Bryan Stevenson on the Shadow of White Supremacy

“I don’t think slavery ended in 1865 —I think it just evolved. I think it turned into decades of terrorism and violence and lynching.”

Bryan StevensonPhotograph by Tia Chapman

The audience could sense where the story was going almost as soon as Bryan Stevenson began telling it. Two black children in the barely desegregated South, hurtling with giddy, unguarded elation toward their first swim in a pool that until recently had been available only to whites. A swim they’d been dreaming of for years. As Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A.’85, LL.D. ’15, kept talking, an electricity of unease began to intensify among the listeners packed into First Parish Church last week—as many people as the pews would hold—who’d come to hear him deliver Harvard’s 2017 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center.  

A civil-rights lawyer who for three decades has defended death-row inmates and fought for criminal-justice reform from a warehouse-turned-office in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, a New York University law professor, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. Next April that organization will dedicate a memorial in Montgomery honoring, by name, more than 4,000 victims of lynching across the southern United States. A museum tracing the history of racial inequality from slavery to mass incarceration will stand nearby. “I don’t think slavery ended in 1865,” Stevenson told the audience last Wednesday. “I think it just evolved. I think it turned into decades of terrorism and violence and lynching. The era of lynching was devastating. It created a shadow all over this country, and we haven’t talked about it, we haven’t confronted it, we haven’t thought about it.”

Stevenson, whose speeches thread the heaving cadences of a sermon with the stark assertions of a summation, came to Cambridge last Wednesday to talk about memory and forgetting and legacy and liberation and a brokenness several centuries deep. He’d come to talk, he said, about narrative—how we think about it, live our lives through it, find ourselves and our world shaped by it—and about the cultural narrative that he insisted again and again must be changed. That narrative, he argued, presumes African Americans are inherently dangerous and guilty, more deserving of punishment, less capable of achievement; it is a “narrative of fear and anger,” Stevenson said, that upholds white supremacy. “Fear and anger,” he added, “are the essential ingredients of injustice.” Fear and anger allow societies to tolerate intolerable abuse.

In the United States, lynchings proliferated through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Black people were pulled out of their homes,” Stevenson said. “They were murdered. They were hanged. They were beaten. They were brutalized. We created one of the largest mass migrations the world has ever seen. Millions of people fled the American South during the twentieth century.” Stevenson’s maternal grandparents were among them, moving from Virginia to Philadelphia, where his mother was born. “The black people that went to Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit, that went to Boston, that went to Los Angeles and Oakland—they didn’t come to those communities as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South.”

But first: “I want to talk about how I got here.” That swimming pool. The giddy elation. Growing up in rural—and, for a time, still segregated—southern Delaware, Stevenson and his younger sister had always watched white children playing in the public pool (which closed as soon as integration came) and the hotel pools along the boardwalk (which his family couldn’t afford). “It looked like it was the most joyous, glorious thing a child could ever experience.” Then when he was 11 or 12, Stevenson’s mother announced a family road trip to Disney World, with a stopover in South Carolina at a hotel with a pool. He and his sister were so excited they wore their swimsuits under their clothes on the bus. As soon as it pulled into the hotel parking lot, they ran toward the pool and, holding hands, jumped in. The water, he remembers, was perfect.

At the other end of the pool was a cluster of white children, whose parents were lounging nearby. At first, Stevenson and his sister didn’t really notice them. But then suddenly, the parents were screaming at their children to get out of the water, snatching them up by the arms, hustling them away crying. A little white boy was the last one left amid the commotion, and as Stevenson and his sister looked on in horror and confusion, the boy’s father waded into the pool to grab him. “And then I did this thing that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do,” Stevenson recalled. “I asked that man a question, even though I didn’t know him. I turned to him, and I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I will never forget, the man looked at me and he said, ‘You’re wrong, n-----.’”

