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Bryan Stevenson on tracing the legacy of American enslavement to modern-day mass incarceration

The attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative joins Vox Conversations to discuss the newly expanded Legacy Museum, the conservative crusade against critical thinking, and why working to end racism isn’t enough.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, outside the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 24.
Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Forgive the spoiler, if you will. But when I walked into the newly expanded and reopened Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, the first thing I saw, and heard, were ocean waves, crashing up against the video screens in front of me. The display was a haunting memorial to the kidnapped Africans who did not survive the Middle Passage.

As part of the first chapter of African American history in this nation, seeing that watery grave set the appropriate tone for the museum’s journey through the timeline of Black life in this country, taking visitors from the days of chattel slavery all the way to modern-day evils such as voter suppression and mass incarceration, connecting the dots as it goes.

The entryway leading to the new Legacy Museum’s main exhibit, depicting enslaved Africans held captive during the Middle Passage.
Equal Justice Initiative/Human Pictures

I first visited the initial Legacy Museum back in the spring of 2018. That’s when attorney Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened it around the corner from their offices in Montgomery, Alabama, at the same time as their National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, with its 800 6-foot blocks of metal displaying the names of lynching victims, remains atop a hill overlooking the Alabama Capitol building. But the original Legacy Museum was too small, it seems, to encapsulate the full horror of American injustice visited upon people who look like Stevenson and me.

On the most recent episode of Vox Conversations, I spoke with Stevenson — the author of the bestselling memoir Just Mercy and the founder and executive director of EJI — about why this exhibit needed a new home, how it complements his legal work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and whether museums are the place to strike back against modern efforts to criminalize the teaching of American history.

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. Of course, you’ll find much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jamil Smith

So first, Bryan, I want to ask you: Why a museum? In your view, why was there a need for the Legacy Museum in 2018, and now a much larger one in 2021?

Bryan Stevenson

I think generally in the United States, we’ve done a very poor job of creating cultural spaces that help us understand who we are and how we’ve gotten where we are. And I went to Johannesburg in South Africa, and I saw the Apartheid Museum there, and it was powerful to me to see that that nation had created an institution that helped people understand the pain and the suffering and the anguish that apartheid created.

You can’t go 200 meters in Berlin without seeing markers and monuments to honor the victims of the Holocaust. There’s a Holocaust memorial in the center of the city. And because of that reckoning, there’s just a different relationship to history in that country than you see in this country. There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. It would be unconscionable for people to try to romanticize that period, because there’s been this reckoning.

In the United States, we haven’t done that. There are no museums that talk honestly in a detailed way about the legacy of slavery. [Author’s note: Except, I’d argue, the Legacy Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.] We have the opposite. We actually create plantations that romanticize that antebellum era.

The exterior of the Legacy Museum on a street in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Legacy Museum is the latest manifestation of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s decades-long work of getting America to confront the hard truths of its past.
Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And so, I do believe that we need to create spaces that more honestly address this history. We began that process in 2018, and I was very encouraged by the level of interest that the memorial generated in the first museum, but we felt like we needed to expand it because there was so much more to say. There’s no place in America where you can have an honest exploration of the transatlantic slave trade. We haven’t talked about the violence of slavery, the details around lynching, the anguish and resistance to civil rights, and certainly nothing that’s getting to this contemporary moment of over-incarceration.

And I do think that part of our problem is that we have been so silent, in cultural spaces, about the importance of historical examination and memorialization. We believe the memorialization in America. We have a 9/11 memorial, less than a decade after that incident, so it’s not that we don’t recognize the power of these institutions. We just haven’t created them when it comes to looking at the legacy of slavery and lynching and racial injustice.

Jamil Smith

I remember back in 2018 when I was driving between Birmingham and Montgomery to cover the opening of the original Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for Rolling Stone. And I noticed this giant Confederate flag along I-65 [flown by the Sons of Confederate Veterans] — you know the one I’m talking about.

Bryan Stevenson


Jamil Smith

It reminded me of what you’re talking about. As I put in the piece, we memorialize deliberately.

I remember in Just Mercy you mentioned the Atticus Finch [memorial and the To Kill a] Mockingbird museum. You know, a museum dedicated to a [white] fictional character who didn’t save his black client (laughing). This memorialization that we do in this country between plantations, Mockingbird museum ... this memorialization of white virtue without regard to Black bodies is epidemic at this point.

Bryan Stevenson

Yeah. And it’s a real problem. I think people haven’t appreciated the barriers it creates to progress. And you’re absolutely right, the American South is littered with iconography designed to memorialize and honor the architects and defenders of the Confederacy.

When I moved to Montgomery in the 1980s, this was a city that had 59 markers and memorials to the Confederacy, and you could not find the word slave or slavery or enslavement anywhere in this city. And I still live in the state where Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday, where Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. We don’t have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.

That giant Confederate flag is still on Interstate 65, and I don’t think until we address these things, we’re not going to get to the place we need to go — because these are more than just tokens. They are symbols of a false narrative of the virtue of racial hierarchy, of the acceptability of white supremacy.

I think cultural leaders and institutions have, in many ways, been complicit by not creating an honest accounting of this history. And that’s why I do think there’s a lot of work to do in the cultural spaces of America.

Inside the new 11,000-square foot Legacy Museum are multiple reminders, such as this, of what used to stand on the site of the building itself.
Equal Justice Initiative

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