Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan

S1 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Bryan Stevenson

In the midst of America’s racial reckoning, this program provides inspiration from Bryan Stevenson, one of the country’s leading advocates for racial reconciliation, on what motivates him to continue the work toward justice.

AIRED: October 05, 2020 | 0:55:56
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

It's so clear to me

that we are all more

than the worst thing we've ever done.

I think if someone tells a lie

- they're not just a liar... - Mm-hmm.

and they should not have to go through life branded

only as a liar.

Even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer.

Self-awareness is a funny thing.

Most of us think we are,

but research says we really aren't.

It's no wonder.

Looking hard at yourself or your community

or your country takes guts.

Once in a generation, someone comes along

and holds up a giant mirror

and asks us to look at the totality

of who we are as a country.

Think Eleanor Roosevelt, think Martin Luther King,

who asked us to do better and be better.

That's the story of Bryan Stevenson's life,

a Harvard Law School superstar who spent

the first 18 months after graduation sleeping

on a buddy's couch so that he could represent people

with no money and only the tiniest sliver of hope.

30 years later, he's still at it.

Along with his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative,

he's still taking the kinds of cases

he documented so unforgettably

in his 2014 best-selling memoir

"Just Mercy."

In this moment in American history

if you're looking for hope,

perspective, and a way forward,

I don't think that you could find someone better

to talk to than Bryan Stevenson.

I spent two days with him in Alabama,

touring his memorial,

talking about his Supreme Court Wins

and his clients,

and as far as I can tell, his only distractions

are that he's a sucker for Pop-Tarts,

and he can't pass a piano without trying to play it.

[Playing jazz]

I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"

and here's my conversation with Bryan Stevenson.

Corrigan: Thanks so much for doing this.

I'm really grateful.

Thank you. Delighted to be with you.

So I thought we'd just get some of the facts

of your background...

- Sure. - set up.

You grew up in Delaware?

Yes. Southern Delaware.

Tell us about your parents.

My dad grew up in the South.

He worked as a domestic, and then my mom--

What was her name?

Her name was Alice.

She loved learning, she loved words,

she loved reading.

My mom had this real fascination

with the world, and my dad was like,

"No. Stay safe. Let's stay in this space."

My mom was a lot pushier, and my mother pulled me

out of the colored school a half year early

because she wanted me to get into

this integrated school, and I remember being there,

and I was the only Black kid in the school

for, like, 3 months.

My brother was a year older,

and when he went to the white school,

he told us that the white kids

would chase him, and she told him

to run to a tree, and we would be there,

and so at lunch, he would come running out,

and these white kids would be chasing him,

and she would park outside the fence,

and she would say to me, "Now go help your brother."

I would get on the car, climb over the fence,

and me and my brother would just be--

you know, we were 5 or 6, but we'd be fighting

with these kids for the whole hour,

and my mom facilitated that--

Ha!

by taking me to the spot,

but it was sort of my mom's orientation

was to fight.

And your grandmother had that.

Yes, my grandmother.

Your grandmother had

a great setup for you.

You know, I come from remarkable people.

My great grandfather was enslaved

and learned to read while enslaved

even though he knew it could cost him his life,

it could have caused him to be sold,

and my grandmother would tell these stories

about after Emancipation all the Black folks

would come to their home every night,

and he would read the newspaper,

and she said, "I would sit next to him

"while he read the newspaper,

"and I would look around the room,

and everybody was paying attention,"

and she said, "I realized that reading is power,"

and she said, "I wanted that power,"

and even though there were a lot of schools,

she demanded to be taught how to read,

and she had 10 children,

but she made them literate, too,

and my mom gave that to me.

I remember my mom going into debt

to buy us the "World Book Encyclopedia."

For the children watching this show,

we just want to explain encyclopedias were

- pieces of paper... - That's right.

in alphabetical order that described

everything in the world.

That's right. It was like the Internet in books,

but that's sort of my mom's orientation,

and even though, you know, we couldn't afford it,

she felt like we couldn't be without it.

On our street in Wooded Lane growing up,

the Kellys had the only set of encyclopedias,

and so everybody would call Mrs. Kelly

and say, "Kelly has a, you know, paper due"...

Right.

"on Mesopotamia.

Can she come up and borrow the M book?"

Yeah. No. It was interesting.

It just made you curious about the world

outside the world you saw.

What were your sports?

Oh, wow. We played everything.

We played baseball and football and basketball.

That was the first time we actually had

an integrated public life was you'd go to the park

and people would be in the stands,

and you could--you know, you could strike somebody out

or hit a home run, and people would cheer for you,

and it was the beginning of that orientation.

Until then, the only way you could get

public recognition was in church.

Sports is so interesting to me

as a place where there has been

early integration and where there's

incredible teamwork and intimacy.

Is there anything problematic about the way

that we're seeing these exceptional athletes?

Right. Well, I think without sports

we would not have made the progress we've made

in this country toward integration,

and that's why you cannot underestimate

the significance

of Jackie Robinson

and those early Black pioneer athletes

in Major League Baseball, in the NBA,

in football because what they did

was make it permissible to cheer for someone

who was Black even though you held on

to all of that racial animus.

Which is a weird, like, double feeling.

It is a double feeling.

Or a double truth.

It is a double truth, and I think

the mistake we made is believing that

just because we cheer for this team

with Black athletes means that we're not racially biased,

and that's the part that has to be addressed.

