Rewriting the Story of Civil Rights.
What does it mean to “change a narrative?” Bryan Stevenson has been insisting on the importance of changing the narrative on criminal justice since he published his best-selling book, “Just Mercy”, in 2014. He’s a death penalty lawyer who likes to say, “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” The notion that locking up more bad guys makes us safer is hard to shake. Law-and-order rhetoric has a new friend in the White House, with an attorney general who wants to double down on harsh sentences. And Stevenson, with the opening of a new museum and lynching memorial that I attended in Montgomery, Alabama, last week, has chosen a more revolutionary approach to fixing criminal justice than the skilful lawyering for which he’s well known. He is rewriting the history of the civil rights movement.To those who follow criminal justice, Stevenson’s new narrative may not sound so new. Lawyer Michelle Alexander argued in her influential 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow”, that white supremacy was never fully vanquished, as slavery gave rise to the horrors of the Jim Crow south. Virulent racism survived the civil rights movement, too, as Jim Crow morphed into a criminal justice system that continues to lock up African-Americans disproportionately. Millions have read Alexander’s book, or seen the video version of it in Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary, “13th”.Stevenson is also trying to spread this narrative beyond the criminal justice cognoscenti. His TED talk has been viewed nearly 5 million times, and he has indefatigably toured college campuses and corporate headquarters in recent years, making the case for mercy. Stevenson, who sits on the advisory board of The Marshall Project, once told me that he turns down the majority of the media requests that come his way. Instead, delivering a stump speech that verges on sermon, he seems to be trying to change America one auditorium at a time.