Yes, Amer­ica Is Racist. Now What?

Bryan Steven­son has some an­swers. And with hate crimes on the rise, his mes­sage couldn’t be more ur­gent.

Newsweek - - News - BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

Mont­gomery is the cap­i­tal of Alabama. It is also a ghost town.

The trip from the air­port to the city proper takes 20 min­utes, and af­ter you leave the free­way the traf­fic dis­ap­pears and the ironies pile up. My taxi driver points out the home of Jef­fer­son Davis, the only pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­acy. A block later, we pass the Dex­ter Av­enue King Me­mo­rial Bap­tist Church, where the Rev­erend Martin Luther King Jr. presided be­tween 1954 and 1960, fol­lowed soon af­ter by the Alabama Con­fed­er­ate Mon­u­ment. I’m re­minded that this is a state where the day cel­e­brat­ing King is shared with Robert E. Lee, com­man­der of the Con­fed­er­ate Army, and where the largest high schools, named for Davis and Lee, are 99 per­cent African-amer­i­can.

Black and white pho­tos of the civil rights move­ment had in­formed my vi­sion of Mont­gomery: im­ages of King en­ter­ing the city at the head of a black vot­ers’ rights march in 1965; po­lice dogs strain­ing their leashes as African-amer­i­can pro­test­ers emerge from a fog of tear gas; white peo­ple, their faces con­torted with hate, yelling at women car­ry­ing signs de­mand­ing the in­te­gra­tion of pub­lic schools. But on this evening in July, un­der a still bright-blue sky, the place is eerily quiet. My taxi passes metic­u­lously pre­served 19th-cen­tury homes, im­mac­u­late green lawns, stately, flow­er­ing trees. There’s not a soul on the streets.

I get to chat­ting with the driver, an African-amer­i­can who looks to be in his 60s. He tells me that he grew up and raised his chil­dren in Mont­gomery, that he loves it here, par­tic­u­larly the slow pace and the bar­be­cue. He asks the rea­son for my visit. I ex­plain that I’ll be in­ter­view­ing Bryan Steven­son, the lawyer, ac­tivist and direc­tor of the non­profit Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive. He nods in recog­ni­tion. I ask if he’s been to EJI’S three-month-old Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice, which re­mem­bers the thou­sands of lynched African-amer­i­cans. “No,” he says. “I don’t need to go. I lived it.” Has racism in Mont­gomery im­proved since his child­hood? “A lit­tle,” he says evenly, “but it will al­ways be here. I don’t ex­pect that will change in my life­time.”

A few months into Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency, Jimmy Carter told NBC Nightly News that he felt “an over­whelm­ing por­tion of the in­tensely de­mon- strated an­i­mos­ity to­ward Obama is based on the fact that he’s a black man.” He got ham­mered by the me­dia—amer­ica wasn’t racist any­more!—but African-amer­i­cans knew what he was talk­ing about. Big­otry had merely been pushed into the closet. And with the sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful cam­paign of Don­ald Trump, and his sub­se­quent ad­min­is­tra­tion, that en­trenched ha­tred emerged with a vengeance.

Non­white cit­i­zens of Amer­ica grow up with an un­der­stand­ing: Even as racial dis­crim­i­na­tion has less­ened, it re­mains em­bed­ded in our gov­ern­ment, le­gal sys­tem and law en­force­ment. There is no post-racial Amer­ica. There is, how­ever, a neo–jim Crow Amer­ica. Con­sider the still seg­re­gated school dis­tricts, steer­ing black chil­dren onto sep­a­rate and un­equal tracks (a 2016 re­port by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice found the gains of Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion of Topeka, which de­clared seg­re­ga­tion of schools un­con­sti­tu­tional in 1954, have been al­most en­tirely re­versed); or that em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties re­main dis­pro­por­tion­ately stacked against peo­ple of color; or the re­lent­less ha­rass­ment of African-amer­i­cans by the po­lice; or the prison pop­u­la­tion—the largest in the world—with its pre­dom­i­nance of black and brown in­mates. Sys­temic bias, it turns out, is as Amer­i­can as ap­ple pie.

In his 1955 book, Notes of a Na­tive Son, James Bald­win de­scribed

Amer­ica as hav­ing a “depth­less alien­ation from one­self and one’s peo­ple,” and not “the faintest de­sire to look back.” But the past, he went on, “is all that makes the present co­her­ent, and fur­ther, the past will re­main hor­ri­ble for ex­actly as long as we refuse to as­sess it hon­estly.”

These aren’t black prob­lems; they are the prob­lems of a na­tion. As Bald­win also wrote, no one in Amer­ica es­capes the ef­fects of racism, “and ev­ery­one in Amer­ica bears some re­spon­si­bil­ity for it.”