Now that we have Black athletes

and we have amazing Black success,

you know, Serena and Venus and Tiger

and all of these amazing people,

who everybody cheers for,

we have to get past this idea

that it's socially acceptable to cheer for this team

but politically unacceptable to reject racial inequality

in all forms.

You know, I tell this story about going

to South Carolina when we were kids.

We took this long drive, and we spent

the first night at this hotel.

When the bus pulled into the hotel,

my sister saw the pool and just started screaming.

We'd put our bathing trunks on underneath our clothes

so we'd be ready for the pool.

We threw off our clothes, and I remember

holding my sister's hand, saying, "I'm gonna count to 3,

and we're gonna jump into this pool,"

and the white kids in the pool

and the parents were kind of looking at us,

but I wasn't paying them any attention.

We saw a pool.

So we jumped high in the air,

and we landed in the pool, and it was spectacular,

and, um, it took me a minute before I realized

that people were going crazy.

They were shouting to their children

"Get out of the pool! Get out of the pool!"

And there was just one little boy left,

and this man came walking into the pool, big guy,

and this little boy was just standing there,

and the man snatched the boy up by the arm,

and the little boy started crying,

and I was so stunned by it.

I turned to the man, and I said, "What's wrong?"

And the man looked at me, and he said,

"You're wrong, nigger."

And it wasn't the first time somebody had used

that word to me,

but it was the first time a moment of such complete joy

and happiness had been savaged

by something so hateful.

When I told my mom what had happened,

she wasn't paying attention until I told her

what the man said, and my mom got angry,

and she said, "Are those people still near the pool?"

I said, "I don't think so."

She said, "You get back in that pool,"

and it was classic Mom.

She said, "Don't you let those people

run you from that pool," and I was like,

"Well, we don't really want to get in the pool now, Mom."

"Whole pool thing's kind of spoiled, Mom."

She goes, "No. You get back in the pool,"

and she made us get back in this pool.

The thing I remember most about that trip

was getting back in the pool and standing in a corner,

holding my sister's hand,

desperately trying not to cry.

That's what I remember doing

is like, "I'm not gonna cry, I'm not gonna cry."

So many Black people have to deal with these memories,

a whole generation,

and you do have to find a way to navigate it

where you can be healthy, and so you laugh,

and by the time were teens,

I would say to my sister-- I'd say, "Christy,

"you remember that time we went to that pool

"and we made all those white people get out

of the water?"

And my sister would do this thing

where she--if our friends were around,

she would say, "Yeah, y'all.

"We went down to that pool,

"and I got on the edge of that pool,

"and I said, 'All y'all white people get out,'

and they all got out," and we would laugh,

and it's not the truth, but it's the way

you carry the story,

and people laugh in spaces of abject distress

because it's a way of holding

onto their humanity, and--

I had cancer when I was 36,

and I had a one-year-old and a two-year-old,

and I was in chemo...

Yeah, yeah.

and we really enjoyed our dark humor.

Yeah!

You went to college. Where'd you go to college?

I went to Eastern College.

Oh, my God! In Bryn Mawr?

- Yeah. On-- - I'm from Villanova.

- Are you really? - Yeah.

- Wow! Yes! - Yeah, yeah, yeah.

My dad used to play pond hockey.

When that pond would freeze,

he would play pond hockey.

- Walton Pond. - Yeah. Exactly.

It's a beautiful campus.

I just was so excited to be in college.

When you grow up in the rural South

in a poor community,

graduate from high school, and you step into a world

like Eastern on the Main Line

with all those colleges and all of that beauty

and wealth and splendor,

it's like stepping into this new world.

And the cheesesteaks.

Don't forget the cheesesteaks.

Oh, my God. The cheesesteaks.

And the Twinkies. Did you get into Twinkies?

That's one of my big frustrations now.

I can't get Tastykakes like I need them.

Bryan eats Pop-Tarts, so let's just say that.

Unfrosted. Unfrosted Pop Tarts.

I do want credit for only eating

the unfrosted ones.

Oh, my God.

So you go to Harvard Law School,

and you're also taking classes at the Kennedy School,

where you're gonna get this public policy,

like, dual degree

because you're an overachiever,

and--whether you know it or not--

and, um, like a first impression you had was

"There's not much connection here

"between the people that we're making

"these policies about

and the work that we're doing."

Yeah. It was interesting because I went to law school

because I was concerned about inequality and injustice,

and it didn't seem like those were priorities

in my first year of law school,

and it was really only in my second year

of law school that things turned around.

There was a professor there named Betsy Bartholet,

and she had this idea to use the January term

not keeping people in the classroom

but send them to human rights

and civil rights organizations,

and so I signed up for that

and ended up coming to Atlanta, Georgia,

to work with this group which was then called

the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee,

and I'd been there a couple weeks

when one of the lawyers said, "Bryan, we need you

"to go to death row and explain to someone

"that he's not at risk of execution

anytime in the next year."

How old are you?

I'm, like, 22, but I drove down

to Jackson, Georgia, which is where death row is.

Just by yourself?

By myself. I was trying to rehearse

exactly what I was gonna say to this man,

and I felt so unqualified and so unprepared.

How old was he?

He ended up being exactly my age,

and they brought this man in,

and he had chains everywhere.

They asked me whether I wanted him to be unshackled,

and I said yes because it just seemed rude to say no,

and they unchained this man,

and I got so nervous that when he walked over to me,

I just said, "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,"

"but they sent me down here here to tell you

"that you're not at risk of execution

anytime in the next year,"

and I never will forget that man just slowing me down

and saying, "Wait, wait, wait.

