Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. Since July 4, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife have been driving west and farther south to trace the routes along which enslaved people were driven to distant markets by traders and to explore the Confederates in Erin’s family tree. In Part 5 of this Colorlines series, the Palmers sit down with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. In this Q&A, edited and condensed for length, Stevenson discusses slavery’s long shadow and explains why some folks just won’t quit celebrating the Confederacy.

One of the highlights of our trip—and one that needs a discrete part—is our interview with Bryan Stevenson. We sought him out for his insight into racial justice issues, his deep knowledge of history, and his experience as a public-interest attorney unearthing evidence of injustice. 

His organization, Equal Justice Institute (EJI), is best known for advocating on behalf of death-row inmates and incarcerated youth. Among other work, Stevenson has successfully argued a pair of cases before the Supreme Court that led to 29 states to strike down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.

Less well known is EJI’s research, as part of its race and poverty initiative, into chapters of history that have long been suppressed. The organization has published reports on slavery [PDF] and lynching [PDF] in America. It worked to get monuments to the slave trade erected in downtown Montgomery and has launched a campaign to mark every lynching site in the United States.

We spoke to him about historical questions at the center of our documentary about the displaced African-American communities of Magruder, Virginia, “Make the Ground Talk,” but also about a related and pressing issue, the enduring celebration of the Confederacy across the South. 

Photo: Brian Palmer Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, on July 8, 2015.

Brian Palmer: How do you tackle statements by some people that the Confederate flag isn’t the [real] issue, that the dismal material situation of many African-Americans is?

Bryan Stevenson: I don’t think there’s any question that our failure to confront the legacy of slavery, and lynching, and segregation has created this world where we’re now dealing with mass incarceration, generational poverty, and continued marginalization in communities of color. We have to talk about the way that history has infected all of us with this narrative of racial difference.

BP: Explain that narrative.

BS: The narrative was constructed during the era of slavery. And what we don’t acknowledge, in ways that I think we have to, is that the great evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude. That was horrific, don’t get me wrong—but I think the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate slavery. It was the ideology of white supremacy, which we created to make us comfortable with the idea that we could own other human beings.

BP: You’ve often said that slavery didn’t end, that it evolved. Can you elaborate?

BS: The 13th Amendment dealt with involuntary servitude. But it didn’t deal with the narrative of racial difference. It turned into decades of racial terror and violence and abuse of people of color that stretched from Reconstruction until World War II. We have to understand the era of lynching and the violence and terrorism that surrounded it as one of the most profoundly disruptive eras of American history. We lynched 4,000 African-Americans. We traumatized millions of African-Americans. The demographic geography of this country was shaped by terrorism and lynching. The African-Americans in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland and Boston did not get to those communities as immigrants looking for new opportunities. They came to those communities as refugees from terror. They fled the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century as part of the great migration because they were seeking security and refuge from the terrorism. And if you know anything about refugee communities in other parts of the world, you know that refugees come with needs that have to be addressed. We never addressed those needs, and we’re still dealing with the consequences of that generational disruption created by terrorism and lynching. 

Even the segregation era, the apartheid era, the civil rights era has been largely in my judgment mischaracterized. The truth is that for decades African-Americans in this country were humiliated every day. Every time you went into town and you had to see those signs, “white” and “colored,” you were told you weren’t good enough to use that bathroom or to drink from that fountain. People of color were denied education, voting rights, respect and dignity, and that accumulates over decades in ways that create injuries that cannot be addressed by simply changing laws. 

Photo: Brian Palmer Storefront on Highland Avenue in the Centennial Hill neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama, on July 8, 2015.

BP: How do we connect that to today?

BS: [Y]ou can’t understand what’s going on in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Baltimore, in New York City, the shootings of unarmed black men, without understanding this presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to every person of color when they’re born. They carry that burden when they go into department stores or when they cross the street or when they go into the sections of the city where they are not perceived to belong. And that reality has fed and fueled mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is an institution that was developed based on fear and anger that was racialized.

