“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

Honoring Victims of Racial Lynchings and Injustice 

On August 16 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery Alabama announced plans for two projects honoring victims of U.S. racial lynchings and injustice.[1]

One is the Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the over 4,000 black victims of lynchings that will sit on six acres, the highest spot in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. The memorial will be a large, four-sided gallery of 801 six-foot columns hanging in the air as if from trees like a lynching. Each column will represent a U.S. county where a lynching took place and be etched with the name(s) of the person(s) lynched. Here is a rendering of the memorial and a map showing the locations of the lynchings.

national-lynching-memorial-2

map-of-73-years-of-lynching-1423543271115-master495

An adjacent field will have duplicates of those columns, which will be offered as a challenge to be moved to the home counties of the lynchings; those that remain will be silent rebukes to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.

The other project is a museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is scheduled to open completely next April in EJI’s 11,000-square-foot headquarters in Montgomery. Tracing the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration, it will contain high-tech exhibits, artifacts, recordings, and films, as well as a comprehensive database and information on lynching and racial segregation. Its virtual reality stations will enable people to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit in a contemporary overcrowded prison. Below are photographs of one part of the museum and of jars of dirt from sites of lynchings.

 

from-enslavement-to-mass-incarceration

 

jars of dirt

As reported by Montgomery’s newspaper, the founder and Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

StevesnsonStevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer. (To the right is a photograph of Stevenson and the cover of his highly acclaimed book, Just Mercy.) His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards including the ABA Wisdom Award for Public Service, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the Olaf Palme International Prize, the ACLU National Medal Of Liberty, the National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, the Gruber Prize for International Justice and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.[2]

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[1] EJI, EJI Announces Plans To Build Museum and National Lynching Memorial (Aug. 16, 2016); Robertson, Memorial in Alabama Will Honor Victims of Lynchings, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2016); Troyan, National memorial to lynching victims to be built in Montgomery, Montgomery Advertiser (Aug. 16, 2016); Edgemon, Nation’s first memorial to lynching victims set for Montgomery, al.com (Aug. 16, 2016); Toobin, Justice Delayed, New Yorker (Aug. 22, 2016).

[2] There is a lot about Stevenson in the previously cited New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin and in two previous blog posts: Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 19, 2016); Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech, dwkcommentaries.com (May 4, 2016).

Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. The key points in Obama’s speech for this evaluation are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Bryan Stevenson through the prism of that speech.

Although not a Howard alumnus, Stevenson, as discussed in another post, is an African-American attorney, author and activist for social justice, especially for today’s African-American men and women and for their ancestors who were enslaved and persecuted. He has successfully argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts for prison inmates and written and spoken for changes in our criminal justice system. In addition, he has organized and established the Equal Justice Initiative (CJI), a significant human rights/civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama that is being joined by  a museum honoring the victims of slavery and lynchings.[1]

In so doing, Stevenson is demonstrating confidence in his own heritage, his own blackness, as President Obama urged the graduates. Stevenson also shows his awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle that he combines with a strategy of change through the courts and public opinion. He meets the standards set forth by President Obama.

Give thanks to God for this good man!

 

 

 

 

University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings

Students at Atlanta’s Emory University are investigating Jim Crow-era murders of blacks in Georgia. They then publish their results online. This is the focus of Emory’s “The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.” Similar projects exist at least three other universities. Important federal legislation and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice provide important background for such efforts. These subjects will be explored in this post.

Emory’s Project[1]

The Project was started in 2011 as an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. In January 2015, it launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the joint product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

The Emory class is taught by Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and by Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor of African American Studies.

Professor Gadsden said the class is run like “a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived. These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record.”

The students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on the website. Gadsden emphasizes that the students are “writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and non-academics. They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special responsibility—one that the students embrace.”

The recent Wall Street Journal article about Emory’s project tells the moving story of the students’ investigation of the September 8, 1948, killing by two white men of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who had voted that same day in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary election. One of the white men was charged with murder, but was acquitted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. Afterwards the accessory-to-murder charge against the other white man was dropped. The Emory students’ investigation led them to conclude that Nixon had been murdered because he had voted in that primary election.