Say that again,"

and I said, "You're not at risk of execution

anytime in the next year."

And he closed his eyes, and he said, "Wait, wait.

Say that again,"

and I said, "You're not at risk of execution

anytime in the next year."

And that's when that man grabbed my hands,

and he looked me dead in the eye,

and he said, "Thank you, thank you, 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, "I've been talking to my wife and kids

"on the phone, but I haven't let them

"come and visit because I was afraid

"I'd have an execution date, and I didn't want them to

have to deal with that."

He said, "Now because of you,

I'm gonna see my wife, I'm gonna see my kids."

He said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you,"

and I couldn't believe how, even in my ignorance,

just being present, just showing up

could make a difference in the quality

of someone's life,

and it taught me something really important

about being present, about proximity,

and I just fell into conversation with this man,

and I just forgot we were on death row,

I forgot he was a death row prisoner,

I forgot I was a law student.

We just started talking,

and one hour turned into two hours,

2 hours turned into 3 hours,

and the guards came bursting into the room,

and they were angry that I'd stayed so long

because they'd been waiting outside,

and they couldn't do anything to me,

so they took it out on this man,

and they threw him violently against the wall,

and they pulled his arms back.

They put the handcuffs on his wrists,

they wrapped the chain around his waist,

they put the shackles on his ankles,

and they were treating him so roughly

that I actually found my courage, and I said,

"Please, please stop treating him so roughly."

He was my friend at this point.

I said, "You don't have to do that,"

but they ignored me, and I remember

when he got near the door they were about to shove him

through, and he planted his feet,

and they shoved him, but he didn't move,

and he threw his head back.

He started to sing

"I'm pressing on the upward way,

"New heights I'm gaining every day,

Still praying as I'm onward bound,"

and then he said, "Lord, plant my feet

on higher ground."

Everybody stopped. Everybody stopped,

and the guards recovered, and they started shoving 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 sing,

everything changed for me.

That's when I knew I wanted to help

condemned people get to higher ground,

and in that instant, my interest in the law

was radicalized.

It's so clear to me that we are all more

than the worst thing we've ever done.

I think if someone tells a lie

they're not just a liar,

and they should not have to go through life branded

only as a liar.

I think if someone takes something,

they're just a thief.

I think even if you kill someone

you're not just a killer,

and we can't do justice until we understand

the other things you are.

I worked on a case some years ago,

and, you know, I don't just sit with my clients.

I sit with their families,

and this young man's mother started talking about

how she felt responsible that her son was on prison

because she said, "I was not a good mother.

"I couldn't do for them what they needed.

"You know, I would do these things,

and I feel bad about it now," she said,

"but we wouldn't have food,

"and I would ask the kids to draw a picture

of the food they wanted to eat."

You know, and she would say how

"I would put the pictures down so we had"--

and she thought that was cruel,

and I don't think people appreciate what it's like

to live through that deprivation

and that denial in a world that is

so rich with surplus.

Mm-hmm. You know, I volunteer

for Children's Hospital in Oakland,

where 70% of the kids are underinsured

or uninsured, and I hold babies

- in the NICU... - Yeah.

And, um, poverty's a disease.

Like, your zip code is as impactful

on your future as your genetic code.

We have a generation of kids, poor kids,

that by the time they're 5 have trauma disorders.

Speaking of children...

Mm-hmm.

there are some incredible stories

in "Just Mercy"

about these kids

like Ian and Joe

and Trina.

What you're trying to do with kids is

you're trying to make them feel human again.

When you're told you're a prisoner,

when you're told you're worthless,

when you've been condemned to die in prison,

you're basically being told your life

has so little meaning, so little purpose,

so little value we're not gonna let you have that life.

I make all of my young clients read books.

I know, and you sent Ian Charles Darwin

"Origin of a Species."

Yes. I sent all of the cl--

the first year or two, I make them read the books

I want them to read, and then if they get

through those, they get to pick the books,

and it's been such a source of joy

because a lot of times I'll say, "Look.

I'm not coming to see you until you finish your book."

You know, there's a problem with cell phones

in prisons right now.

It's the number one contraband

because people want to stay connected to the world,

and one night, I'm home, and I get this call,

and it's one of my clients,

and I said, "I know you're calling me on a cell phone.

I can't talk to you on a cell phone."

He said, "But it's an emergency.

I just finished one of the books that you sent me."

I said, "Well, that's not an emergency."

He said, "No. It really is."

He said, "I can't stop thinking about this book."

I said, "What book did I send you?"

And he told me "I just finished reading

'The Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoyevsky,"

which is one of my favorite books,

and he starts talking about the characters,

and he starts talking

about the people and what they're saying,

and it reminded me of the things I was saying

when I was in college, and it just moved me,

and, you know, for me, it's allowing people

to be human despite the tragedy of a past crime

or despite the tragedy of the injustice,

despite the tragedy of what we've done to people,

and with kids that's especially so.

I never pretended to be just their lawyer.

They didn't want me to be just their lawyer,

and I never tried to pretend

that that was my role, I'm just this professional.

You know, a lot of my young clients

need me to be a brother or a dad or a uncle

or whatever, and I embrace that

because I believe to be an effective advocate

I have to go where they are

and kind of wrap my arms around them.

