Bryan Stevenson Believes Art Can Help Us Confront the Traumas of Racism
Portrait of Bryan Stevenson by Rog and Bee Walker. Courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative.
In the award-winning 2019 film Just Mercy, Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a young Black defense lawyer in 1980s Montgomery, Alabama, who takes on the case of Walter McMillian, a Black man played by Jamie Foxx who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman.
Based on a true story, Stevenson was able to prove that the state’s witnesses had lied on the stand and that the prosecution had illegally suppressed evidence. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned McMillian’s conviction in 1993, and prosecutors agreed the case had been mishandled. McMillian was released in 1993 after spending six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
“The movie has such visibility—when you have someone like Michael B. Jordan playing you on screen, it changes things and takes away much of my anonymity, that’s for sure,” laughed the real Bryan Stevenson. He explained how the film has helped introduce a broader audience to the problems plaguing the U.S. criminal justice system. “Educating people on these issues has been important because I don’t think we can get the type of conversations we need until people have enough information to know the ‘why.’ The film does a superb job getting people to see the inside a little bit more clearly.”
Racial terrorism and white supremacy have always been a grisly reality, thinly veiled and often hiding in the shadows of the United States’s history and present. For Stevenson, that reality is confronted head-on in the remembrance of the victims of such violence, and through the work achieved by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Interior view of the Legacy Museum. Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures.
Founded by Stevenson in 1989, EJI is a nonprofit organization providing legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. Part of EJI’s mission is to challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment while providing re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. In celebration of Black History Month, Artsy will be hosting a benefit auction raising funds for EJI beginning on February 11th.
Born in Delaware in 1959, Stevenson grew up in a rural, rugged community. During that time, he perceived a two-sided reality in the U.S., split between those with privilege and wealth and those without. As he got older, that awareness led him to a life of freedom-fighting through the court system. “I realized we had a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty versus poor and innocent,” said Stevenson. “It became clear this fight is where I wanted to be.”
Interior view of the Legacy Museum. Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures.
He entered law school at Harvard and the Kennedy School of Government, where he graduated in 1985. He then worked as a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to Montgomery, Alabama, to plant the seeds for EJI.
“In the early 1980s, when I came out of college, the crisis emerging was over incarceration and capital punishment,” said Stevenson. “After being in Atlanta for some time, Alabama emerged as a state in trouble—many people on death row were dying for legal assistance, so I came here and opened the EJI to respond to this problem. It has been growing since 1989.”
“I met condemned prisoners who revealed to me a sort of humanity and passivity for recovery and change. It motivated me to want to stand with the condemned, the excluded, and the neglected. That’s how I came to do this work—by meeting prisoners whose humanity and dignity and worth and value were clear to me. I observed states seeking to execute them because they deemed them invaluable and beyond redemption, and that simply wasn’t true to me,” he said.
Acutely aware of visual culture’s unique ability to educate and communicate what words and actions often could not, Stevenson has also made art a cornerstone of EJI. On April 26, 2018, nearly 20 years after its inception, EJI unveiled the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A physical extension of the nonprofit, the memorial and museum use art to pay homage to the 4,400-plus African American men, women, and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. It is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy and history of enslaved Black people.
View of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures.
What makes this powerful place so unique is Stevenson’s commitment to what he calls “visual truth-telling.” Art, he explained, is a critical part of that. “I’ve always believed artists have a way of expressing truths about the human condition in a compelling and influential way,” said Stevenson. “One of the things we wanted to do was to have a sculpture that depicts the brutality of slavery and the humanity of those enslaved in a raw way that we haven’t seen before.”
Situated on a sprawling six-acre property, at the center of this campus is a memorial square with 800 six-foot-tall steel monuments that represent each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. Engraved on each steel column are the names of lynching victims.
Hank Willis Thomas, installation view of Raise Up, 2016, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures.
Works by Black artists paying tribute to pivotal movements and historic moments in Black history are seen throughout the property. Life-size bronze sculptures of three Black women by the artist Dana King sprung out of a conversation she had with Stevenson about wanting to honor the women who were at the heart and soul of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and represent the strength of Black women to push for equality and justice in our communities. Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Raise Up (2016) is a haunting reflection on police brutality and the history of slavery and mass incarceration.
“I’ve long been a fan of so many Black artists,” said Stevenson. “Some of my favorites are Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, and Gordon Parks, to name a few. All these folks created visuals to help people understand the African American experience. Hence, we wanted all that to be part of our space. We are always adding things and are going to be continuing to add them in the coming year.”
Titus Kaphar, installation view of Doubt, 2010, in the Legacy Museum. Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures.
The Legacy Museum itself is housed in a building that had formerly warehoused slaves. The site is also a mere stone’s throw away from what was once one of the nation’s most prominent slave auction spaces, where tens of thousands of Black men and women were sold throughout the 19th century. Within the museum are artworks by Titus Kaphar, Sanford Biggers, John Biggers, Yvonne Meo, and Kay Brown.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum have become a mecca for art as a conduit for processing and understanding the history of Black trauma. Furthering that, EJI also helps bring the power of art into communities across the country. Programs like the Community Historical Marker Project and the Community Remembrance Project help everyday citizens erect their own visual displays and place narrative markers in public locations describing the oft forgotten and devastating violence that once took place there.
These projects, along with other community coalition-developed engagement efforts, center the experience of African American racial injustice. It also empowers African American community members who have adopted and inherited this trauma, inviting the entire community to use art and the truth to voice those experiences and expose their legacies.
“We have high school essay contests and book collections through lynching sites,” said Stevenson. “We hope to do a lot more of those in the coming years. We have done dozens of marker events, but we want to do hundreds more.”
Today EJI has installed dozens of markers throughout the country, in states including Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. It’s this public, community aspect of the work that Stevenson said is the most valuable. “The public narrative a nation creates about what is important is reflected in memorials and monuments,” he said. “Who is honored, remembered, and memorialized tells a story about a society that can’t be reflected in other ways.”
He continued: “When we erect these markers at lynching sites, and when people come to our museum or our memorial, the legacy of lynching and slavery allows us to engage in an honest reckoning with our history. We open ourselves up to the essence of healing, the sort of repair, the manner of restoration that allows us to build something better—and I do believe something better is waiting for us. Something that feels more like freedom, smells more like equality and justice waiting for us in this country.”