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By Charlotte Kramon PPS'24

Bryan Stevenson has seen America’s ugliness.

The author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has devoted his life to helping incarcerated people and death row inmates whose cases have been grossly mishandled by a legal system fraught with prejudice.

Charlotte Kramon
Charlotte Kramon PPS'24

This country’s identity is rooted in punishment, Stevenson said during the Sanford Distinguished Lecture on September 22. But we can change that.

He does not want to punish America the way America punishes one-third of men who, like him, are Black. He wants to liberate America.

Liberation, in Stevenson’s eyes, means telling the truth.

The truth, he says, is that in 1972, 200,000 people were incarcerated. Then came the “war on drugs,” racially motivated crime politics, and a wave of narratives about people of color rooted in bigotry, violence and anger. As a result, 2.2 million people are incarcerated today. While the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of the world’s inmates.

The truth, he says, is that after emancipation, Black people could have sought retribution for the grave atrocities, violence and exploitation they endured. Instead, they committed themselves to democracy, opened businesses, and, in several cities, established thriving Black Wall Streets. In return, they were terrorized. When Black people fled to the South, leaving the wealth they managed to build behind, the government provided zero restitution or aid. Instead, cities pushed them to the outskirts. 

Today, Stevenson is worried. He started his lecture by telling us that. He is worried about the rise in fear, anger and injustice.

Yet, despite everything he has seen and experienced, Stevenson retains hope that people can refocus their identities on justice, mercy, compassion, and helping others, and change the country as a result.

Stevenson laid out steps to changing America’s identity rooted in punishment.

First, he said, we must commit to getting proximate with people who have been oppressed and marginalized. Policies that have resulted in a racist criminal legal system and divestment from communities of color are created by people who are distant from the communities they are hurting. Segregation has and continues to keep people around those who are from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

At Duke, he pointed out, it is easy to be disconnected from the community beyond our majestic campus.

Personal Connection

Stevenson with students
Bryan Stevenson speaking to Charlotte and others who are enrolled in an advanced reporting class informally known as the Courthouse Project. Professor Stephen Buckley is to Stevenson's right. Students read the book Just Mercy as part of the curriculum.

I resonated with this step deeply. In my court reporting course, I have been going to court regularly and watching Durham residents, most of whom are Black and brown, deal with frustrations and exhaustion. I have also gotten involved with the Duke Justice Project, which works to mitigate the effects of incarceration. In our course, we've spoken to people who were previously incarcerated or public defenders about Durham’s criminal legal system.

The biggest reason I resonated with this point, though, is the reason why I am so passionate about racial inequity and criminal justice in the first place. My best friend from home came to my school in 10th grade from South Los Angeles. Her school in Inglewood shut down, so she came to my school on a full scholarship. She would tell kids at my school about the days when she was homeless or about her friends who had been shot. Her stories exposed how far this country has set Black people back.

I would spend many weekends at her place, watching the trees and houses disappear as I drove along the I-10 freeway which was built in the 1960s, disrupting and displacing a thriving Black neighborhood. In a successful effort to further segregate L.A., the residents had been pushed further from the economic hubs and the city.

Proximity to “the hood,” and five years of deep, difficult and rewarding conversations with my best friend, taught me more than I have learned in all my years of school. It taught me true compassion, and exposed me to the unjust world outside of my own.

Changing Narratives

The second step to changing the country’s identity is changing narratives rooted in bigotry. In the 1980s, criminologists called children “super predators,” enabling them to be tried as adults. Stevenson worked with a child who accidentally shot and killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Because the boyfriend was a police officer, the boy was sent to jail. There, he was abused, sexually assaulted and raped.

Slavery was enabled by the narrative people used to justify it, which is that Black people are inferior.

We cannot alter narratives by suppressing the truth. Stevenson pointed to Germany, which forces people to reckon with the attempted extermination of Jews with its massive Holocaust memorial. There are no statues of Hitler in Germany, he noted.

We cannot skip over the truth and find justice and redemption.

Stay Hopeful

Third, we must stay hopeful. Hope is key to justice, and it is what keeps Stevenson going. After his lecture at Duke, he would find out whether his client would be put to death today.

“I don’t understand how killing people is the way to show that killing is wrong,” Stevenson said.

Despite the day’s tribulations, here he was, still hopeful, moving us with his stories and inspiring an audience to become better, more compassionate individuals.

Fourth, we must be willing to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Finally, we must live with love.

“Justice is the instrument, but love is the motive,” he said.

Charlotte Kramon is a junior majoring in Public Policy with a certificate in Policy Journalism and Media Studies. She is also involved with the 9th Street Journal, Duke Justice Project, Partners in Health Engage and DukeWISER.


Another student perspective

Ahliyah Sanford MPP'23 also attended the Stevenson event.  She said it changed her profoundly."Prior to the event, I felt tired. I have been weathered after years of experiencing racism and bigotry," Sanford writes. "I was tired of hearing about the injustices happening in my community. I felt like it was never ending. ... Listening to Stevenson’s lecture and watching him present these solutions so passionately lit a fire in my belly. For the first time in months, I felt hope again."

Read Ahliyah's story