A barbaric form of American racial terrorism from another era — lynching — was in the news twice this week. Presidential crony Roger Stone incorrectly appropriated the term to describe his current legal problems, while “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was allegedly beaten in Chicago by two attackers. Smollett reportedly was left with a rope wrapped around his neck.
Sadly, these incidents make timely my latest interview with the inestimable, thoughtful Bryan Stevenson, social justice attorney and force behind the lynching monument in Montgomery, Ala., which opened last April. Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative, a center for legal defense and social advocacy, has been a one-man economic development boon for Alabama’s capital city. Among other projects, Stevenson guided the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the official name of the lynching monument. Located in a warehouse where blacks were enslaved, the Legacy Museum traces how America has gone from keeping blacks in slavery to packing the world’s largest prison system with them. During a visit to the museum, I observed a tall white man, in an expensive suit and wingtips, so transfixed by what he was reading that he could not move.
I first interviewed Stevenson after his sold-out appearance last June at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. We didn’t get through all of my questions because I had only three minutes. Stevenson was not able to fit in another interview when he returned to the Twin Cities in November for another sold-out appearance, this time at Edina’s Christ Presbyterian Church.
Stevenson finally gave me a follow-up interview during a recent trip I made to Alabama, where his sites are doing more for Montgomery’s tourism than all the monuments to the Confederacy. This is the first of two parts of our discussion.
Q: In the grand scheme of things where does removing symbols of the Confederacy rank with your priorities in the pursuit of racial justice?
A: I think it’s important. I do think we want to create a consciousness among more people about why they [the symbols] should come down because if we just take things down because we get the power to do so, it doesn’t actually achieve the kind of advancement and thinking that I think we need to have. In many ways things changed in the civil rights era because the courts forced them to, and that was the right thing to happen.
But we didn’t engage in the kinds of conversations that actually change people’s thinking. Now we have this re-segregation, a whole new generation of problems that a lot of people thought we were going to eliminate in the 1960s. As we deal with this history, I think we need to develop a consciousness that makes us understand why if people did dishonorable things, destructive things, if they defended slavery, we shouldn’t honor them.
Q: Do you feel that progress toward racial justice is actually taking place in Alabama?
A: There are things going on every day that advance racial justice. We are just in an environment where there has been so much retreat and so little work done that it doesn’t always feel like that. I think that sites like ours now exist is an important step. When I moved here [there were] 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy; you couldn’t find the word slave or slavery or enslavement anywhere in this city. To the extent that has changed that is progress, but we still have a political environment where people of color are marginalized, excluded, over-incarcerated, menaced, targeted. Those things have to change before we can actually claim any kind of meaningful racial progress.
Q: So it’s gaining steam, which means Roy Moore’s defeat for a U.S. Senate seat was more about his warts than what some really want for Alabama?
A: I think it was an important moment where we could step back from the rhetoric and say, “Let’s critically examine who people are and what they are saying.” I do think we have to be more hopeful about what we can achieve politically, but we can’t accept that’s a victory and we can now go home and celebrate. We have to keep thinking how we create a healthier environment for everybody.
Q: Have you heard whether Roy Moore or Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey have visited the memorials?
A: I have not heard. But I hope both visit. We have so many people coming through, which is this wonderful problem, that there are a lot of people — elected officials and others — who come through and I just don’t get any word.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.