The lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson is highly critical of President Donald Trump’s favorite slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“As an African-American, what decade am I supposed to want to relive?” Stevenson said to David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast from The University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN. “When was America better for black people, or for women, or for a lot of people in this country who have been marginalized?”
He told Axelrod the country is still a long way from coming to terms with its past.
“Slavery didn’t end in 1865, it just evolved,” he said, explaining why African-Americans fled the South for cities.
“Black people in Cleveland, in Chicago, and Detroit, and Los Angeles and Oakland didn’t come to these communities as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South, and we’ve never really addressed that.”
Stevenson, a longtime advocate for incarcerated people, started visiting prisoners on death row while studying at Harvard Law School. He now represents inmates for a living and says that “it’s not difficult to stand up for the accused.”
“My clients are more than their worst crimes,” he said. “I believe that everybody is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” chronicles the stories of prisoners he’s met, and he recalls visiting one in particular on Georgia’s death row, who was treated roughly by guards after their meeting ran for hours.
“He closed his eyes. He threw his head back and he started to sing … ‘Lord plant my feet on higher ground,’ ” Stevenson said.
“They started pushing him down the hallway. You could hear the chains clang, but you could hear this man singing about higher ground, and that was the moment that I realized I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground. But more than that, I realized that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey.”
Stevenson’s most recent project is creating spaces where these narratives can be not only told but also interacted with. He founded The Legacy Museum, which aims to tell the “history of enslavement and its evolution.”
“We’re going to have to create cultural spaces that move us. When I go to the Holocaust Museum in DC, at the end of it, I am moved to say, ‘Never again.’ And we haven’t created many spaces in America that motivate people to say, ‘Never again,’ to the racial violence and bigotry that so dominates our history.”