BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone, reporting from Montgomery, Alabama. It’s often been noted with hope that the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. I wondered how Attorney Bryan Stevenson, who’s pursued justice his whole life, found his arc bending towards history. I asked him to trace it.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I grew up in a community where black children had to go to the colored schools. This was in southern Delaware on the Eastern Shore. There were no high schools for black kids when my dad was a teenager; he couldn’t go to the high school in our county. And I remember when lawyers came into the community and made them open up the public schools. And it was so powerful because I don’t think you could persuade the majority of people in that community to integrate on their own, it took the rule of law. And that planted a seed in my head that maybe the law could protect disfavored people in ways that the political process couldn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let me ask you this, you’ve described redressing injustice, then you undertook to redress history. Can you tell me how you got from there to here?
BRYAN STEVENSON: While I was really proud of a lot that we had achieved, it became clear to me that there were constraints. I’m a product of Brown v. Board of Education, but in 1987, when we challenged racial bias in the death penalty, what the Court held was that these disparities based on race are inevitable. It’s almost as if they gave up on this commitment to equal justice under law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there a particular decision, a particular moment when you just said, ‘well, I can keep bashing my head against the wall and see the horizon retreat in front of me or I can take on this audacious task of American history?’
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think it did begin with that case, McCleskey v. Kemp, in 1987 when the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty, despite overwhelming evidence that race of the victim was the greatest predictor of who got the death penalty. In case after case, we were challenging the exclusion of African Americans from juries. The Court just continued to shrug its shoulders and it was a sort of a gradual awareness that we were going to have to change the environment outside the courts. And that's when we decided that we were going to have to talk more honestly about the history of racial inequality that I think has made us indifferent. I went to Johannesburg and spent time in the Apartheid Museum and was very moved by a cultural institution that was intent on making sure people do not forget apartheid. I researched the Genocide Museum in Rwanda, and you can't go to Rwanda without being forced to hear about what happened. I go to the Holocaust Museum here in the United States and when I get to the end of it I am motivated to say, along with many others, ‘never again.’
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the false narrative?
BRYAN STEVENSON: That to the extent that slavery was a problem, it was a problem because people were forced to labor against their will. But people were well-treated, people weren’t that unhappy to be enslaved, slave owners were generous and kind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that what people think in Alabama?
BRYAN STEVENSON: It’s what people think all over America. Michelle Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention where she talked about living in a house built by slaves and she was attacked.
MICHELLE OBAMA: So that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
MICHELLE OBAMA: And, and, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It is preposterous to believe that you are soft on slavery, like in the Holocaust, you can only speak about it in unequivocal damnation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They can’t stop talking about slavery, and largely in a context of, ‘Hey, you know what, it isn't settled yet. Hey, we haven't fixed it yet.’ And I think that’s a no-win situation.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I hear people talking about the civil rights movement and it's starting to sound like a three-day carnival: On day one Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus, on day two Dr. King led a march on Washington and on day three we passed these laws and racism was over. And I wish that were our history but there was tremendous resistance to civil rights. Our elected officials said ‘segregation forever’ and they’ve never repudiated that narrative. We created an educational system that now is every bit as segregated as it was in the 1960s. And so, we haven't done a very good job of, of confronting it. And I knew we were in trouble when I saw state tourism agencies taking out ads in civil rights memorial books saying things like, ‘in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King partnered with the people of Alabama to create a better future --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haha!
BRYAN STEVENSON: -- literally the language that is used. If you think polio is just like a cold, then you’re not committed to creating a polio vaccination. Most Americans would say that if they were alive during the 19th century they would, of course, be trying to end slavery, would say that if they were alive in the 1920s and ‘30s, they would do whatever they can to stop lynching. Everybody would claim to be on the side of the civil rights marchers in wanting to end segregation. And I don't think you can claim to have been an abolitionist or an anti-lynching crusader or a civil rights protester, if you're living in a society where evidence of horrific racial bias characterizes our criminal justice system and you say nothing, you do nothing. And that legacy is part of what we want people to confront. We want them to wrestle with the fact that the state of Alabama still prohibits black and white kids from going to school together in our state constitution and we can’t get it out because a majority of people keep voting to keep it in. We want them to wrestle with the fact that we throw children away, that we don't seem to respond to constraints on voting rights for African Americans. And then we want to pose the question, are we willing to say ‘never again’? Are we sufficiently moved by an understanding of this history that we’re now prepared to make that commitment? Because if we make that commitment, a lot of things will have to change. We’re not going to be able to accept the kind of police shootings of unarmed black people that we've accepted, we’re not going to be able to tolerate restrictions on voting rights in communities of color, we’re not going to be able to ignore these disparities in suspension and expulsion rates in schools. We’re going to have to think differently about confronting the legacy of this history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happens when a nation does commit itself to the task of confronting its history? Bryan returns again and again to the German experience. But what’s the impact on Germans who have no personal memory of the Nazis or, or even of the Berlin Wall? Peter Weissenburger is 30 years old and editor for the Society and Media Section with Taz newspaper in Berlin. He seemed to be someone I could ask. Do you think that exposure to these monuments growing up changed you?