Roughly 65 years later, Steven­son is still mak­ing that ar­gu­ment, be­com­ing one of the most prom­i­nent faces of the modern civil rights move­ment. Just Mercy, his best-sell­ing 2014 mem­oir (soon to be a film star­ring Michael B. Jor­dan), is an ac­count of his decades of work as a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing poor clients wrongly con­victed or ex­ces­sively pun­ished. The sto­ries are hor­ri­fy­ing and in­fu­ri­at­ing, but de­liv­ered with an un­shake­able sense of hope and a be­lief that evil can be over­come.

Since EJI’S found­ing in 1989, Steven­son and his staff, against tremen­dous odds, have over­turned 135 death sen­tence con­vic­tions in Alabama and as­sisted in an­other dozen na­tion­wide. They’ve taken four cases to the Supreme Court, two of them—ar­tie Jack­son v. Arkansas (2007) and Miller v. Alabama (2012)—re­sult­ing in land­mark de­ci­sions: the abol­ish­ing of manda­tory life sen­tences for chil­dren. And since 2008, EJI has ex­panded its scope to ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pos­ing a nar­ra­tive miss­ing from Amer­ica’s text­books: A re­cent na­tion­wide study re­vealed that, among other things, 92 per­cent of mid­dle school stu­dents did not know slav­ery was a cen­tral is­sue of the Civil War.

In April, EJI opened two sites in Mont­gomery. The Legacy Mu­seum de­picts the his­tory of black peo­ple in the U.S., be­gin­ning with slav­ery, through seg­re­ga­tion, up to the sys­temic cri­sis of street-level ha­rass­ment by po­lice and mass in­car­cer­a­tion. “Truth is not pretty, it’s not easy,” Steven­son will tell me, “but truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion are se­quen­tial, so you need to get to the truth first.”

The sec­ond site, the Na­tional Me­mo­rial, in­for­mally known as the Lynch­ing Me­mo­rial, re­mem­bers the more than 4,400 vic­tims of racial lynch­ings in over 800 coun­ties in 12 states be­tween 1877 and 1950—sanc­tioned vi­o­lence that forced 6 mil­lion black refugees to flee the South. Steven­son is not look­ing for fi­nan­cial repa­ra­tions, like author Ta-ne­hisi Coates, nor does he pri­or­i­tize pun­ish­ment, “but I do want to in­crease the shame in­dex of Amer­ica.”

The me­mo­rial is a deeply mov­ing step in that di­rec­tion. But it also pro­vides a bold bid for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Each im­pli­cated county has a mon­u­ment, and EJI is invit­ing those com­mu­ni­ties to claim and erect a du­pli­cate where a lynch­ing oc­curred—an of­fer ac­cepted by nearly 300 coun­ties so far (see page 27).

Steven­son’s mis­sion for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is more ur­gent than ever. Trump, who launched his modern po­lit­i­cal rise by ques­tion­ing the le­git­i­macy of Obama’s pres­i­dency, won the 2016 elec­tion, in part, by cast­ing racial and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties as crim­i­nals and ter­ror­ists. When white su­prem­a­cists marched on Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, last year, a demon­stra­tion that re­sulted in the death of a coun­ter­protester, he told re­porters that there were “very fine peo­ple” on both sides. More re­cently, he warned that Democrats wanted mi­grants to “pour into and in­fest our coun­try.”

White su­prem­a­cists have ac­knowl­edged that such rhetoric has in­spired them to speak and act out in openly racist ways, and it has cer­tainly re­set the terms of ac­cept­able dis­course, at least in the Re­pub­li­can Party—chill­ingly demon­strated by Novem­ber’s midterms, in­clud­ing voter sup­pres­sion and star­tling num­bers of GOP can­di­dates at­tack­ing mi­nor­ity op­po­nents in nakedly big­oted terms. A week af­ter the midterms, and three weeks af­ter a shooter killed 11 in a Pitts­burgh sy­n­a­gogue, an FBI re­port made all of this plain: Hate crimes rose 17 per­cent last year, with nearly three out of five mo­ti­vated by race and eth­nic­ity. African-amer­i­cans made up roughly half of all vic­tims. The elec­tion of a bira­cial pres­i­dent felt like progress, but it’s clear we over­played the sym­bol­ism.

Lynch­ing, it might shock you to learn, has never been clas­si­fied as a fed­eral crime. Pass­ing a bill to abol­ish it would be a sym­bolic ges­ture of atone­ment, as well as a strong state­ment about the present and fu­ture. There have been dozens of anti-lynch­ing bills in­tro­duced since the first in 1918, all of them ag­gres­sively op­posed by mem­bers of the House and Se­nate. In June, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bobby Rush of Illi­nois, and 35 mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus, in­tro­duced the lat­est, H.R. 6086. In do­ing so, Rush said, “you only need to look at the events in Char­lottesville last year to be re­minded that the racist and hate­ful sen­ti­ments that spurred these ab­hor­rent crimes are still preva­lent in to­day’s Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.”