We were talking about, you know, going

into hospitals and holding these babies,

and that's the gift, again, that I feel like

I was given by my grandparents and foreparents

is the power of an embrace,

and I tell this story about my grandmother,

how when integration came she was very nervous

about what was gonna happen,

and I would go to see her, and she would come up to me,

and she would give me these hugs,

and my grandmother would squeeze me so tightly

I thought she was trying to hurt me,

and then she'd see me an hour later,

and she'd say, "Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?"

And if I said no, she would jump on me again,

and so I got to this point where every time

I would see my grandmother the first thing

I would say is...

"I can feel you."

"Mama, I can feel you hugging.

I feel you hugging me."

My grandmother lived into her 90s.

She fell on a bus, and she broke her hip,

and then she was diagnosed with cancer,

and I was in college at the time,

and she was dying, and I went to go see her,

and I remember just sitting next to her

and just holding her hand and just pouring my heart out,

all these things I was afraid

I wouldn't have a chance to say to her,

and her eyes were closed.

I wasn't even sure she could hear me,

and I remember getting up to leave,

knowing that it was time to go,

and my grandmother squeezing my hand

as I got up to leave and turning to me

and opening her eyes

and saying to me, "Bryan, do you still

feel me hugging you?"

And then she said, "I'm always going to be

hugging you."

Last thing she said to me,

and I tell people all the time

that the power of proximity,

the power of going into jails and prisons

and sitting with young kids who've been condemned,

the power of going to death row,

the power of going to places where people

have been excluded and neglected and marginalized

is that if you go there with the right kind of mind

and the right kind of heart, at the very least

you can get close enough to people,

and sometimes, you will be asked to simply embrace them,

to hold them and affirm their humanity

and affirm their dignity.

I've felt powerless at times

to do anything beyond just affirm someone's

humanity and dignity.

As if that's a small thing.

Exactly, but I've never doubted the value of that.

So a thing that's interesting

about your work with kids

in the justice system and the way

you're talking about proximity

and these moments of humanity

that are punctuating these long,

horrible sentences reminds me a little bit

of language.

Like, you always say,

"People who have been enslaved."

You never say, "Slaves"

Yeah.

And I think that's really significant.

Like, I was a woman who had cancer.

I was not a cancer patient.

Mm-hmm.

And what you're saying with these visits

is that "for these moments that I'm

"in this room with you, we don't have to be

"client and lawyer,

"that you can just be a person

"and I can be a person

and we can be people together."

Right. Well, I mean, I think that's how we build

relationships with one another.

We have to put away the identities

that have been given to us that tell us

that we can't connect.

Corrigan: For sure, my favorite component

of this whole show is something we're calling Plus Two.

We're gonna ask them "Tell us two people

that you wish the whole world knew a whole lot more about,"

and the thesis is that nobody ever looks more beautiful

than when they're talking about somebody they love.

Talk about your plus two Anthony Ray Hinton.

Yeah. Anthony Ray Hinton is someone who spent 30 years

on Alabama's death row for a crime

he didn't commit.

I represented him for 16 years

and then ultimately in the United States

Supreme Court, where we won a reversal,

and then I represented him at trial,

and we won his freedom, and I now have the privilege

of having him on our staff

at the Equal Justice Initiative,

where he does community education work.

He's an extraordinary human being.

I grew up outside of Birmingham

in a little place called

Praco, Alabama.

In 1985, July, and I woke up that morning

and didn't have a care in the world,

and I goes outside, I fire up the old lawnmower,

and I just happened to look up, and there stood

two white gentlemen that I never seen before,

and they said, "We have a warrant for your arrest,"

and I said, "For what?"

And one of them replied, "We'll tell you that later,

"but right now, we want you to put

your hands behind your back."

I show my mother the handcuff,

and like any good mother, she began to scream and holler,

"What are those handcuffs doing on my baby?"

And on our way to the county jail,

I asked these detectives,

"Why am I being arrested?"

They never would say anything,

and one of the detectives turned around and asked me

"Anthony, do you own a firearm?" and I said no.

I said, "But my mother has an old Smith & Wesson firearm

that she keeps the house for snakes."

They dropped me off at a substation there in Dora,

went back to my mother's house, told her that I had told them

about a gun she had.

She gave them the gun, they came back,

they picked me up, and we proceeded to go

to the county jail once again.

I must have asked these detectives at least 50 times

"Why am I being arrested?"

And finally on the 51st time, he said,

"We're gonna charge you with first-degree robbery,

first-degree kidnapping, first-degree attempted murder."

I said, "But I haven't done any of that.

You got the wrong person."

He said, "Let me tell you something right now.

I don't care whether you did it or didn't do it," he said,

"but I'm gonna make sure you're found guilty of it."

I said, "For a crime I didn't commit?"

He said, "You must have a hearing problem.

"Didn't I tell you I don't care whether you did it

or didn't do it?"

He said, "There's 5 things that gonna convict you."

He said, "Number one, you're Black.

"Number two, a white man is gonna say you shot him.

Whether you shot him or not, I do not care."

He said, "Number 3, you're gonna have a white prosecutor.

"Number 4, you're gonna have a white judge,

and number 5, you're gonna have an all-white jury,"

and he said, "Do you know what that spells?"

And he repeated the word "Conviction, conviction,

conviction, conviction, conviction."

Well, I went to trial, and they convicted me

of two counts of first-degree capital murder.