BP: Let’s go back to the Confederate flag.

BSWe’re talking about the flag because it is an icon of resistance to respect [and equality] for people of color. The murders in Charleston were a manifestation of someone who is rejecting the idea that people of color can be respected and provided dignity and fair opportunity. And so if you don’t deal with the iconography of racism, you’re not going to effectively address racism. No one in the world thinks that it would be appropriate to create military uniforms in Germany that have swastikas on them. We would regard that as completely unacceptable.

The Confederate flag in the United States wasn’t really showing up until the 1950s. It was raised as a symbol of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, to racial integration, and people walking around with that flag are in effect saying, “I’m still opposed to racial integration.” 

I’m in Alabama—we celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday. Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama, we have Martin Luther King slash Robert E. Lee Day here—

BP: —We have Lee-Jackson day in Virginia.

BS: No one in Germany would think it’s appropriate to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. If some country said, “We’re going to make Osama bin Laden’s birthday a holiday,” we would want to oppose sanctions on that country. And yet … we’ve got federal bases in the South named after Confederate war generals who were trying to destroy the United States.

Erin Hollaway Palmer: How does that happen? Can you talk about that Confederaphilia?

BS: Part of what happened in the mid-19th century was that after the Civil War, we could have and should have dealt with that insurgency, that act of treason, the way we deal with it in other contexts. Because we were uncommitted to the emancipation of people of color and much more worried about accommodating these Southern white interests, we allowed the South to create a new counter narrative: The Civil War was not about slavery. It was not about anything that would be something you should be ashamed of. It was about states’ rights and local control, and we should be proud of these Confederate heroes and leaders. And slavery was just some inconsequential side issue. This narrative was designed to make people feel comfortable with their racialized hierarchy. 

And the civil rights era was the same thing. People could feel good and moral and Christian while they would not allow people of color to share the same bathroom. They could do that because there was this narrative of racial difference that was legitimate. And so the counter narrative to racial equality was essential because we want to feel good. We still want to sing glorious songs about our proud history. We want to feel like we’re a great society, that we’re good, decent people [but we can’t] do that without a narrative that explains and legitimates these horrific disparities that are all shaped by race. And so now the challenge is how do we recover—and we do not recover by continued silence.

Photo: Erin Hollaway Palmer Historical Marker on Commerce Street sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, on July 8, 2015.

EHP: How do you get people to confront the truth—people who might resist hearing it?

BS: There are literally thousands of ways to document spaces and to elevate these new narratives. We’ve started marking the communities where the slave trade was most active. We now have four markers in Montgomery that talk about its slave trade and its impact on the South. We are trying to put up markers at every lynching site in this country. I think no one should be able to go to a courthouse where a lynching took place without being sobered by our willingness to tolerate racial inequality, and maybe that will motivate them to be a little more demanding when issues of racial inequality emerge in contemporary criminal justice cases, which they do all the time. And so that’s one way of doing it. It’s what Germany has done. It’s what you’re seeing in other parts of the world, where they use monument and memorial as a way to sober and to engage communities.

I love it when I look out of our window and I see families from South Alabama, white families, where the 12-year-old is the one stopping and reading the sign and the parents are trying to get him to move away and eventually they all go back and they spend 20 minutes at that sign. For me that’s hopeful. If the sign doesn’t exist, then the conversation doesn’t exist. If the conversation doesn’t exist, then you grow up with these attitudes that have been shaped by the counter narrative with nothing to complicate that. So that’s one of the ways we deal with it. 

EHP: How else do we deal?

