Despite being stuck in his Bozeman a hotel elevator for 40 minutes, bestselling author Bryan Stevenson was calm and eloquent prior to his appearance as the speaker for Montana State University’s 2017 Convocation.
That seems fitting for a social justice activist and human rights lawyer who has been in a tight spot many times in his career. The Harvard-educated Stevenson has battled to save the lives of death row prisoners and advocated for the rights of children in prison, and he has argued several times before the U.S. Supreme Court. For his work, he has been called “the Nelson Mandela of America.”
Stevenson is also the author of the powerful “Just Mercy.” The book details the work of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative and was MSU’s 2017 freshman summer reading selection. It is currently No. 2 on the New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list, a list that it has been on for 74 weeks.
Before speaking to MSU students, Stevenson answered a few questions about justice for all, his first visit to Montana and how students can change the world.
What is the message you want MSU students to get from your speech?
That they (students) have the capacity to make a difference. I do think that so many young people – so many people – feel that their little light doesn’t add much to the reflection, to the illumination. I want to challenge that. I really do believe that you can make a difference. If you are committed to something and you are willing to do those uncomfortable things, there is no limit to the impact you can have on a range of issues. … They have enormous power to address the wrongs and injustices of our world.
Your work is based in the rural South, an area that is very different than Montana in many ways. What is your message to students that have lived most of their lives in communities that are primarily white?
I do think the issues of injustice, of over-incarceration, of excessive punishment, of poverty are everywhere. … I think if we are talking about Native community here, whether we’re talking about Latino populations or African Americans, we all have a role to play in confronting our history of racial inequality.
How can people separate some of the important issues of today from politics?
Ultimately, our humanity and commitment to human dignity has to prevail over any kind of partisan or party affiliation. Most of us join political parties because we have to. We don’t have many options. They are a mechanism for organizing political choice. They are not really an expression of who we are. … They don’t really define us. I think what really defines us is our interest in helping other people. I don’t meet many people who say, “Because I am this, because I am a member of this political party, I don’t care about other people, I don’t care about fairness, I don’t care about humane treatment, I don’t care about justice.” Most people will say they do care about these things. And what we debate and discuss is what is the best strategy, what is the best mechanism for achieving these things. And that is a discussion, it is not an identity. So, we are all obligated to stay true to being a compassionate, caring human being. And, there is no party that defines that.
Your speech here (on injustice and inequality) seems to come at an important time in our country’s history with what is happening currently with white nationalists.
I do think it’s always been urgent. I think it’s particularly urgent now as we see the consequences of being silent for so long about this history, and what that breeds is this extremism and hatred that we are seeing on display that we haven’t seen in a while. So, yes, I think there is a particular urgency right now with some of these issues.
You mention your uncomfortableness with Confederate symbols in “Just Mercy.” What is your opinion about what is happening with these symbols currently?
We need to get to a place in our country where we don’t honor people who have done dishonorable things. There is a way to honor a certain kind of history. But we should not celebrate people who did nothing honorable. You complicate the message. We didn’t put up these Robert E. Lee statues to honor what happened in the Civil War. We put them up to change what that war was about. There was this pride and this romanticizing. And at the same time we erected thousands of these Confederate memorials. We chose to be completely silent about the institution of slavery. And, you cannot do that, in my judgement.
I’m interested in telling the truth about that history. I’m interested in educating about slavery. So that’s why we’re putting up markers to talk about the slave trade. We want all the places where slave auctions took place acknowledged. … We want to tell the truth about that era.
I want to have a conversation, because when we take it out of the Confederacy, I think we’ll get to a different solution, a position, on that than we would if we don’t know the truth. And my hunch is that people won’t feel so comfortable with those statues if they know the history. Once we understand that truth, we will have a different relationship.
Do you think these issues affect those of us in Montana, who are far removed from the South?
I think these issues affect us all. I think Montana is very proximate to one of the great racial issues of our country, which is the Native people. I can’t emphasize enough how there are places in this state where horrific things happen to Native populations. And most of us aren’t aware of those things. We don’t think about those issues, and we should. That consciousness that I’m trying to develop around issues that dominate the American South, that typically affect African-Americans, that consciousness ought to live in all of us.
Whether you are in the Northwest, whether you are in Big Sky Country, whether you are in the South or the Northeast, wherever you are in America, these are real issues. I don’t think the urgency should be tempered by the issues that we don’t see as clearly in our communities as we see in other communities. Because these issues are everywhere.
What is the first step in making progress in racial equity?
The first step is learning about our racial history, and we all have work to do in that arena. Once you understand the truth, you have a better sense where boundaries are. It’s when we don’t understand the history, we don’t understand the issues, we unknowingly do or say things that create injury or distrust, and that wasn’t our intent. So, I do think there is a need to learn. … I think truth and reconciliation is sequential. You have to tell the truth first before you can get to reconciliation.
How can people effect such change?
I think first, you have to get close to the problems. Many of us want to avoid these problems, to avoid communities where there is a lot of crime, abuse, drug addiction and despair. I believe the opposite. I think some of us have to get closer to those parts of our communities where there is suffering and neglect and despair and even violence.
I think you have to change narratives. There are narratives that sustain these problems that we try to address. (Often) we focus on policies when we talk about solutions. Too often we don’t focus on the narratives underneath the policies. For me, when we have mass incarceration because we have something I call the politics of fear and anger, this narrative of fear and anger that we allow ourselves to be governed by has made us indifferent to inequality and injustice. So, that narrative has to be changed, along with the policies.
The third thing I talk about is staying hopeful. I don’t think we can change injustice without hope. I think hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
And finally, I talk about doing uncomfortable things. I don’t think we can create more just communities unless we’re willing to do uncomfortable things.
Is there anything that you would tell your 18-year-old self?
I think I’d tell my 18-year-old self not to think too small. Having not had much and growing up in a rural community, I had no idea, didn’t think much beyond or of what came next. …
I think you have to believe in things that you haven’t yet seen. Don’t be afraid to do things just because you haven’t seen them.
Carol Schmidt, 994-1966, email@example.com