The Legacy of Bryan Stevenson: An Interview with Mr. Van Dyke
by Lauren McNeese
Bryan Stevenson is a man of many hats. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, he is founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative. Additionally, he is the author of Just Mercy, a memoir that went on to be made into a movie which addressed the issues of systemic racism in our legal system today. If that’s not enough, he is also professor of law at the New York University School of Law.
Mr. Van Dyke, upper school history teacher and advisor of CCS’s Junior States of America chapter, shares his thoughts on the work of Stevenson.
Q: What is the commonly held belief about equality and incarcerations in America?
A: I think we tend to assume, or like to believe, that only guilty people are incarcerated, and that the punishment is proportionate to the crime. This is especially true for those of us who never really have to deal with the suspicion or accusation of committing a crime. You can convince yourself that the reason you don’t run into trouble with the law is because you’re good, and by implication, anyone who does run afoul of the law must be bad. At the same time, I do think there is a growing bipartisan awareness that our criminal justice system over-punishes certain people and certain crimes, so I think there is cause for some optimism.
“Once you see the through-line of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and mass incarceration, it’s harder to brush off the cries of injustice from our Black neighbors,” says Mr. Van Dyke. “This is an area that Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative has specifically focused on with their Legacy of Slavery museum in Montgomery, Alabama.”
Q: What historical events do Americans tend to look at and believe, “We did it! Equality achieved!” How do we combat that with truth?
A: There are so many moments in American history where a large portion of the public wanted to be able to say that things were “good enough.” After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many Americans were content to basically say, “The slaves are now free. The rest is up to them. We have done more than enough.” Throughout the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and other leaders were constantly accused of trying to move too far, too fast. In one instance, Thurgood Marshall really skillfully refutes that charge by simply saying that 90 years to fulfill the promises of Reconstruction is not fast at all. Then once segregation was legally struck down and voting rights were legally protected, most Americans were ready to move on. But Dr. King was adamant that legal rights were only the foundation, not the end goal of the movement. He continued to address poverty and its disproportionate impact on Black Americans. He explicitly linked that poverty to the legacy of slavery over 100 years before. But by that point, mainstream white Americans had moved on and were uninterested in hearing about economic inequality.
Q: How do you believe Bryan Stevenson has contributed to society at large?
A: Broadly, he has persuasively demonstrated that the death penalty is a an incredibly powerful tool that is, more often than not, misapplied. So even if you still support the death penalty, his work is likely to make you think that the death penalty should only be used in the rarest of cases. But, as the title of his book suggests, he also prompted many to reconsider how mercy and justice can work together, rather than being in opposition to each other. He forces everyone to see the humanity of the people who go through our criminal justice system, whether they are guilty or innocent.
Q: How have his actions affected the world in which we live today? Can you see any repercussions of his achievements in the history class you teach?
A: For my teaching, his organization’s work in researching the history of lynching has been really impactful. Their careful and thorough documentation of the lynchings that occurred (primarily in the South) along with the social, political, and economic context really shifts how you understand our country’s history. There are some truly bizarre and horrific things that happened in our country in the early 1900s, usually in public and loudly advertised. It almost feels like you’re reading about a public execution in the Middle Ages. But that is our history and we have to face it honestly. And it should be incredibly humbling and sobering to see so many seemingly ordinary people feel justified in brutalizing their Black neighbors. It should prompt us to reflect and ask ourselves and pray for the Holy Spirit’s convicting power to show us what harmful things we may be doing that we have convinced ourselves are right and good.