[T]he other way we deal with it is we actually learn what it means to commit to transitional justice. What does that mean? It means that you can’t celebrate things that are not celebratory. You can’t take pride in things about which you should have no pride. You’re going to have to create a new narrative. And there is a narrative of Southern pride. We ought to know the white people in the South who were campaigning to abolish slavery. And most people don’t know a single person they can put in that category. We ought to know the names of the white people who actually stood for Reconstruction, and we don’t know their names. We ought to know the people who were against lynching and terrorism. We don’t know their names. We ought to know the people in the 1930s and ’40s who were saying segregation is wrong. But we haven’t learned that history. 

I’m not even insisting that everything be turned into a building or a street named after some black person. I don’t think that would be an accurate way to manage this history. We can replace the name of all of these Confederate monuments, memorials, boulevards, streets, etc., with other white people who stood for something [to] be proud of. We have to understand that you can’t celebrate enslavement and terrorism and segregation and call yourself great. That’s a recipe for disaster.

EHP: What do you think of the existing Confederate monuments? Do we let them stand? Do we ultimately take them down? 

BS: I think there’s a difference between memorials and monuments that are basically designed to enshrine the legitimacy of this effort and places where there are graves or places where something happened. You don’t ignore spaces that have historic merit, because something significant happened there. It’s the way you talk about it. Auschwitz was a terrible place, but you can’t ignore that something happened there. But the way you talk about it, the way you think about it, is what matters. You go to Johannesburg, the apartheid museum is designed to make people understand what apartheid is about. It’s not a happy experience … designed to make you be proud of your past. It’s an experience designed to make you confront the legacy of apartheid. And the same thing is true in Rwanda and the other parts of the world where you’ve had these horrific human rights abuses.

I’m not trying to get the world to never use the word “Confederacy” or to not talk about the Civil War. I just want them to stop talking about it as the “War of Northern Aggression” or as a war that had nothing to do with slavery, or elevating these complicated false narratives to make themselves feel better.

Photo: Brian Palmer In front of the Alabama State Capitol, footprints symbolizing steps voting-rights marchers took in Montgomery, on July 8, 2015.

BP: In terms of the clientele that you work with—and I’m speaking particularly of youth who have been crushed by the system of white supremacy—how does knowing about slavery benefit them? 

BS: One of the great challenges for the clients that I represent is that there is this profound absence of hope. My clients are born into violent families; they live in violent neighborhoods; they go to violent schools; they’re chased by violent gangs; they’re threatened from the second that they can hear and understand, and that sense of being menaced is traumatizing. And what happens is that you become really hopeless about what you can do. The only way to combat that is to create within them a sense of hope—this understanding that they can survive despite overwhelming challenges, overwhelming threats. And the way you begin to believe you can survive is by understanding stories of survival that are relevant to you. And if their great-grandparents survived segregation, with all of the risk and all of the threat and all of the burden that created; and if their great-great-grandparents survived lynching, this completely accepted institutional threat to every person of color; and if their great-great-great-grandparents survived slavery, they begin to believe that they can survive mass incarceration. They can survive the marginalization of residential segregation and chronic poverty. And that hope has to animate your relationship to the world around you. If you actually believe that you can survive, that you can be something else than a formerly incarcerated person, you live differently.

BP: To go back to the question that we asked at the beginning of the interview: It was two progressive African-Americans who said, “Forget the flag, it’s just a symbol, let’s focus on our youth, and let’s focus on mourning.” What would you say to them?

BS: I’d say, you can’t forget a history that continues to condemn you. It’s like saying, “Don’t think about the fact that you have cancer, just get the best wig you can find.” No, you want to deal with the illness, not just the symptoms. The symptoms are everywhere, and people who are distracted by symptoms without dealing with the illness are bound to stay sick. We actually can cure the illness. 

I think that people who have been acculturated into believing that it doesn’t matter are people who are lying to themselves. And it just may be that growing up surrounded by these icons and knowing what they represent, you begin to appreciate why our indifference to them is something that we can no longer justify. That’s not what Emancipation is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to make you accepting and complicit in dealing with, in coping with, the narrative of racial difference and accepting racial hierarchy. It’s supposed to make you fight it.