It wasn’t the first time Stevenson had been called that, but in that moment, he was unprepared to hear it, and the slur cut right through him. After the white families withdrew, he and his sister ran to their mother to tell her what had happened, afraid they’d be in trouble. They weren’t, but she was angry. She told her children to get back in the pool. They didn’t want to. She insisted. “Don’t let those people run you from the pool,” Stevenson remembers her saying. The next day, the family continued on to Disney World. “I know we had fun,” Stevenson said of the week in Florida, but he is fuzzy on the details. Instead, “What I remember most vividly about that trip was getting back into the pool, standing in a corner, holding my sister’s hand and desperately trying not to cry.”

Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, introduces Bryan Stevenson. 
Photograph by Tia Chapman

In the years since, he’s wondered: do the white kids remember the day they were pulled out of the pool? Does that father remember what he said? Do any of them tell the story, as Stevenson and his sister still do? “And my fear is that they don’t remember,” he said. “My fear is that they haven’t been talking about it the rest of their lives. My fear is that it just evaporated. It was one more moment in a life of segregation with no consequences, no legacy, no shadow.”


“And the question becomes, when we live in a country where our attacks on human dignity, where our assaults get ignored…what does it do to us?”


Two years ago, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) released a report documenting hundreds more lynchings than had ever been recorded before—more than 4,000 in all, in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950. A supplemental tally found another 300 lynchings in other states, and EJI volunteers began collecting jars of soil from unmarked lynching sites around the country. The planned memorial, titled the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, will sit on six acres of land once occupied by a public housing complex; 800 six-foot columns will be suspended in a large open-air gallery, each column representing a county where a lynching happened and each etched with the names and dates of those who were killed there. Replicas of the columns will lie in nearby field, and EJI will call on people from those counties to come and claim their column and take it home to display somewhere prominent. “We want a memorial that is born in Montgomery but lives all over this country,” Stevenson said. “It is an effort at changing the iconography of America.”

He noted that in South Africa and Rwanda and Germany, remembrances of atrocities are inescapable. In this country, lynching sites are rarely commemorated. Montgomery has more than 50 Confederate monuments and markers, but in 2013, when Stevenson petitioned to erect three markers to the city’s history as a slave market, the effort was met with objections. (The markers eventually went up). “In this country, we don’t talk about slavery,” he said. “Where are the slave trading spaces in this community? We don’t know.”

A companion to the memorial, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, will open in the EJI headquarters, on a site where slaves were once warehoused. “The reason why I’m taking time away from litigation to build a memorial and build a museum”—both narrative projects, Stevenson said—“is because I’m persuaded that if we don’t talk about this history of racial inequality that constrains us from being free, even the rule of law will not save us.”

He circled back to that idea a few minutes later, adding something he said he often tells audiences: “I’ll be honest. I’m trying to create shame in America.” A murmur rose from the pews. “I am. But I don’t think shame is a bad thing. When you mistreat another human being, when you do something destructive, when you violate basic human rights—without shame, we’re going to be vulnerable to repeating that again.” Just as he reminds clients on their way to parole hearings to remember to show remorse, expressing shame as a society is “the way we recover,” Stevenson said. “It’s the way we get better. And we haven’t done it.”


Behind the lectern at First Parish, Stevenson spoke, without notes, for more than an hour. He talked about the country’s ballooning prison and jail population—300,000 inmates in 1972 has become 2.3 million today—and incarcerated single mothers, and the one-in-three statistic dooming so many African Americans to time behind bars. He talked about the drug war and mandatory sentencing and “superpredators” (“a word they used to demonize a whole generation of kids, mostly black and brown kids”). He talked about juveniles tried as adults and the untreated epidemic of trauma in violent neighborhoods. He talked about the death penalty, which he has fought to abolish (“the question isn’t whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit,…it’s do we deserve to kill them?”), and racial bias and “a legal system that’s more committed to finality than fairness.”

He talked about the years he spent at Harvard, feeling disillusioned and out of step as a law student interested in poverty, racism, and social justice. He recalled the job he took at a Roxbury social-service center—“the most radical and important thing I did as a law student”—and how it allowed him to “get proximate” to the suffering and inequality he wanted to understand and alleviate. He exhorted listeners to get proximate too: “It is key to our capacity to make a difference.” He exhorted them to stay hopeful—without hope, “you’ll get vulnerable”—and to be willing to do uncomfortable things for the sake of social justice.