As Steven­son likes to say: Slav­ery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.

‘A Place That Si­lences You’ steven­son is walk­ing to­ward me, trim and smil­ing broadly as if an in­ter­view at 8:30 a.m. on an al­ready steam­ing sum­mer day is his idea of a good time. We’ve met at the en­trance of the Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice. “You’re an op­ti­mist,” I say, ges­tur­ing to his long-sleeved but­ton-down shirt.

Three months af­ter the me­mo­rial’s April 26 open­ing, Steven­son is still mar­veling over its ef­fect on vis­i­tors—20,000 in the first few days alone, and 30,000 in July. He tells me that peo­ple have been bug­ging him for a se­quel to Just Mercy, and this, to his mind, is it: “an­other way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the world some­thing I think we need to hear and see.”

The me­mo­rial sits on six acres in Cot­tage Hill, what was, for gen­er­a­tions, the heart of the black com­mu­nity. The women be­hind the year­long bus boy­cott of 1955, a gal­va­niz­ing mo­ment in the civil rights move­ment, or­ga­nized in this neigh­bor­hood. The Rev­erend Ralph Aber­nathy’s church was here too.

In 1959, as black Amer­ica was ben­e­fit­ing from world­wide at­ten­tion for this move­ment, Sam En­gel­hardt—who had run for lieu­tenant gover­nor on the cam­paign slo­gan “Seg­re­ga­tion ev­ery day in ev­ery way”—was named direc­tor of Alabama’s State High­way De­part­ment. By 1967, 1,700 homes, 75 per­cent of them black­owned, had been bull­dozed to cre­ate In­ter­state 85, es­sen­tially box­ing off the neigh­bor­hood from the rest of Mont­gomery and ef­fec­tively eras­ing a civil rights in­cu­ba­tor.

“That iso­lated and killed the com­mu­nity,” says Steven­son of a strat­egy that was re­peated in cities across Amer­ica dur­ing the ’60s. “The area fell into de­cline, with low-in­come hous­ing, vice and drugs.” Six years ago what was left of the neigh­bor­hood was razed. “Trans­form­ing this space back into some­thing that has beauty and mean­ing, that rep­re­sents this his­tory,” he says, “was re­ally im­por­tant.”

The stun­ning site—a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mass De­sign Group—has a Zen sim­plic­ity, with wind­ing gravel paths fea­tur­ing sculp­tures and po­etry that con­tex­tu­al­ize racial ter­ror. “Art can com­mu­ni­cate things words lose,” says Steven­son. A heart­break­ing piece by Ghana­ian artist Kwame Akoto-bamfo fea­tures chained Africans be­ing sold at auc­tion. “We wanted some­thing that re­vealed the an­guish and bru­tal­ity,” says Steven­son, “but that was also hu­man and had dig­nity.”

He’s been heart­ened by re­ac­tions to it. “A lot of peo­ple in their 50s and 60s have told me, ‘You know, I’ve lived in this coun­try my en­tire life, and I’ve never seen a sculp­ture about slav­ery.’” An in­sti­tu­tion, he adds, “that so pro­foundly shaped this na­tion.”

Dixie pride—the cel­e­bra­tion of the Con­fed­er­acy and white supremacy—is com­mu­ni­cated re­lent­lessly in the South, with mon­u­ments, memo­ri­als and his­tor­i­cal signs. It’s worth not­ing that the ma­jor­ity were erected long af­ter the Civil War’s end, dur­ing the Jim Crow era, when racial sub­or­di­na­tion was cod­i­fied, cre­at­ing Amer­ica’s of­fi­cial sys­tem of apartheid. Such totems were point­edly placed in lo­ca­tions with po­lit­i­cal or judicial

sig­nif­i­cance, like on court­house lawns. And that sce­nario con­tin­ues: In re­cent years, “her­itage” laws have been passed in some states to pro­tect these mon­u­ments. (Alabama, Mis­sis­sippi, Arkansas, Flor­ida and Ge­or­gia still in­clude Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols in their flags.)

Over the years, Steven­son, who is 58, came to re­al­ize that hold­ing Amer­ica ac­count­able for racial in­jus­tice ex­tended be­yond win­ning cases. As he and oth­ers have noted, the North won the Civil War in 1865, but it lost the nar­ra­tive war. “We are taught a ver­sion of 19th-cen­tury his­tory that is ro­man­tic,” says Steven­son. “There’s this false idea that things were so fan­tas­tic back in the ’40s and ’50s, or the early 19th cen­tury. We have a pres­i­dent who ran on the theme of make Amer­ica great again. For black peo­ple, what decade is that sup­posed to be? When was it great?”

