'We will not be free until we address our history of racial injustice'

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaking at the second event in the College of Charleston's "Race and Social Justice Initiative," Thursday night at the Sottile Theatre.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaking at the second event in the College of Charleston's "Race and Social Justice Initiative," Thursday night at the Sottile Theatre.

Equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, who has been fighting on behalf of the incarcerated - from children to the condemned - for nearly 30 years, asked his Charleston audience Thursday night to make personal commitments to "raising the quotient of justice.in Charleston, the state and the nation."

Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, AL, reeled off a list of stunningly grim statistics about America's relentless waves of incarceration that began in the early 1970s:

  • 2.3 million people in prison in 2015, up from 300,000 in 1972.
  • 6 million on parole or probation.
  • 70 million with criminal-arrest records, which narrow their employment opportunities and otherwise misshape their lives.

The list went on. But it was Stevenson's personal testimony about what launched him on a life mission to bring justice to the jailed and imprisoned that riveted the attention of his audience at the Sottile Theater on the College of Charleston campus. His talk was the second in the College's "Race and Social Justice Initiative" funded by a $125,000 grant from Google.

Bryan Stevenson: The challenging journey to the "higher ground." PHOTO CREDIT: Nina Subin.

Bryan Stevenson: The challenging journey to the "higher ground."

PHOTO CREDIT: Nina Subin.

Stevenson told what happened to him when, as a 23-year-old law student at Harvard, he went to the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta to do an internship on justice for condemned prisoners. The Center's staff sent him to the state prison in Jackson, GA, to tell a condemned man that he had been given a reprieve. The year was 1982.

"This was the first condemned prisoner I had ever seen," Stevenson told his audience. "What struck me was how burdened in chains he was. He had handcuffs on his wrists, he had a chain around his wait, he had shackles on his ankles. It took them 10 minutes to unchain him....I went up to him and said, I'm sorry. I'm just a law student."

Stevenson continued:

“I said, ‘But you’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year.’ That man said, ‘Wait, wait, say that again,'" Stevenson recounted. “I said, ‘You’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year.’ He grabbed my hands and he said, ‘Wait. Say that again.'"

After repeating the statement several times, Stevenson said the inmate opened up.

“We sat down and talked for almost three hours - and we’d only scheduled to be there for an hour," he said. "The guards got mad. They came in and they were treating the guy so roughly when they were taking him out.”

“He turned to me and he said, ‘Bryan, don’t worry about this. You just come back.' 'Then he did something I’ve never forgotten: He closed his eyes, he threw his head back and he started to sing:

"'I'm pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.'

“They started pushing him down the hallway. I could hear the chains clanging, but I could still hear him singing about higher ground. Things changed for me. All of a sudden, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground. My journey to higher ground was tied to his journey to higher ground. If he didn’t get there, I wouldn’t get there either.”

Stevenson told his audience - as if he was talking to each of them one on one - that they too could reach to higher ground:

"The first thing we have to do is get proximate to the place where injustice can be seen. There is this need for all of us to get close to the area of this community where there's suffering, where there's poverty, where there's despair, where there's neglect, where there's abuse.

"You cannot be an effective justice seeker, you cannot do effective work, from a distance. You have to get close.

"We have a lot of policy makers and politicians trying to come up with solutions to problems. There solutions don't work because they're too far away to see the details of the problems. If you want to make a difference, if you want to change things, you've got to get proximate."

For average middle-class white residents of metro Charleston - the large demographic slice that typified the majority of Stevenson's audience Thursday night - getting proximate would be a major undertaking like none most of them have never done. The high-poverty, deeply segregated neighborhoods he was talking about, whose many black males are incarcerated or on parole or probation or are former convicts with lifetime criminal records and comprise a big part of high joblessness among blacks, are essentially invisible to the region's middle class, especially white people. For a resident of the Lower Peninsula or Sullivan's Island or Mt. Pleasant, a trip, say, to "The Neck," which comprises a cluster of high-poverty neighborhoods in the Upper Peninsula like Bayside, Silver Hill and Rosemont would be like a trip to another country.

Stevenson's audience at the Sottile Theatre rose twice to applaud him after he concluded his talk.

Stevenson's audience at the Sottile Theatre rose twice to applaud him after he concluded his talk.

Stevenson said getting physically close to inequality is step one for  justice seekers. He said they must also hope against what sometimes seems like hopelessness, be willing to "do uncomfortable things" (like, for him, having to encounter "Old South" attitudes daily in Montgomery) and finally change the narrative that "slavery is a thing of the past when it has really evolved into a legacy of racial inequality."

"Nothing that has happened in this community, nothing that has happened in communities across this country, can be explained without an investigation into this history of racial injustice," he said. "We will not be free until we address this history."

TOM GRUBISICH