The prosecution that day ran out and told the world

that they, the state of Alabama, got the worst killer

that ever walked the streets in Birmingham,

but he was overheard saying,

"We didn't get the right nigger today,

but at least we got a nigger off the street,"

and on December 17, 1986,

I went to Alabama death row, where I would remain

for the next 30 years of my life.

The cell was a 5x7, and the first thing I did was

I told my mind--

I said, "Mind, I need you to make this cell

as big as possible,"

and the second thing I told my mind

"I don't know how long I'm going to be here,

but I need you to erase the world that I once knew,"

and I was so angry with God, and I was so angry

with everything that went on with this case

that I decided that I wasn't gonna talk to anybody.

When my mother and my best friend Lester

came to see me, my mother would say, "Are you OK?"

And I would just say, "Mm-hmm."

Going into the fourth year, I woke up to the sound

of a grown man crying.

I got out of my bed, and I went up to the bars,

and I said, "Sir, do you need me to call and get

the officer back here?"

And he said, "No.

I just got word my mother died,"

and when he told me that, my heart just broke,

and as I was sitting there on that bunkbed,

I realized that my mother was still alive,

and I realized that I was still alive,

and I realized for the last 3 years

I had gave the state of Alabama

more than I intended to give them,

and I had gave them my joy,

and I had decided at that moment

I was going to enjoy the rest of my life.

regardless of me being on death row or not,

I was just going to enjoy.

The day that I shook Bryan Stevenson's hand,

I knew that God has sent me His best lawyer.

I said, "Mr. Stevenson, if no two guns is alike,

I know that the state of Alabama is telling a lie."

I said, "Mr. Stevenson, I need you to hire

"a ballistic expert.

I need you to hire... a white man."

And I said...

"I need this white man

"to be from the South.

"It definitely cannot be

a person of color."

3 months later, he informed me that he found 3

of the world's renowned expert.

Each one of them test the gun.

They finally got together and told Mr. Stevenson

that the state of Alabama had made a mistake,

and it took Bryan Stevenson along with the crew at EJI

16 long years to finally win my freedom,

but in that 16 years,

I never met a more dedicated man that believed

with every fiber in his being that he was put on this Earth

to serve the poor.

On April 3, 2015, I walked out the Jefferson County Jail

for the first time to freedom in 30 years,

and he was walking right beside me...

and the sun seemed to be shining brighter

than it had ever shined in my life,

and it was like bittersweet, for I had wanted my mother

to be there,

and she just didn't survive that long,

and I felt cheated but also was thankful

that Bryan Stevenson stayed with me through it all

for 16 long years.

Corrigan: Bryan, the National Memorial

for Peace and Justice is holding so many

important stories for our country,

and you had such a huge role in making it

come to life.

Can you explain your design approach?

Stevenson: What happens in the first corridor,

the monuments are at eye level

so you can get a sense of the names and the people.

We wanted for people to have that connection,

that human connection.

You know, we used corten steel

because, you know, the architects kept

coming up with these other things.

I was like, "No. That's too pristine,"

and I love it because when they come

they're silver, but then they oxidize,

and they become this red, and they're rough,

and they stain, and there are places

where you can see the streaks,

and I wanted that because it felt

more human that way.

So you were superinvolved.

I mean, if you're talking about picking out

the metal and understanding how it's gonna oxidize,

you were hands-on.

Yeah. Absolutely. No.

We feel like we designed this space

with a narrative in mind,

and that's why the sculpture on slavery,

that's why a path that leads you around

and kind of pushes you to read a little bit

these names, these communities.

They represent places, and people look

for their communities and in this corridor,

we introduce what we call epitaphs,

and they're just simple

sentence descriptions

of why people were lynched.

You know, "Charlotte Harris

lynched after a white man's barn burned down."

A man was lynched for eloping.

This woman was lynched because a mob came

to her home and her brother had already fled,

so they just lynched her.

She was a proxy, and there was no sense

that was inappropriate, and that's

the kind of thinking that you see in the Holocaust,

it's the kind of thinking that you see

in the Rwandan genocide.

It's the kind of thinking that helped

white South Africans rationalize

the barbarity of Apartheid,

and we condemn all of those institutions,

and we've done the same thing,

and we haven't been willing to acknowledge it,

let alone condemn it

and certainly not been willing to address it.

Corrigan: So tell me-- you got kind of

laser-focused on some changes in the system

on behalf of kids, and you won

a huge Supreme Court case.

Yeah. I mean, after 20 years

of representing people on death row,

we won a case that ended the death penalty for children,

Roper v. Simmons in 2005 banned

the execution of children,

and when we told them they weren't gonna be executed,

it wasn't joy.

It's like, "Oh, I'm just gonna die in prison instead.

It's life without parole."

It was a different kind of death sentence,

and I recognized that that wasn't right either,

so we quickly began thinking about now that

we've kind of eliminated that problem,

how do we think about challenging

life without parole for children?

And it is like--it is a death sentence.

Yeah. However harsh life without parole is

for an adult, it's doubly hard

for a 13-year-old or a 14-year-old.

That means their time of incarceration

will be even longer.

It's just so irrational, right,

because we don't let kids drink,

and we don't let kids smoke because we recognize

that children are changing, they're evolving,

their maturity hasn't fully arrived yet.

The children I was representing,

places like Florida, who had been convicted,

were getting harsher sentences than adults

who'd committed the same crime

because we're fascinated with this idea

of a superpredator child,

and that's how we then created this legal landscape

where every state in the country lowered

the minimum age for trying children as adults.