To see the en­durance of this myth, look no farther than Roy Moore’s ex­traor­di­nary com­ment dur­ing his failed cam­paign for the Se­nate last year. Asked by a black voter when he thought Amer­ica was last “great,” the for­mer chief jus­tice of the Alabama Supreme Court fondly re­called the era of slav­ery: “I think it was great at the time when fam­i­lies were united—even though we had slav­ery. They cared for one an­other. Peo­ple were strong in the fam­i­lies. Our fam­i­lies were strong. Our coun­try had a di­rec­tion.”

But on the flip side, says Steven­son, ex­ces­sive cel­e­bra­tion of the achieve­ments of the civil rights move­ment is prob­lem­atic too, be­cause “we think we ac­com­plished more than we did.”

EJI is ded­i­cated to erad­i­cat­ing such mis­con­cep­tions. To that end, it has pub­lished three land­mark re­ports on slav­ery, lynch­ing and seg­re­ga­tion; the 2015 lynch­ing study raised the num­ber of rec­og­nized vic­tims by 800 men, women and chil­dren. And thanks to the non­profit’s ef­forts, there are now three his­tor­i­cal mark­ers in Mont­gomery ac­knowl­edg­ing the city’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the slave trade.

The Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice is a marker writ large—ex­pos­ing not just Mont­gomery’s and the South’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in lynch­ing but also the na­tion’s. Plans for it be­gan in 2010. Steven­son had vis­ited Rwanda and South Africa. In both places, he was im­pressed by the com­mit­ment to ac­knowl­edg­ing and de­tail­ing white op­pres­sion and geno­cide. The Apartheid Mu­seum in Jo­han­nes­burg, in par­tic­u­lar, planted a seed. So, too, did a visit to the Holo­caust Me­mo­rial in Berlin, an out­door site of nearly 3,000 con­crete grave­stone-like slabs memo­ri­al­iz­ing the mil­lions of Jews ex­ter­mi­nated dur­ing World War II. But he was also dis­turbed to see vis­it­ing schoolchil­dren climb­ing and run­ning across the ste­lae, as if they were in a play­ground.

“When I got back, I said to my staff that I wanted to be very in­ten­tional in call­ing [the me­mo­rial] a sa­cred space,” he says. “In our sig­nage, we ask peo­ple not to talk loudly. And it’s why we haven’t al­lowed any video cam­eras or big equip­ment on the site. This is a somber place for re­flec­tion, much like Ar­ling­ton [Na­tional] Ceme­tery—a place that si­lences you.”

And dev­as­tates in equal mea­sure. The vi­o­lence you are faced with is scary and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. “You’ll see peo­ple—black and white—just weep­ing,” says Steven­son. “The num­ber one com­plaint the first week was: You need to have some Kleenex.” They now or­der thou­sands of lit­tle packs.

The me­mo­rial struc­ture is a wind­ing colon­nade shel­tered from the sun but open to the air. The 801 coun­ties im­pli­cated in lynch­ings each have a vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or mon­u­ment, at the me­mo­rial—a 6-foot col­umn with the names of the vic­tim or vic­tims etched into the sur­face. When you en­ter the colon­nade, they are at eye level, “so you can see the names and read it and touch it,” says Steven­son. “It gives you a sense of the ar­bi­trari­ness of lynch­ing, and how in some coun­ties one or two peo­ple were lynched, in oth­ers dozens. They are al­most like re­port cards on the com­mu­ni­ties.”

As you make your way through the struc­ture, the mon­u­ments be­gin to rise up: What look like large grave­stones at eye level be­gin to re­sem­ble hang­ing bod­ies. “It’s when they’re above you that you be­gin to sense what it was like to live un­der­neath this reign of ter­steven­son. ror,” says “If there’s been terrorism in Amer­ica, this is it.”

Terrorism, some main­tain, should be ap­plied only to po­lit­i­cal acts, like 9/11—an in­ci­dent that lasted a sin­gle day and over which Amer­ica went to war. But what is more of a po­lit­i­cal act than over a cen­tury of pres­i­dents, the Supreme Court and lo­cal gov­ern­ments con­don­ing the sys­tem­atic mur­der of its cit­i­zens?

“When you tor­ture peo­ple in pub­lic,” says Steven­son, “and don’t al­low the fam­i­lies to claim the dead be­cause their bod­ies need to serve as warn­ings; when you drag their bod­ies be­hind cars, through black neigh­bor­hoods, for ev­ery per­son of color to see— that in­ten­tion was to ter­ror­ize.”

Such bru­tal­ity is made plain in the Corten steel used to make the mon­u­ments. Fiber­glass was an early sug­ges­tion, but “it just

Is he hope­ful about the new anti-lynch­ing leg­is­la­tion be­fore Congress? “I’ve been en­cour­aged by the broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port, yes,” he says. “It’s shame­ful that Congress has never said we have to stop this. It sug­gests that big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion and op­pres­sion are some­how OK.”

