Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative — a nonprofit providing legal aid for prisoners around the country — called for people of faith to practice proximity for those condemned by society during a speech at Butler University’s Clowes Hall on Oct. 5.
Stevenson was brought to Butler by Faith and Action, a multi-faith group advocating for issues including criminal justice reform and gun violence. Lindsay Rabinowitch, who organized the event, “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference,” said she wanted Stevenson to speak at the annual event to explain the link between poverty and crime.
“We wanted to bring in a speaker who can connect the dots about the causes of poverty and the barriers that hold people back from moving out of it,” Rabinowitch said before the event. “There are so many links between slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and it really describes the brokenness of humanity. … Stevenson connected those dots so well in his book ‘Just Mercy.’”
Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, inspired by an interaction he had as a law student with a man on death row in Georgia. While Stevenson was unsuccessful in his attempt to save the man, who had an intellectual disability, Stevenson said the experience ingrained in him a dedication to the truth and the justice that comes with it.
“That’s when things changed for me, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground,” Stevenson said. “I understand that my journey is tied to his journey, that’s the power of proximity. … Faith has to empower us to stand with the condemned. There is no beauty or justice in the world if we are not responding to the needs of the poor and the excluded.”
It’s difficult to discuss America’s criminal justice system without discussing the country’s history of racial terror. While Stevenson encouraged the audience to remain hopeful, his speech hit on the role that racism continues to play in America.
“We are not free in America,” Stevenson said. “Our atmosphere is polluted by these narratives of injustice, whether you’re in Indianapolis or Montgomery or California. … It infects us, our vision is impaired by its contaminants.”
Stevenson said having difficult conversations about race, poverty and crime can help move the needle for future generations. That’s his goal with the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Legacy Museum. Focused on the journey from enslavement to mass incarceration, the Alabama-based museum also houses a memorial to the roughly 4,400 African Americans who were lynched between 1877 to 1950. Talking about the horrors of history, Stevenson said, can create a more just society.
“This is the beginning of what I hope will be an era of truth and justice, an era of hope, and era of people doing the difficult things that must be done to create justice on this Earth,” Stevenson said. “What does God require from us? What God wants is for us to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly. Let’s do it together.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper