Bryan Stevenson on the History of Racial Terror in the United States

On Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founder Bryan Stevenson joined us to discuss his book Just Mercy, the history of racial terror in the United States, and the attacks on teaching honestly about U.S. history.

This session was part of our monthly Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online class series. Don’t miss the 2023 lineup — register now.

Bryan Stevenson, Cierra Kaler-Jones, and Jesse Hagopian

Bryan Stevenson, Cierra Kaler-Jones, and Jesse Hagopian

In conversation with Jesse Hagopian and Cierra Kaler-Jones, Stevenson talked about the importance of teaching truthfully, the motivation behind anti-CRT laws, the role of monuments, memorials, and historical markers in helping people engage with an honest account of history, and more.

More than 750 people attended this session, and the majority were teachers or teacher educators. See this poll from the class with a full breakdown of participants’ roles:

poll graph showing participants attending this class
Participants shared what they learned and reflections on the session:

How beautifully Bryan links education, history, reading, and literacy with storytelling, lived experiences, and truth-telling. He makes the case (pardon the pun) for why and how we can seize this moment to change the narrative!

The most important idea I learned today was the connection between anti-CRT laws and anti-literacy laws. That back then, there was an effort to silence the truth and maintain white supremacy and that has simply continued with the anti-CRT laws.

The truth matters, and who gets to say what the truth is. We all have a responsibility to listen, to learn, and to teach. Giving people space to tell their stories is an action. Learning is an action.

Oh, my goodness! There is so much inspiration every time I attend a session! The story of Mr. Stevenson’s great-grandparents and his family’s dedication to becoming literate and helping others become literate was especially meaningful — a reminder that we have to get close and intimate with those in trouble to help.

I really enjoyed hearing how learning about Reconstruction is the building block of current U.S. politics and tensions and how it is a chronically undertaught period.

Stevenson’s comparison of our racial history to that of apartheid South Africa and the Holocaust in Germany was incredibly powerful. The idea that if we reckon with our history and acknowledge our history of genocide and enslavement it will allow us to feel shame, learn, and become uncomfortable with racism and enslavement, will allow us to actually become a free, just, equitable society. That will stick with me and will be an analogy I use in the future when discussing this topic with others.

The value of attending an event like this is to see how many people are trying to do the right thing!

I appreciate the positive approach that Bryan has about facing our history head-on in order to make peace with the horrors that so many want to ignore and pretend didn’t happen. I too have been to Johannesburg and the Apartheid Museum. I visited Robben Island in Cape Town. I was fascinated by the people of South Africa and their perseverance and seemingly positive outlook on life, no matter their struggles. I can’t help but wonder what this country would be like if we acknowledged our history.

This whole conversation was so enlightening and powerful. I appreciated the lines Mr. Stevenson drew between our country’s past and present. I also loved the emphasis on narratives and storytelling.

I saw the number of participants today reach over 750. Gives me chills. We’re not alone: never have been, never will be.


Resources

Here are many of the lessons, books, articles, and more recommended by the presenters and also by participants. We share recordings of all our Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes. However, at the request of EJI, we are not sharing the full December 12 recording. We will create audiograms from the session, and we include videos of Stevenson further below.

Lessons

 

 

The Color Line by Bill Bigelow (lesson)

Lessons for How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Poetry of Defiance: How the Enslaved Resisted by Adam Sanchez (lesson)

Reconstructing the South: What Really Happened by Mimi Eisen and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (lesson)

“Riots,” Racism, and the Police: Students Explore a Century of Police Conduct and Racial Violence by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (lesson)

Teaching The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (lessons and ideas)

Who Gets to Vote? Teaching About the Struggle for Voting Rights in the United States by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (lesson)

Teaching for Black Lives edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, and Wayne Au (teaching guide)

Books and Podcasts

In addition to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice, the following books and podcast were referenced. 

Books for pre-K to 12 and adults on incarceration at Social Justice Books  

Books for K-12 and adults on Reconstruction at Social Justice Books

Black Was the Ink by Michelle Coles (Tu Books)

Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity by Donald Yacovone (Pantheon Books)

Teaching Texas podcast

Articles, Reports, and Projects

EJi Recon

Bryan Stevenson on His ‘Not Entirely Rational’ Quest for Justice” by Zak Cheney-Rice (New York Magazine)

Monuments to the Unthinkable: America still can’t figure out how to memorialize the sins of our history. What can we learn from Germany?” by Clint Smith (The Atlantic)

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction (Zinn Education Project)

Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876 (Equal Justice Initiative)

Books Unbanned by the African American Policy Forum

Teaching Race & Slavery in the American Classroom. 2022 symposium hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

Connecticut Black and Latino Studies Curriculum

Colored Conventions Project

Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar Abolition-related artwork, essays, and radical dates.

EJI: A History of Racial Injustice Calendar Historical entries and 12 short essays. Also see EJI’s daily digital calendar.

Videos

The film adaptation of Just Mercy:

True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality:

Stevenson on the grand narrative of U.S history with legal scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Việt Thanh Nguyễn:

Stevenson discussing the Legacy Museum with journalist Charles Blow:

 

EJI Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice

A number of session participants spoke to the power of the museum and memorial. Kim Hoffman said, “We brought 35 students from Baltimore last year and it was life-changing. Our students let us know what a difference it made to be on the ground and to visit the Memorial for Peace and Justice.” Deborah Milligan added, “In October of this year, I went with ten teachers from our school in Cambridge to Montgomery and it was life-changing. It was the most powerful experience of my teaching life.”

