Bryan Steveson, above, founded the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit behind Alabama's new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art.)
Museums and cultural spaces have the power to change the stories we tell ourselves about the United States, Bryan Stevenson argued during a talk Friday in Minneapolis.
And he would know.
Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative -- the nonprofit behind the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which insists that the country grapple with its ugly history of white supremacy, including the lynching of thousands of black people.
His talk was held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of its exhibit "Art and Healing: In the Moment," inspired by Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2016.
"I was thrilled to hear about the Castile exhibit," Stevenson told the sold-out crowd. "I think cultural spaces in this country have often been complicit in creating the barriers to equality and justice...
"So when we open up our doors and begin to recognize our power to be contributors to the narrative change that we so desperately need in this country, amazing things begin to happen," he continued. "And I'm really thrilled that has happened in this space."
Once referred to by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as "America's Nelson Mandela," Stevenson is a civil-rights lawyer, acclaimed author of "Just Mercy" and an in-demand speaker. Minneapolis was one of his three stops on Friday. (He flew to Detroit first, Atlanta after.)
During an hourlong speech, which he seemed to give without notes, Stevenson told stories about his childhood, about working with prisoners on death row. He called for a more complete history of racism and civil rights in the country.
He also talked about how his driver had brought him through black neighborhoods in the Twin Cities that day. The black people in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- and cities across the country -- "came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American south," Stevenson said. "There's a line from Minneapolis to Mississippi..."
Rather than deal with that trauma, he said, “we just created little ghettos.”
Cultural institutions must open up their spaces to grapple with this history, Stevenson argued. Some people believe that by creating the lynching memorial, he wants to punish America for its history. But that's not true, he said: “I want to liberate America.”
"On the other side of truth-telling in this country there is something better waiting for us..." Stevenson said. There's a better kind of community "where we're not burdened by this history in the same way. Where we don't presume people are dangerous and guilty because of their color. Where we don't separate children and parents ... at the border.
"That kind of America is waiting for us."