Steven­son and EJI have re­ceived nu­mer­ous death threats. The or­ga­ni­za­tion there­fore took pains to keep the true pur­pose of the me­mo­rial’s con­struc­tion un­der wraps for as long as pos­si­ble. Steven­son used a 2016 New Yorker pro­file by Jef­frey Toobin to an­nounce the pro­ject. Toobin spoke to a lo­cal leg­is­la­tor to get his re­ac­tion. The no­tably hos­tile re­sponse: “They bet­ter not be get­ting any gov­ern­ment money from this.” Steven­son thought: Well, that’s too bad.

And now? “Two weeks af­ter the open­ing,” he says, “I got a let­ter from that same leg­is­la­tor say­ing he was re­ally moved by the ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing and that he’d like to lead the ef­fort to get the Mont­gomery [lynch­ing] mon­u­ment erected.”

The suc­cess of the Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice ap­pears to be soft­en­ing hard-line feel­ings in Mont­gomery, a no­tably con­ser­va­tive city. The white mayor, Todd Strange, at­tended the me­mo­rial’s grand open­ing, a two-day event fea­tur­ing speak­ers and con­certs by John Le­gend and Ste­vie Won­der. Strange “came up to me and said, ‘Best night in Mont­gomery ever!’” says Steven­son. “And it couldn’t have been more sin­cere. He just kept say­ing, ‘Thank you.’”

‘I Never Seen a Lawyer Who Cares So Much for His Clients’ the alabama river winds through down­town mont­gomery. At the foot of what is now Com­merce Street, slaves would ar­rive in the holds of ships or in rail­cars. From there, they were marched along the av­enue, to the ware­houses where they were penned be­fore auc­tion.

To­day, the gen­tri­fied street is filled with trendy restau­rants and bars, the EJI build­ing the only ref­er­ence to its grim past. On a thin strip of grass, a his­tor­i­cal marker identifies the site as the for­mer ware­house of slave trader H.W. Far­ley. It in­cludes a por­tion of an ad­ver­tise­ment re­gard­ing the sale of a boy: “about four­teen,” it reads, “very likely and sprightly.”

Sia San­neh, a se­nior at­tor­ney, has been with EJI for 10 years; she ar­rived when it was just 25 peo­ple and a copy ma­chine. Now there are 60 lawyers on staff, and the team has in­creased again to in­clude the em­ploy­ees run­ning the me­mo­rial and the Legacy Mu­seum, which sits in an­other for­mer slave ware­house a block away. “One of the mis­con­cep­tions af­ter Just Mercy, as Bryan’s be­come more of a pub­lic fig­ure,” says San­neh, “is that he is sim­ply the pub­lic face of EJI. He’s out there giv­ing in­spir­ing speeches, and mean­while we’re back here do­ing the work. But he is so deeply in­vested in ev­ery de­tail of what we do. He is al­ways avail­able.”

EJI has roughly 250 cases, and Steven­son con­tin­ues to meet with clients in prison, to ar­gue in court and to work with those who have been re­leased (there’s an ex­ten­sive re-en­try pro­gram). There have been vic­to­ries since Just Mercy, like the cases ban­ning

manda­tory life with­out pa­role for chil­dren. Many of the young peo­ple Steven­son wrote about are now free, and a few work at EJI. Oth­ers have been re­sen­tenced and have a chance to get out.

“All my life I never seen a lawyer who cares so much for his clients,” says An­thony Ray Hin­ton, one of Steven­son’s great­est vic­to­ries. On April 3, 2015, Hin­ton was re­leased from prison af­ter 30 years; he was among the long­est-serv­ing pris­on­ers on Alabama’s death row to be freed af­ter pre­sent­ing ev­i­dence of in­no­cence—a con­vic­tion, ar­gued Steven­son, that had ev­ery­thing to do with poverty, race and in­ad­e­quate le­gal as­sis­tance. (His mem­oir, The Sun Does Shine, was an Oprah Book Club pick in June.)

Hin­ton has a boom­ing voice, warm as a hug, and he tells me a story about Steven­son. When he was still in prison, the two would gen­er­ally speak on Fri­day af­ter­noons, af­ter Alabama rul­ings are de­liv­ered. On this par­tic­u­lar call, says Hin­ton, “I could tell by the way Bryan said hello that it wasn’t good news. So I went into char­ac­ter; I said, ‘Bryan, Ray had to go and this is An­thony. He told me to tell you to go out and have a good time this week­end. Have a nice din­ner. See some friends. He’ll call you on Mon­day.’” Steven­son laughed and said OK.

First thing Mon­day, Hin­ton calls him back. “Bryan’s voice sounded stronger. He says to me, ‘Please thank An­thony for his ad­vice. I’m back on it now.’ I got off the phone and thought to my­self, What lawyer needs a per­son—let alone some­one on death row—to give him per­mis­sion to have a good week­end?”