And, for long emotional minutes, he told stories. The uplift of clearing a wrongly convicted client and the joy of picking him up from prison on the day he was set free; the harrowing meeting with a 14-year-old client charged as an adult and raped by grown men in jail; wrenching last visits with death-row inmates whose executions he couldn’t stop. After one of those conversations, with a man whose mental impairment should have saved him from execution, Stevenson was overwhelmed by the brokenness—of the system, and of his clients, broken by poverty, racism, disability, neglect. That night he realized, he said, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”


Stevenson’s talk reminded Tommie Shelby, Titcomb professor in African American studies and philosophy, of Martin Luther King and the “inseparable twins” of racial and economic injustice. In a panel discussion that followed the lecture, Shelby recalled that after the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, King turned his attention to abolishing “ghettos” in the North. “Mass incarceration is also an economic injustice issue,” Shelby said.

Nancy Gertner, a retired U.S. judge and senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, deplored the mandatory sentencing rules that reduce defendants to “the quantity of drugs, their criminal record, and nothing else.” In 17 years on the bench, she said, she “sentenced African-American men to terms, 80 percent of which I believed to have been disproportionate and unfair.”

Friendly professor of law Carol Steiker looked back at the past few hundred years of American death penalty laws. The founding fathers showed some ambivalence about capital punishment, she said, and an early Pennsylvania statute invented first-degree murder as a way to limit the number of people receiving the death penalty. On the other hand, “In Virginia before the Civil War, there were four offenses for which whites could get the death penalty, and there were 66 for which black people could get it.” After the Civil War, those explicit codes changed, but “lynching…became an even greater force in the South than judicial execution.”

During the question-and-answer period, audience members lined up to ask Stevenson about public housing and disability issues and racism against indigenous peoples. One man wanted advice for a memorial his church was building after finding slaves on the membership rolls. The last question of the evening came from a mental-health social worker, who described a shuttering of clinical facilities and a fragmenting profession, her own loneliness and frustration. “I’m in desperate need of finding colleagues and allies,” she said. “So much is broken.”

Stevenson thanked her for her work and acknowledged that “community creates a kind of strength and capacity that’s hard to sustain without it.” And then he told one last story. When he was a little boy, his grandmother took him home to Bowling Green, Virginia, where she was from, and dressed him in a suit and walked him out to an empty shack in the middle of a field. When they stepped inside, she told him, he would hear something. But he didn’t. He heard nothing. “And I looked at my grandmother, and she started to cry.” He’d never seen her cry before. And so he cried too. “I said, ‘Mama, I didn’t hear anything.’ And she said, ‘Yes you did.’” But he still heard nothing.

Years later, she explained what that shack had been—the slave cabin where her father was born. When she was a little girl, he would take her there every month and say, “Stand here and listen. You’re going to hear things.”

A few years ago, when Stevenson first began working on the lynching memorial, he was sitting near his office by the Alabama River. “I knew that was the port where thousands of enslaved people were brought by boat,” he said. Just down the street was the train depot where tens of thousands of slaves were brought by rail. The street in front of his office, he realized, was the place where people were put in chains and paraded down the block. “And all of a sudden I was thinking about my grandmother,” Stevenson said, “and I thought I could hear something.” The sounds of all those people, the boats, the trains, the chains dragging in the street. When he went to lynching sites to collect soil, he started imagining the sounds there, too. Screams, torture, distress. “And when I go into a jail or a prison, there is a sound…and in my ear, these are sounds I cannot let go of. And they become witness to the work we do.”

Stevenson looked up at the woman, still standing at the microphone. “So I don’t actually think the work we’re trying to do is work we’re doing alone,” he said. In the First Parish sanctuary, packed to the doors with hundreds of people, no one made a sound. 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales