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.
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
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.
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--
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"...
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
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...
and we really enjoyed our dark humor.
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
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...
there are some incredible stories
in "Just Mercy"
about these kids
like Ian and Joe
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
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
Like, you always say,
"People who have been enslaved."
You never say, "Slaves"
And I think that's really significant.
Like, I was a woman who had cancer.
I was not a cancer patient.
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
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
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.
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.
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?
If you could say 4 words to anyone,
who would you address, and what would you say?
C.T. Vivian. 5 words.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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...
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"...
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...
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
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...
that acknowledged it, that named it,
that owned it, that asked for forgiveness...
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.
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,
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
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
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."
All teenagers figure it out.
- Yeah. - They'll figure it out.
Corrigan: That's "Tell Me more with Kelly Corrigan"
right here on PBS.