When I meet up with Steven­son again, in a con­fer­ence room at EJI, I men­tion news I as­sume he’ll wel­come, re­ported in the pa­per that morn­ing: The Jus­tice De­part­ment had an­nounced it was re­open­ing the Em­mett Till case. Till, a 14-year-old boy falsely ac­cused of whistling at a white woman in Mis­sis­sippi, was tor­tured and lynched by Roy Bryant, her hus­band, and his half-brother J.W. Milam in 1955 (the woman later re­canted the most in­cen­di­ary parts of her ac­count). Till’s death be­came a po­tent sym­bol of the civil rights move­ment.

But Steven­son tells me the news is gen­er­at­ing mixed re­sponses, and he is clearly not con­vinced the case needs to be re­opened ei­ther. The killing was solved, he ex­plains. Bryant and Milam were ac­quit­ted and, a year later, in an in­ter­view for Look mag­a­zine, con­fessed with­out re­morse but could not be re­tried (both have since died). “If you were re­ally go­ing to re­open the case, you’d be ask­ing, How is it that we refuse to hold peo­ple ac­count­able when their guilt was so clear? And that’s not an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the crime,” says Steven­son, “that’s an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into our jus­tice sys­tem, how it failed to pro­tect black peo­ple, and why.”

As guilty as the killers, he says, are the politi­cians, judges and law en­force­ment mem­bers who were speak­ing against in­te­gra­tion and en­dors­ing acts of vi­o­lence through laws and rhetoric. “I can guar­an­tee you that’s not on the agenda,” Steven­son says. “And that makes it a lit­tle self-serv­ing—it cre­ates a false sense of jus­tice and clo­sure and rem­edy.” The pub­lic­ity around the re­open­ing of the case is also prob­lem­atic “when we have all these shoot­ings and hor­rific at­tacks which are of no in­ter­est to the Jus­tice De­part­ment.”

Trou­bling, too, is Amer­ica’s re­cur­ring re­sponse to racist acts. “There has been this dy­namic in the South,” he says, “where we want to re­duce the ug­li­ness of the hate and racial an­i­mos­ity to a hand­ful of ex­trem­ists—the Ku Klux Klan and the il­lit­er­ate, poor white bad ac­tors who can rep­re­sent the sins of a na­tion or state. Pros­e­cute them and we can feel good about our­selves.”

Congress apol­o­giz­ing for its mis­takes doesn’t help the mil­lions of peo­ple who have been, and con­tinue to be, trau­ma­tized by sys­temic racism, of course. “But I do think in­sti­tu­tions need to rec­on­cile them­selves to their own fail­ures. Their de­ci­sions made it le­gal for slav­ery and the terrorism of African-amer­i­cans to ex­ist fol­low­ing Re­con­struc­tion,” he says.

There’s a shadow, too, on the Supreme Court. Atone­ment might be­gin, Steven­son sug­gests, with a spe­cial opin­ion over­rul­ing Plessy v. Fer­gu­son, the 1896 land­mark de­ci­sion that up­held the con­sti­tu­tional law of racial seg­re­ga­tion (the doc­trine that

came to be known as “sep­a­rate but equal”).

EJI’S bat­tles for racial jus­tice ex­tend na­tion­wide, but Alabama has par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges. Among them: Lan­guage in the state’s con­sti­tu­tion still pro­hibits black and white chil­dren from at­tend­ing school to­gether, even though it’s not en­forced. The only way you can re­move that lan­guage is with a statewide ref­er­en­dum, which has been at­tempted twice. In 2004, 52 per­cent of the peo­ple in the state voted to keep it. In 2012, as Obama pur­sued a sec­ond term, the num­ber jumped to 63 per­cent.

That, Steven­son be­lieves, is di­rectly con­nected to the sto­ries we don’t tell. “The nar­ra­tive bat­tle, for me, is the great­est chal­lenge we face,” he says. “If you don’t have Martin Luther King Day but it’s Martin Luther King/robert E. Lee Day, you have a nar­ra­tive prob­lem in your state.”

Why, I ask him, are Amer­i­cans so re­sis­tant to the idea of one na­tional story, as op­posed to a di­vided nar­ra­tive—white peo­ple and ev­ery­one else? Why, to this day, are is­sues re­lated to mi­nori­ties in Amer­ica “their” prob­lem and not “our” prob­lem?

“If you go any­where in the world where there is clear op­pres­sion or abuse of some group, or of women, or of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties, if you ask peo­ple to de­fend that op­pres­sion, they will give you a nar­ra­tive of fear and anger,” says Steven­son. “We saw that in Amer­ica in the mid-1940s, when Ja­panese were put in con­cen­tra­tion camps. We saw it when African-amer­i­cans were hanged and burned and drowned and beaten in the first half of the 20th cen­tury.”

