging aspects of our past” and to see visual representations of the impact of lynching and other racially motivated deaths against the Black community in the USA. The research in preparation for this moving exhibition prompted the compilation of the 2015 report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”

Image: Equal Justice Initiative/ Human Pictures.
Image: Equal Justice Initiative/ Human Pictures.

Stevenson spoke with EBONY in detail about the preservation of truth and how EJI has created the autonomy for Black Americans to not only learn about their own historical legacies but see it reflected widely for generations to come,

EBONY: How does it feel to see the evolution of your work and where you started?

Bryan Stevenson: You know, I’m so excited and energized. Even though I’ve been doing this work for a long time, I feel so fortunate to wake up each day with a sense of purpose. The narrative work we’ve done in the last decade has been incredibly fulfilling because it speaks to my whole existence. Growing up in a racially segregated poor community and starting my education in a colored school, we were grateful for the opportunity that integration created. However, we always had to navigate the complexities of other people’s judgment and the presumptions of not being worthy. Despite achieving a lot, it never felt like enough. I went to law school and chose to stand with the poor and the condemned, advocating for them because it was where I needed to be. We’ve had success and attention, but it never felt sufficient. What excites me now is the realization that I’ll never achieve enough to feel completely fulfilled. I owe it to my ancestors to tell the truth of their lives, their stories and their history. This project has been exciting and gratifying because it’s about lifting up the people who came before me and helping others understand their remarkable, courageous and strong lives.

How has the work of the Equal Justice Initiative and its various projects been healing for you as an individual?

It’s been incredibly encouraging. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of people come each year and the feedback is always so affirming. It makes me believe we can get to a better place. I’ve always wanted to believe in a future that feels more like freedom and justice, and now I absolutely believe it. The process of truth-telling liberates us from barriers and burdens. It’s gratifying, especially now, when so many people try to silence those who want to tell the truth. Having the autonomy to create and shape a space where we can narrate the story of a past that needs to be told is very cathartic and energizing. I’m as excited about what I get to do each day now as I was 40 years ago when I first started representing people.

As EJI’s Legacy Sites are housed in Montgomery, Alabama, what has the relationship been like between the organization and the Montgomery community?

It’s part informed by the way we did our legal work before this. Initially, we were very covert, not wanting people to know we were getting people off death row and out of prisons because I feared new roadblocks if they knew of our success. But when we decided to talk more publicly, we went all in. We approached it as a national project, not just a local one, because America lacked places that honestly talked about lynching and similar issues. We hoped Montgomery would benefit, and it has, with increased local engagement, employment and business opportunities. The initial strategy was covert, much like our legal strategy, because announcing plans too early could have created resistance. Now, people are excited and engaged and it’s rewarding to see the dynamic we’ve created.

bryan stevenson
Bryan Stevenson at a screening of Warner Bros Pictures’ “Just Mercy,” adapted from his book of the same name. Image: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

How do you find peace and rest given the taxing nature of your work?

I feel like I’m in a conversation with my ancestors, who constantly guide me on how to persevere and endure. My mother insisted on having a piano in our house, which opened a doorway to music, a great comfort for me. We were also encouraged to stay active and healthy, which has been comforting. Even in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time, I was constantly given things that now bring me peace. Feeling a sense of clarity and purpose in my work contributes significantly to my peace.

Are there any materials, films, or things you’re consuming now that keep you energized?

Music has always been a significant part of my life. I’ve been listening to older recordings of early 20th-century jazz and gospel music. Mahalia Jackson’s recordings, for example, have been incredibly moving. Her music provided comfort and strength during challenging times. Art and sculpture also inspire me. Seeing the works of talented Black artists and sculptors today, who have the opportunity to create spaces and works that weren’t possible 50 years ago, is incredibly energizing and affirming.

How would you encourage young people or those wanting to do similar work?

First, I would say you can do it. I was a poor, nappy-headed boy from a community where no one thought anything could happen. Encouragement is crucial. Stay proximate to the people you care about and don’t lose yourself in currents that divert you from your true path. Remain hopeful because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Be willing to do uncomfortable and inconvenient things, as that is often necessary to make a difference. Making that choice will lead to beautiful, rewarding experiences. I am inspired by young people and the letters I receive from high school kids expressing their aspirations and commitment to justice.

How do you encourage those still apprehensive about confronting the truth within this history?

I keep telling them there’s something better for them on the other side of fear. Look at sports in Alabama, for example. Despite intense resistance to integration, courageous Black people kept pushing for change. Today, there’s nothing that makes people in this state prouder than the success of integrated college football teams. This joy and achievement could apply to housing, employment and other sectors if we move past fear. We have models now that show the great things possible on the other side of fear and resistance. It’s about creating opportunities for grace, mercy, transformation, bridge-building and barrier-breaking through truth-telling.

Updated: May 31, 2024 — 9:02 pm