Interview - South - Stevenson

Interview - South - Stevenson



The Montgomery, Alabama-based attorney, author and civil rights trailblazer shares his family history, why he founded the Equal Justice Initiative and how telling the truths of racial terror in the South will awaken a new era of freedom in America.


MY GRANDMOTHER’S name was Victoria Baylor.

AS A CHILD, people would come to her home and her father would read the newspaper aloud. She was so proud that her dad, a former slave, was this source of knowledge.

I CANNOT EXPLAIN my status as a lawyer without explaining this legacy and this attention to the power of words to liberate, to inform, to shape.

MY MOTHER WENT INTO DEBT to buy us a set of World Book Encyclopedia.

DAD WORKED in a poultry factory.

WHEN HE CAME HOME from the Korean War, he should have had the privilege under the GI Bill to go to school and to get mortgage assistance. That’s how white veterans moved into the middle class.

BLACK FAMILIES were denied those opportunities.

WHEN EMANCIPATION CAME for 4 million slave people, there was a promise of property. And the opportunity to develop wealth. That was ultimately denied. And then these skills cultivated during slavery, as farmers and blacksmiths and other blue-collar trades, was undermined by the insecurity created by lynching and racial terrorism.

MILLIONS of black people fled the South to the urban North and West, where they essentially had to start all over again, despite 50 to 100 years of hard work.

HAVING PROXIMITY to inequality awakens something important for a just society.

We are all more than the worst thing that we have done.

MY FIRST TRIP to death row as a legal intern, that closeness to condemned people, shaped my thinking. I discovered that I could have an impact by simply being present, by showing up, by being proximate.

PEOPLE ACCUSED of something are shocked at how quickly they are discarded, even hated. This quick descent can be disorienting.

MY ROLE IS TO to respond to the legal challenges, but to also represent the hope of justice.

WE ARE ALL more than the worst thing that we have done.

JUSTICE REQUIRES that we know the other things that you are. That exploration is how we create a more complete picture of someone’s humanity.

WE HAVE NOT TOLD the truth in our society about slavery and lynching and segregation. When we find the courage to do that, we will be amazed at the power it will release.

IN THE BEGINNING, the memorial seemed like an odd idea. There were puzzling looks.

WE’VE DOCUMENTED about 4,300 lynchings. We have the names and dates. We believe there are thousands more.

OUR REPORTS on slavery and lynching evolved into collecting soil at the sites.

SOMETHING CONCRETE, something specific, something particular: Making this legacy of terror tangible is important.

THERE WAS ONE BLACK WOMAN doing a collection, alone, digging on a roadside, and this truck drove by and pulled over 100 yards in front of her. A big white man walked up to her and asked her what she was doing.


SHE FELT compelled and said, “This is where a man was lynched, and I am digging this soil to honor him.”

HE STOOD THERE and she was so nervous. “Would you mind if I helped you?” he said. She offered him the trowel, and he said, “No, no, no. I’ll just use my hands.”

I FEEL HONORED to live here and struggle in Montgomery.

BY 1860, two-thirds of Montgomery County were enslaved black people.

IT’S A PLACE where the opportunity for restoration and change is rich.

I AM STANDING on the shoulders of people who frequently had to say, “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” The spirits and souls of people like Rosa Parks and Dr. King and those early organizers and those emancipated people who found a way to endure.

THERE WERE THINGS my grandmother put in my ear that just sat there for a long time. Those things came to life for me when we started this work. Of reflection, of memory, of memorialization. She talked to me about my great-grandfather all the time. She loved her father.

HIS NAME was James Baylor.