There are 13 states that have no minimum age

for trying a child as an adult,

which means that I've represented 9-year-old kids

facing adult sentences, decades of adult imprisonment,

and we have a juvenile justice system.

I don't even like the word juvenile.

When Justice Ginsburg during oral argument said,

"But this is a child,"

when she used the word child,

I felt like, you know, we were making progress.

Talk about your colleague at NYU.

Oh, Kim, yes. Kim Taylor-Thompson.

Well, I mean, that's the beauty of the work that I do.

I get to meet these extraordinary people.

Kim is an amazing person who is also a lawyer,

who made a choice similar to the choice I made

to go serve the poor when she graduated

from law school,

and she became a legendary trial lawyer

in Washington, D.C., and became the head

of the Public Defender Service.

She's taught at NYU Law School

and has inspired a generation of law students

to do good work.

She represents the kind of person who advocates

and believes in justice and serves

that I just love getting

other people to pay attention to.

Our history is really littered with examples

of mistreatment of children of color.

I mean, you can go back to slavery and move it

all the way up to the pandemic.

We have the various wars on drugs,

wars on crime, wars on poverty,

and the casualties in those wars are our children.

There's this lethal lie about who our children are,

and that lethal lie is that our children aren't children,

the belief that our children are somehow less valuable

and more expendable than white children,

and that lethal lie is an American thing.

I grew up in Harlem at the height

of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement.

My dad is Billy Taylor, a jazz pianist,

and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.

I think I lucked out when it came to parents.

As they were raising my brother and I to be

proud, young Black Americans,

they also wanted to make sure that we survived.

One of the things that I remember quite vividly was

against the backdrop of this empowerment message

that I was getting

from my parents was

this cautionary tale,

what's now known as the talk.

My parents told my brother and I

that we had to assume this almost humiliating etiquette

if ever we were to be stopped by the police.

Back then, you had to help your children survive

encounters with the police,

and the bad thing is that today you still have to prepare

your children to survive interactions with the police.

When I reached the age of 8, my parents, they made

the decision to send me to a private school downtown,

which was predominantly white.

I was the third Black student in the school.

I had students in my class come up to me and say,

you know, "Are you colored?" you know, because of course

that was a term that was used back then.

Being the only one in the class defined me in lots of ways.

Initially, it was intimidating, and then I realized

that I had to find my voice.

When I went on to Brown, there were 500 Black students

in a school of 5,000, but to me, that felt enormous,

but I went on to Yale Law School,

where there were only 11 Black students in my class,

and then I went on ultimately as a law teacher

to be the first African-American law professor

at Stanford University,

so you learn how to be the one, and then you hopefully

make room for more.

It's hard to actually identify what it was

that was the impulse that led me to do the work that I do.

My clients were often people I knew.

I recognized them. They were people

who had not only always gotten the advantages that sometimes

I had managed to get.

I wanted people in the court system--

judges, prosecutors-- to see the clients

that I represented as human beings,

and so I made the decision that I was gonna be

a public defender and I was gonna represent people

charged with crime.

Getting proximate is the only way

to represent your clients.

Understand who their families are,

understand their life circumstances

so that you can actually make that real for the court.

Too often, the people who are making decisions

about our clients' lives are distant from our clients.

We live in times of residential segregation,

so a lot of times, we don't even see people

that don't look like us.

If you want to understand the criminal justice system,

you really do need to look at how we treat our kids.

We see a young person of color,

particularly a young man of color,

and we're afraid because we consider him

to be dangerous, predatory, inhuman,

and it's that lie that has allowed us to have systems

that mistreat our children in every single way,

and the most acute harms happen in the criminal justice system.

If we look at the way that we adultify children,

we see children of color as older than they are,

and once you do that, it's very easy

to treat that person with less regard

and the kind of regard that we reflexively give

to white children.

We have to recognize that we're doing that

and stop doing that because we're exposing our children

to such trauma.

I was reading a tweet the day before yesterday,

a father of color who was telling his 8-year-old son

about the fact that his superhero Chadwick Boseman,

who played Black Panther, had died.

First thing he asked was "Did the police shoot him?"

The second thing he asked was "Did coronavirus kill him?"

Our kids grow up with an expectation

of a shortened life.

They are surveilled differently, they are perceived differently,

and we have to, as lawyers, as human beings,

recognize them as human and begin to change

that reality for our kids

because if we don't do that we just don't have

any hope for the future.

I met Bryan many years ago.

I was actually in Mississippi doing a training

for Mississippi criminal defense lawyers.

I was running the Public Defender Service

in Washington, D.C., at the time,

and I had concluded my session,

and there was this young brother who was gonna be talking--

Bryan Stevenson-- and I had heard about him,

and to this day, I remember being so moved

by what he said, and I went up to him afterwards

and said, you know, "Oh, that was just so wonderful.

Let me introduce myself," and he said,

"Oh, but I know who you are," because he knew

about the Public Defender Service,

but he was making me feel like I was important,

but of course, he was the one who was saying

so many things that touched my soul

and gave me perspective on the work

and why the work was so important,

and that's who Bryan is.

Desmond Tutu described Bryan as this country's Nelson Mandela,

and it's high praise, but it's not hyperbole.

It's who he is.

A few years ago, Bryan asked me

if I would step into the chairperson role

for the board for the Equal Justice Initiative.