Fear and anger are pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tors, the scaf­fold­ing for abuse. It’s a short hop from white slave own­ers equat­ing Africans with god­less an­i­mals; to 1930s politi­cians clas­si­fy­ing blacks as un­e­d­u­cated, shift­less and dis­hon­est; to Hil­lary Clin­ton la­bel­ing African-amer­i­can youth “su­per­preda­tors”; to Pres­i­dent Trump tweet­ing about un­pa­tri­otic black ath­letes who bend a knee. That sort of rhetoric and pro­pa­ganda, says Steven­son, turns cit­i­zens and law en­force­ment into foot sol­diers of op­pres­sion, cre­at­ing a re­al­ity where, among other things, African-amer­i­cans are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by po­lice of­fi­cers.

“We may have stopped the pub­lic spec­ta­cle of lynch­ings,” Steven­son says, “but by not ex­press­ing sor­row or hold­ing the peo­ple ac­count­able for that vi­o­lence, there’s this sense that you’re never go­ing to be held ac­count­able for big­otry and racism.”

‘The Lion’s Story Will Never Be Told if the Hunter Is the One to Tell It’ steven­son has a habit of smil­ing gen­tly when de­liv­er­ing un­com­fort­able in­for­ma­tion—a use­ful tool for me­di­at­ing the an­guish and weight of true hor­ror. “One pur­pose of it, I think, is to demon­strate to you that he’s talk­ing with you, not at you,” says Vanzetta Mcpher­son, a re­tired African-amer­i­can judge who has known Steven­son for many years. “He knows who’s to blame, but he isn’t telling the lis­tener that it’s all his or her fault. It’s

eas­ier to hear some­thing when it doesn’t have that bag­gage.”

Watch his 2013 TED Talk (over 5 mil­lion views to date) and you see that strate­gic smile and a hu­mil­ity and em­pa­thy honed in the lo­cal Pen­te­costal church of his South­ern Delaware home­town. His fa­ther, Howard Sr., a lab tech­ni­cian at Gen­eral Foods, was the be­liever. “He had us in church all the time,” says Steven­son’s older brother, Howard (there’s a younger sis­ter, Christy, too). “He wanted us to pray for peo­ple who treated us bad. For my mother, you prayed af­ter­wards.”

The fierce, ur­bane Al­ice worked as an ac­count­ing clerk at the lo­cal Air Force base. Raised in North Phil­a­del­phia, she was for­ever ap­palled by the Deep South at­ti­tudes of South­ern Delaware—par­tic­u­larly the def­er­ence shown to whites by African-amer­i­cans. “She would get upset if peo­ple treated us bad and we didn’t re­spond in real time,” Howard says. “Her ap­proach was in your face. You don’t let peo­ple de­mean you. You don’t have to just swal­low it. So we learned how to fight in­stead of avoid­ing these mo­ments.”

When Steven­son speaks, you can hear the push-pull of Howard and Al­ice. “I look at my brother now, the way he ar­gues in court is sim­i­lar to how my mother would ar­gue in pub­lic,” Howard says, “with a fire and fierce­ness that is un­mis­tak­able. But he also knows when to fight and when to per­suade.”

Dur­ing Mcpher­son’s 15 years as a fed­eral judge in Mont­gomery for the Mid­dle District of Alabama, Steven­son never ar­gued be­fore her, but they’ve spent a lot of time com­mis­er­at­ing about af­fairs in their city and in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. She ad­mires his com­mit­ment not just to his clients, and to re­form­ing the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, but to cre­at­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to telling the truth about African-amer­i­can his­tory to white and black peo­ple.

“Don’t for­get,” says Mcpher­son, “that we, like white Amer­i­cans, went to schools with text­books that ab­so­lutely avoided any ac­cred­i­ta­tion of our his­tory.” The re­tired judge is 71, and this was true for her own books and those of her 44-year-old son. She sug­gests this may have changed.

It has not. For a new re­port, “Teach­ing Hard His­tory: Amer­i­can Slav­ery,” the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter sur­veyed U.S. high school se­niors, so­cial stud­ies teach­ers and 10 pop­u­lar U.S. his­tory text­books used na­tion­wide. Less than half of the books con­tained what the re­searchers con­sid­ered a com­pre­hen­sive ex­am­i­na­tion of slav­ery or the en­slaved, or made a con­nec­tion be­tween slav­ery and the Civil War. In a tip­toe in the right di­rec­tion, the State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in Texas voted in Novem­ber to change the way its pub­lic school stu­dents learn about the war: Be­gin­ning in fall of 2019, slav­ery will be pre­sented as play­ing “a cen­tral role” for the first time.

But that move does not af­fect text­books. Nor do they ref­er­ence slav­ery’s in­te­gral role in shap­ing our na­tion, fi­nan­cially and oth­er­wise. (Re­call the ou­trage over Michelle Obama’s com­ment, in a 2009 speech, that she was sleep­ing in a house con­structed by slaves.)