PETER WEISSENBURGER: Hmm. I mean, as I grew up in the countryside, I didn't see a lot of monuments. What I saw was television productions, movies about what happened, documentaries. They’re also monuments, right? They did change me, definitely. I mean, it was ever present. For me, being German is mostly about that. Right-wing people tend to say that there’s this, like, originality to what Germans are–that’s not true. Most of what defines being German is to deal with our kind of history and not to forget.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are a lot of people who say that until we deal with slavery and its legacy, which may be our defining feature, we’ll never progress.
PETER WEISSENBURGER: Possibly. The controversial thing is about it, that once you start you’re never going to be done. So there’s no such thing as dealing with it and then finally having dealt with it. And I think this is what makes people so afraid to start dealing with history at all. There is no point in which we can say, okay, we’re done know. This is always going to be what happened. There is always going to have been millions of people that were killed in a fascist, racist killing machinery, and a whole society of bystanders. And it's much easier to sort of compartmentalize it and be outraged as somebody puts a large monument right in the middle of your capital. I mean right-wing people now are addressing it as a wound of shame that's in the middle of our capital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Holocaust Memorial.
PETER WEISSENBURGER: The Hol--the Holoocaust Memorial, because they want history, especially history of Germany, to be something where there's this thing that happened but that's in the past–we strayed off our path there. But I believe that it’s more important to acknowledge that this part of your history makes up the organism of your society and something that is always going to be tearing on you. And this is what a lot of people feel like can't be asked of them, to always feel like there's something internally wrong with the way that their society was created.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what do you think?
PETER WEISSENBURGER: I mean, what are you going do? This is our starting point. This is the starting point of the way that our Constitution is written. It wouldn't have been written that way if it wasn't for fascism, the way that our media work, the way the parliamentary system works. And it's the way that, now, a lot of people are looking at immigration and at racism and refugees. Positioning themselves when it comes to those issues has to do with the past, and how are you going to compartmentalize that? Are you going to say, this has nothing to do with what we are now?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In terms of slavery, certainly the founding documents were made in such a way so that slavery could continue, in order to create a unified nation or a nation that could live with itself. Of course, it just put off the problem for 80 years.
PETER WEISSENBURGER: I mean, to be fair, Germany had the Allies who came there and who decided what the narrative was going to be. The kind of ‘consensus,’ quote, unquote, that we have now that this is a horrible thing to happen and this is the way we have to deal with it, that did not emerge organically–there were outside forces. I'm not saying that you can't have that but I don't think we have the illusion that this is something that can come out of society without any conflict. There’s going to be people that are emotionally invested in the narrative that they have now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That the Civil War was fought over states’ rights?
PETER WEISSENBURGER: Yeah, and that some ancestor died in the Civil War for what he thought was right and you don't want anybody to come and tell you that he died for the wrong idea. That’s a pretty harsh thing to wrap your head around to. I'm not saying that you can't and you shouldn't. There's other parts of the society that are saying, ‘but yeah, we have to deal with it. You can’t just like make excuses because there's like some great-great grandfather who died there.’ This is our right to have that kind of injustice addressed. There is going to be a lot of fighting around this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so it has been, do you ever resolve it, absent an, an outside power?
PETER WEISSENBURGER:Probably easiest to do away with the idea of resolution. In the case of the United States, at least, to deal with it constantly and to try and make progress and institute mechanisms that make it possible for future generations to engage with the issue in a new way but not to believe that everybody can come to the conclusion the we now have a consensus on what happened and how we have to go from here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well thanks, Peter.
PETER WEISSENBURGER: You’re very welcome.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve said many times that ‘no person’ is the worst thing that they've ever done, and yet it seems that we as a country cannot get past the worst thing that we have ever done.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I don't think our nation believes that the genocide of Native people is the worst thing we've ever done or slavery is the worst thing we've ever done or lynching is the worst thing we’ve ever done or even segregation. I think we've actually created a narrative that those things weren't that bad. And not only do we not need to recover from that, we don't even need to be remorseful about that. There is no shame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it is the worst thing we've ever done.
BRYAN STEVENSON: It is, in fact.And, and I want the nation to have the courage to own up to that, with the knowledge that if they own up to that they won't be condemned by it, that there is something on the other side of it, which is why we do this work. I represent a lot of people who’ve done terrible things and it’s in that context that I've come to understand that we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. We are more than a country that perpetrated the genocide. We’re more than a slave society. We’re more than a lynching society. We’re more than a segregation society. But we cannot ignore that bad thing we did. And there is redemption waiting, there is recovery waiting, there is reconciliation waiting. There’s something that feels more like justice than what we have experienced in America. There is something better waiting for us, without this burden, this history of racial inequality holding us down. But we can't get there through silence, by pretending that the history doesn't exist. We’ve got to own up to it.
MARSHALL: My name is Marshall, as in Marshall County in northeast Alabama where I grew up. Our county was incorporated in 1838 and named for Chief Justice John Marshall who defied President Andrew Jackson and tried to defend the Cherokee people’s legal right to stay in their homeland. That a country was named for a defender of a people whose removal made said county legally possible has always struck me as upside-down, counterintuitive. The naming of the neighboring county, Jackson, seems far more appropriate. The only explanation I can conjure is that someone in that council had a rock-solid conviction as to the injustice of it all and determined to leave a signpost for future generations to contemplate. And, oh, how I would like to have been a fly on the wall during that naming. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On The Media was produced this week by Alana Casanova-Burgess and edited by Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson and our engineer this week was Greg Rippin. We thank all the listeners who sent in their observations of how their communities memorialized the past. On The Media is produced by WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.