He is the best-selling author of the memoir Just Mercy. He is an attorney who has argued in front of the Supreme Court five times. He is the founder and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His name is Bryan Stevenson, and with all of these accolades, he admits that he is broken.
Stevenson spoke at Jesse Auditorium Sunday afternoon for his talk, titled "American Injustice." With quick spoken eloquence, Stevenson touched on matters such as the death penalty, mass incarceration, race and ways to improve and change the world. Over 20 groups associated with MU sponsored the event.
Interim UM System President Michael Middleton gave Stevenson a brief introduction. Then Stevenson, a The New York Times’ best-selling author, went on to vividly describe times he's experienced blatant racism. He also told gut-wrenching, emotional stories about the inmates on death row whom he tried to help as an attorney.
To change the world, Stevenson says there are a few things people need to work on. The first is getting close to the problems he says are infecting society. “You’ve got to get close to the problems that you want to address,” Stevenson says. “Without proximity you’re not going to be effective.”
Stevenson also says that for things to change for the better, people have to remain hopeful, and he urged the activist types in the audience to think broadly. Similar to the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement who spoke at Jesse Auditorium in February, Stevenson says it is necessary for people to look at the bigger spectrum when contemplating the issue of racism. “It’s not just here,” he says. “It’s everywhere.”
To continue to address the issues facing us as a society, Stevenson says that there needs to be a complete change in narrative. He was critical of the United States and how it has handled its history. Stevenson feels as if America has shoved its history of racial discrimination and “racial terrorism” under the rug. “We are still infected by the narrative of racial difference and what happened on campus was a microcosm,” Stevenson says.
Doing the uncomfortable thing is something at which Stevenson excels. He works with those potentially condemned to death and people who have been accused of major criminal acts. He says doing the uncomfortable thing is also part of the equation to changing the world. “I don’t do what I do because it’s important,” he says. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
After he finished his lecture on the injustices that persist in the U.S., Stevenson fielded seven questions from the audience with the help of Stephanie Shonekan, MU Associate Professor of Black Studies and Ethnomusicology.
Audience members lined up in the aisles to get their questions answered. One of the questions was from Maxwell Little; Little is one of the original 11 members of Concerned Student 1950. His question pertained to the removal of the Thomas Jefferson monument on campus, which sits outside of Jesse Hall on the Francis Quadrangle.
“We’ve got to start creating cultural institutions that are so powerful that people will be uncomfortable to continue to support dishonorable acts,” Stevenson answered. He followed up by commending Little and supporting the petition he started which would rid the campus of the statue.
With an arsenal of powerful stories of injustice, thought provoking suggestions of how to change the world for the better and intense passion, Stevenson left the audience in awe. He might have left quickly, but his impact didn't, as the audience continued to applaud after his exit.