The Museum

Located on the site of a former warehouse where Black people were forced to labor in Montgomery, Alabama, this narrative museum uses interactive media, sculpture, videography, and exhibits to immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South, and the world’s largest prison system. [EJI description]

The Memorial

More than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of this racial terror. On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, the national lynching memorial is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in the United States and its legacy. [EJI description]

Additional Museums

In addition to the EJI museum and memorial, participants recommended these museums.

America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson, Mississippi

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio


In another participant poll, more than 70% said they’ve visited or plan to visit the Legacy Museum and National Memorial:

poll graph showing participants attending this class

This Day In History

The dates below come from our This Day in History collection, which contains hundreds of entries all searchable by date, state, theme, and keyword(s).

Rev. Henry McNeal Turner | Zinn Education Project

D.C. Jail Uprising | Zinn Education Project

Aug. 21, 1831: Nat Turner Launches Rebellion

Nov. 7, 1861: The Port Royal Experiment Initiated

Dec. 9, 1867: Georgia Constitutional Convention

Feb. 3, 1868: First Freedmen’s Bureau Teacher Appointed in Lafayette Parish

Sept. 19, 1868: Camilla Massacre

Nov. 3, 1874: White League Attacks Black Voters

April 15, 1878: Real Estate and Homestead Association Relocated

Oct. 15, 1883: Civil Rights Act of 1875 Declared Unconstitutional

Oct. 31, 1891: Coal Creek War

Nov. 10, 1898: Wilmington Massacre

July 25, 1946: Moore’s Ford Bridge Lynching

Nov. 17, 1961: Albany Movement

May 2, 1963: Children of Birmingham Fill the Jails

Sept. 9, 1971: Attica Prison Uprising

July 4, 1976: Marion Prisoners Stage Bicentennial Hunger Strike

Oct. 27, 1994: U.S. Prison Population Exceeds One Million

Participant Reflections

Here are more comments that participants shared in their end-of-session evaluation.

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

We should incorporate Reconstruction in our curriculum. “It is a void that should be taught,” AND “The narrative is silenced. We need to be liberated.” This is so inspiring to hear and affirms that I should keep teaching even more the freedom struggle, which is under attack.

I think one of the most impactful statements Stevenson made today was recentering the Great Migration not in terms of immigration but viewing it as refugees fleeing persecution. That was really powerful, especially since I was just making the comparison between the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and the experience of African Americans during Jim Crow.

No one is the worst act they ever allegedly committed. You can’t put a crime in prison.

Stevenson’s quote — “Our landscape is making people comfortable with things they should not be comfortable with” — really stood out to me.

The reminder of the purpose of obscuring and distorting the narrative of our history: to give people cover for participating in injustice and to normalize the unconscionable.

I appreciate the stories which Bryan shared and especially the power of education. I admire the straightforward way he spoke acts of violence and injustice. I will not back away from teaching hard history to my history students.

The rise of the incarceration rate and the reason behind it. The truth behind that story is mind-blowing.

The most important thing that I learned today is that, as other Zinn Education Project programs have highlighted, Reconstruction is something I don’t know enough about and how it impacts and influences the way we live now.

Just one? It was all so impactful. Cierra shared one of Bryan’s quotes: “If you don’t know your history, you can’t really begin to understand what your obligation is, what you should fear, what you should celebrate.” That perfectly wrapped up the evening.

What will you do with what you learned?

Keep going, never lose the rage, never lose the purpose, never lose the connection with those who are part of the long glorious history of struggle.

This workshop will be directly shaping my Reconstruction unit at the end of the year, as well as when my students learn about slavery and its connections to today.

I am going to visit the EJI museum for sure! But I also will look at the shared resources, books, and Zinn Education Project lessons. I am inspired to use some of Bryan’s talks and to teach mass incarceration when I talk about Reconstruction.

Use it for counter-storytelling about the impact of literacy and how it can open doors for kids and families.

I am a parent. This conversation will impact many interactions with my teenager and with my community. When we face the truth without fear we can learn, feel and change as we grow and heal.

This session encourages me as a librarian to more carefully consider the narratives I am promoting, sharing, and using with students in instruction. I’m also reflecting on how I can use my space and time with students to push beyond the incomplete narratives they may be receiving in other educational spaces.

I will compile the resources shared for our education department at America’s Black Holocaust Museum and use them in our own curriculum offerings.

Our school board is working on diversity, equity, and inclusion and want to revisit our history curriculum because it inadequately addresses Reconstruction and the significance of systemic racism in our society.

I’m currently teaching high school freshmen who are reading Just Mercy as an assigned text. Being able to participate in this class and broaden my understanding by actually getting to listen to Bryan speak is very powerful. I am going to take what I gleaned from this experience and incorporate it into my upcoming lessons.

I want to create a comparative justice/monument lesson fusing Stevenson’s work and Clint Smith’s.

I have struggled to talk about connections to present in my unit on Civil War and Reconstruction — there is just so much, especially as a teacher in Washington, D.C. But following this presentation, I think mass incarceration is a logical and very powerful example that I can weave into instruction.

Honestly, I feel like I know what I will do as a teacher. AND realistically, I cannot do it alone. I need my district, it’s stakeholders, and the community to believe we need to change our K-12 curriculum. WE need to challenge the makers/publishers of these books and the consumers buying it.

I have a list a mile long of reading to do in the next few weeks while on break, thanks to these Zinn Education Project workshops. Thank you — I’ll take it all into the classroom!

Participants shared their appreciation in the chat at the end of the session.

Presenters

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and those labeled with mental illness, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Stevenson led the creation of two highly acclaimed cultural sites which opened in 2018: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Stevenson is also a professor of law at the New York University School of Law.

Cierra Kaler-Jones is a social justice educator, writer, and researcher based in Washington, D.C. Her research explores how Black girls use arts-based practices as mechanisms for identity construction and resistance. She is incoming executive director of Rethinking Schools.  

Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools, the co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

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