Among the re­port’s other rev­e­la­tions: Teach­ers, while se­ri­ous about teach­ing the sub­ject of slav­ery, are “un­com­fort­able” do­ing

so. “Some adults refuse to tell chil­dren things be­cause of their own fears, which is sep­a­rate from what chil­dren can know and un­der­stand,” says Howard, who is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and direc­tor of its Racial Em­pow­er­ment Col­lab­o­ra­tive, which coun­sels on ed­u­ca­tion is­sues. Teach­ers and par­ents “use age as an ex­cuse to avoid these top­ics,” he says, “but the big­ger is­sue is not the in­for­ma­tion, it’s that we aren’t teach­ing chil­dren to emote and feel and talk about things that are un­com­fort­able pe­riod.”

Re­lated to this dis­com­fort is, as “Teach­ing Hard His­tory” noted, the ten­dency to put the best spin pos­si­ble on slav­ery, with fo­cuses on feel-good sto­ries about, say, the Un­der­ground Rail­road. “Chil­dren’s books, in par­tic­u­lar, tend to be heroic, so kids have this mis­guided un­der­stand­ing around slav­ery be­ing not so bad,” says Howard, who has his own TED Talk. In it, he quotes an African proverb: “The lion’s story will never be told if the hunter is the one to tell it.”

Ex­tend the lion metaphor to the peo­ple who de­sign school cur­ricu­lums. EJI has con­sulted on tests for the Amer­i­can Ad­vanced Place­ment Exam. Eight or nine years ago, a ques­tion about Na­tive Amer­i­cans in­cluded the word geno­cide. “There was such a strong re­ac­tion from teach­ers against the word be­ing in­voked in as­so­ci­a­tion with what hap­pened to Na­tive peo­ple,” Steven­son tells me, “that they pres­sured school boards to re­treat from the ques­tion.”

AP tests are cre­ated by the Col­lege Board, which also owns and pub­lishes the SAT, long crit­i­cized for bias. All of these tests help de­ter­mine school cur­ricu­lums and how much time teach­ers de­vote to top­ics. If ques­tions about Na­tive Amer­i­can or African-amer­i­can his­tory are in­com­plete or don’t ex­ist, they are less likely to be taught com­pre­hen­sively—or at all.

The Legacy Mu­seum is a brick-and-mor­tar ges­ture to­ward fill­ing that gap. In just 11,000 square feet, it de­picts, with a vis­ceral power, the his­tory of black Amer­i­cans. Most pro­foundly, it suc­ceeds in mak­ing the case that, re­gard­less of who you are, black his­tory is your his­tory. “One of the things that work­ing here has made me more aware of is how the South and North have been deeply con­nected in this nar­ra­tive,” says San­neh, who is African-amer­i­can and grew up in Bos­ton. “The his­tory that cre­ated this cli­mate would never have hap­pened with­out com­plic­ity from the North and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.”

The mu­seum draws a di­rect line from en­slave­ment to con­vict leas­ing, a sys­tem fi­nally re­ceiv­ing wide­spread at­ten­tion (thanks in part to Dou­glas Black­mon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize–win­ning Slav­ery by An­other Name). With the eman­ci­pa­tion of slaves, hun­dreds of thou­sands of black men were ar­rested for petty crimes in the South, cre­at­ing an­other un­paid la­bor force (roughly two-thirds of Alabama’s 1898 state rev­enue was pro­duced by con­vict leas­ing). The prac­tice was phased out in the early 20th cen­tury—south Carolina was the last to pro­hibit it in 1933—but not be­fore many of the pris­on­ers per­ished un­der in­hu­mane con­di­tions.

When Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan de­clared his war on drugs in 1982, a new phase of en­slave­ment and in­tim­i­da­tion be­gan: the modern era of mass in­car­cer­a­tion. That, and mount­ing po­lice vi­o­lence against black and brown peo­ple, makes it clear this isn’t a prob­lem cre­ated by South­ern con­ser­va­tives. Racial in­jus­tice is a bi­par­ti­san is­sue. “Lib­er­als are com­plicit,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t say one is as equally prob­lem­atic as the other, but the de­mands are larger than what po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions en­ter­tain.”

One of the con­sis­ten­cies of racist ide­ol­ogy is that it’s easy to un­der­mine. Hin­ton had told me a story

COVER CREDIT Pho­to­graph by Joshua Co­gan for Newsweek

TERRORISM AT HOME Women protest­ing in front of the White House in 1946. Lynch­ing is still not a fed­eral crime. Dozens of anti-lynch­ing bills have failed to pass in the House and Se­nate. The lat­est was in­tro­duced in Oc­to­ber.

DIXIE PRIDE A man waves a Con­fed­er­ate ʀag in protest of a 2015 visit to Rose­burg, Ore­gon, by Pres­i­dent Obama; a fes­tive crowd at­tends the 1930 lynch­ing of 7homas Shipp and Abram Smith— an im­age that in­spired the song “Strange )ruit.”

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