It is such an honor to be part of this amazing organization,

and he has dedicated his life to actually giving voice

to our clients and to making sure

that we understand and change the narrative in this country,

and I feel so thrilled to be part of the work that he does.

[Playing jazz]

Stevenson, voice-over: When I play the piano,

it's the one thing that takes me out of my head.

It's just fully engaging, and so I love being able to

kind of just step out of my life

into this world of music,

and I'm curious about every piano I see.

It's a bad, bad habit, but I want to know

"Well, what does that one sound like,

and what does that one sound like?"

You just have to touch every piano you pass.

I just feel like it's saying something.

I want to hear what it's saying.

"Bryan, Bryan, come over."

Ha ha ha!

"Tell Me More" has a little

speed round for you.

OK. Yes.

If I looked at your Spotify playlist,

what song would be the most listened to?

Aretha Franklin singing

"Climbing Higher Mountains."

What's your guilty pleasure?

Pop-Tarts?

Sweet tea.

If you could say 4 words to anyone,

who would you address, and what would you say?

Oh, wow.

C.T. Vivian. 5 words.

OK.

Thank you for lifting me.

What's your go-to mantra for hard times?

My grandmother when everything would get hard,

she would say, "Lord, have mercy,"

and then my mother would say it,

and now I find myself saying it.

Is there anyone you would like to

apologize to?

Oh, man. There's a whole lot of people.

I wish I could just apologize to everybody

who's asked for help who we've not been able to help.

We have limited capacity.

I'm sorry. We can't be there for everyone.

What conversations do you feel like

every family in America could be having

around the dinner table right now?

We've got the highest rate of incarceration in the world,

and nobody seems to give any thought to that.

You know, having 6 million people

on probation and parole really paralyzes

whole sectors of our community.

That we have 70 million Americans that have

criminal arrest histories and that then makes it

harder for them to get loans or jobs

- is a real crisis. - Right.

When the Bureau of Justice said in 2001

the projection is that 1 in 3 Black male babies born

is expected to go jail or prison,

that was shocking,

but what was even more shocking was the absence

of any reaction.

Mm-hmm.

There were no symposia

at colleges and universities.

There were no commissions put together,

there was no crisis, and that's what so difficult

because we are capable of responding

to a threat to our lives.

We're in that response mode now

in this pandemic.

Mm-hmm.

That's why older people of color

come up to me sometimes.

They say, "Mr. Stevenson, I get angry

"when I hear somebody talking about how we're

"dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time

in our nation's history after 9-11."

Uh-huh.

They say, "We grew up with terror.

"We had to be worried about being bombed

and lynched and menaced every day of our lives,"

and some of the older people say, "You make

them stop saying that."

Right. Why doesn't that count?

That's exactly right.

We all have such a deficit of knowledge

about this moment that we're in.

When we go to the doctor,

we don't want the doctor to just tell us

about one part of the disease.

We need to know everything.

Mm-hmm.

But somehow, in the justice context,

we act as if there's a limit to how much

we should know or understand,

and that's just not healthy,

and part of the way that I think our nation

will recover from our 400-year history

of injustice, of racism and bigotry

is if we find the courage to embrace it all,

to hear it all.

I will never forget what happened

that day we got in the pool,

and my sister and I, we still talk about it,

but what I'm wondering is do the white kids

remember the day their parents made them

get out of the pool because two little black kids got in,

and I want them to remember.

I want those parents to talk about the fact

that they did something wrong.

Banks in this country deprive black families of wealth,

and my generation and the generation after me

is suffering because of what those banks did

after World War II when they didn't give

Black veterans the same mortgages and same loans

and same support and assistance that

they gave to white veterans,

and we had this thriving middleclass emerge

in the 1950s and 1960s because those veterans

were supported by their nation while these Black veterans

were targeted and menaced and excluded,

and banks should own up to that.

The military, who took the labor and the courage

of these Black men and women and used it

to win a war, a necessary war arguably,

then didn't defend these Black women and men

when they came home.

The military should apologize for that,

and I just think when we find the words

to acknowledge what we've done

and we say, "I'm sorry," it's what we were talking about,

we reckon with it,

and then we have the courage to say, "You know what?

That is so awful."

There's fear that if you say,

"I'm sorry. I was wrong,"

that somehow you are lesser, you are weak...

- That's right. - you've ceded ground...

That's right.

and that you won't be received,

you won't be forgiven, and if you haven't

experienced the utter grace that is forgiveness

and acceptance of, like, "I take you as you are...

- Yes, that's right. - "I understand"...

That's right.

then why would you believe that

if you were to own up to these horrific things

in every circle you're in,

your organizations, your family,

your university that you went to,

like, all these places that you've benefitted from

have been deformed by racism

and have benefitted you at the expense of others...

Yeah.

that you'll just say, "OK.

I accept your apology"?

Well, I think that's right, and I think it's

especially true in the political culture

we've created

and the national identity we've created,

where we never apologize.

We think "I'm sorry" means you're weak.

America's great at victory, at success.

We got books full of songs.

When we win the Olympics, we know all

the right things to say, but when we fail,

we look for somebody else.

That's a you problem. They did, they--

and we have to develop that because that's

how you become a healthy society.

I mean, we could be this beautiful country...

Yes.

that acknowledged it, that named it,

that owned it, that asked for forgiveness...

Yeah.

and that came back together like that,

but that's hope.

In my lifetime, a nation has gone

through a horrific genocide, Rwanda,

and now I want to go there because it's a place

that has a beautiful story about recovery and redemption.

I don't hesitate when somebody says,

"Will you come to Germany?"

And it's because they have engaged in this process

of acknowledgement that it becomes

a safe place for people like me.

Nothing's hidden. I remember being shocked

when I was in Berlin.

Like, it is so-- the War is so present.

Yes. What's fascinating to me about that

is there are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany.

Right.

Nobody would put up a memorial

to honor the architects of the Third Reich.

- It's unconscionable. - Right.

And I live in a country where the landscape

is littered with the iconography

of people who defended and sustained enslavement.

One of the most beautiful parts

of "Just Mercy" is towards the end

where you talk about brokenness,

and you say that we are all broken,

including you.

Mm-hmm.

In what ways do you feel broken?

Well, I mean, I've seen things that you're not

supposed to see, you shouldn't see.

I'm surrounded by brokenness,

and what prompted it in the book

was representing a man who I wasn't able

to stop the execution,

who had a serious speech impediment.

When he got nervous, he would start to stutter,

and I'm on the phone with him minutes before

he's supposed to be executed,

and he's trying to say something to me,

but then he starts to stutter,

and he can't get his words out,

and he can't get his words out,

and it's so painful

that before I realize it tears are running

down my face, and I'm standing there,

and my mind wandered.

What I remembered was being a little boy,

going to church with my mom,

and standing next to my friends talking.

This little, tiny, skinny boy,

and I said, "What's your name? Where are you from?"

And the little boy tried to answer my question,

but he had a speech impediment, too,

and he stuttered, and then I remembered

that I did something really ignorant.

I laughed, and my mom saw me.

She gave me this look I had never seen before,

and she said, "Bryan, don't you ever laugh

"at somebody because they can't get their words out right.

"Don't you ever do that.

"Now you go back over there, and you tell that boy

You're sorry."

And I said, "OK, Mom."

Even then, she understood the power of apology, right,

and I took a step, and she grabbed me by the--

she said, "Wait. After you tell

"that little boy you're sorry,

I want you to hug that little boy."

I rolled my eyes, but I said, "OK, Mom,"

and I took a step, and then she grabbed me

by the arm again.

She said, "And after you hug that little boy,

I want you to tell that little boy you love him."

I said, "Mom, I can't go over there and tell

that little boy I love him."

She gave me that look, so I said--

and that's what I was thinking about

on the night of this execution.

I remember going over to that little boy

and walking up to him and saying,

"Look, man. You know-- well, you know, I'm sorry,"

and then I remember sort of awkwardly

giving him a man hug even in my little boy body,

and then I remember trying to say to that child

as insincerely as I could-- I said, "Look, man.

"You know, well, you know, I don't know,

well, but, well, you know, I love you."

And what I had forgotten was how that little boy

hugged me back and then whispered

flawlessly in my ear-- he said,

"I love you, too."

I'd completely forgotten about it

until I was listening to this client try

to get his words out, and then he finally got

his last words out.

He said, "Mr. Stevenson, I just want you to know

how grateful I am that you fought for me."

He said, "I want to thank you for trying

to help me," and then the last thing

he said, "I want you to know, also, that I love you

for trying to save my life."

And he hung up, they pulled him away,

they strapped him to a gurney,

and they executed him, and I think there was

just something about the weight of the moment

that broke me,

and the question I had was why do we want to

kill all the broken people?

What is it about us that when we see brokenness

in other people we want to hurt them for it,

and that's when I realized that I represent broken people.

All of my clients have been broken by trauma,

broken by neglect, broken by addiction,

broken by poverty, broken by bigotry,

broken by despair,

and that was the night when I realized

why I do what I do, and it shocked me

because what I realized is that I don't do what I do

because I've been trained as a lawyer.

I don't do what I do because if I don't do it

no one will.

I don't do what I do because somebody has to.

What I realized that night that I'd never realized before

is that I do what I do because I'm broken, too.

So a thing that you talk about a lot

is the ways that we affect one another.

- Yeah. - And I just want to say

that you've had a tremendous effect

on me and my kids, and supergrateful.

Well, thank you. That means a lot,

so I appreciate that.

I just finished spending two days with Bryan Stevenson,

and I just don't know if I've talked to a person

who's that connected and inspired.

When you intersect with somebody like that, you're changed.

I mean, I definitely feel changed,

and I hope that you do, too.

It is incredibly easy to self-educate

in this moment in history,

so let's be engaged, you know?

Let's meet his level of engagement

and see what we can learn and see how we can develop

and grow and get better, you know, get closer

to that more perfect union that he's talking about.

[Aretha Franklin's "Climb Higher Mountains" playing]

Franklin: ♪ I'm climbing

Chorus: ♪ I'm climbing

♪ Higher mountains

♪ Higher mountains

♪ Trying to get home

♪ Trying to get home

♪ I'm climbing

♪ I'm climbing

♪ Higher mountains

♪ Higher mountains

♪ Trying to get home

♪ Trying to get home

♪ Ooh

Corrigan: Next time on "Tell me More"...

America's a teenager.

And behaving accordingly.

Which is why you've just got, like, Bush, Obama.

Once you go, "Oh. It's figuring it out."

I hope.

All teenagers figure it out.

- Yeah. - They'll figure it out.

Corrigan: That's "Tell Me more with Kelly Corrigan"

right here on PBS.


FEATURED PROGRAMS