The students also discovered Nixon’s grave in a Georgia cemetery and invited his daughter, Dorothy Nixon Williams, who at age 6 had witnessed the murder of her father, to visit the grave last week with them and her son. Now 73 years old, Dorothy said when seeing the grave, “Lord have mercy,” sobbing into her son’s shoulder. Professor Klibanoff commented, “Isaiah Nixon matters; his life matters and his death and disappearance from history matter. What matters more is his reappearance now and I think that is miraculous.” At the conclusion of the visit, Dorothy said her anger over her father’s murder “now is completely released.”

Other Similar Projects

Similar projects are being conducted by Northeastern University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and Louisiana State University.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigates “the role of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting activists and their work. [The Project] examines the geo-politics that led to the large-scale breakdown of law enforcement, the wide-spread repression against the movement’s participants, and the reforms that have been initiated to rectify these abuses. The project engages teachers and students across the university and is directed by faculty from the School of Law and the College of Criminal Justice.” [2]

Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative was established in 2007 by Syracuse law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald to investigate “racially motivated murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era and [to advocate] on behalf of the victims and their families to get justice for the crimes. The program works with law students to conduct research, identify victims and find new information that could assist law enforcement in resolving cases. The Initiative as of has identified [nearly 200] cases from the civil rights era they believe warranted further investigation by federal authorities.”[3]

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication started its Cold Case Project in 2010 to investigate Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Since then nearly three-dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on such cases. Their “primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends.” Jay Shelledy, who is in charge of the Project, said FBI agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.[4]

In February 2015 the LSU Project launched a searchable website detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen such murders. It contains more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin. Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests; when released, they will be added to the digital database.

Background for These Projects

These projects have been stimulated and assisted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2006, the Department began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that authorized the Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders before 1970. This statute had been introduced in 2007 by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[5]

As of May 2015, the Department reported to Congress that it had concluded 105 of 113 relevant cold cases involving 126 victims, but that “very few prosecutions have resulted from these exhaustive efforts.” (The single case that went to court involved Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler after a civil rights protest in 1965. In 2010, at age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison.)[6]

This was due, said the report, for many reasons. Federal statutory law limits the Department’s ability to prosecute civil-rights era cases at the federal level. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil-rights charges that existed prior to 1994. The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, which prevents the re-trial of someone for an offense for which he or she was previously found not guilty. In addition, cold cases can be difficult to prosecute because “subjects die, witnesses die or can no longer be located, memories become clouded, evidence is destroyed or cannot be located.”

This statute is due to expire in 2017, and efforts are being made to lobby for its extension.

Conclusion

These projects are significant and inspiring. First, they complement and should be coordinated with the amazing justice advocacy of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative that was discussed in a prior post. Second, these projects are excellent examples of a mode of teaching an important subject that should be included in this blogger’s reflections on modes of teaching and learning as set forth in another earlier post.

We all should give thanks to Emory, Northeastern, Syracuse and Louisiana State University for their leadership in this important work.

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[1] McWhirter, College Class Investigates Jim Crow-Era Killings, W.S. J. (Jan. 24, 2016),; Lameiras, Cold Cases Project helps student uncover history of civil rights era crimes, Emory Mag. (May 25, 2015); Emory Libraries, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases; Justice, Emory student research debuts on Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases website (Jan. 7, 2015); Emory Univ., Special Topics Seminar: Cold Cases (description of seminar and tentative list of readings).

[2] Northeastern Univ. School of Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An earlier version of this post erroneously included Northwestern University College of Law’s important Wrongful Conviction Center, and I thank Professor Hank Klibanoff for pointing out this error.

[3] Joiner, Inside the Effort to Solve Civil Rights Crimes Before It’s Too Late, Time (Oct. 15, 2015).

[4] LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project; Lemoine, Cold Case, LSU Gold (Fall 2011); LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project website released (Feb. 25, 2015).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Cold Case Initiative.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General’s Sixth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 (May 2015).

U.S. Supreme Court Extends Parole Rights for Juveniles Convicted of Murder             

On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 6-3, that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively.[1]

Important for the Court was its conclusion that the earlier decision had been grounded on the diminished culpability of all juvenile offenders, who are, the Court said, immature, susceptible to peer pressure and capable of change. Very few, the opinion said, are incorrigible. But as a general matter the punishment was out of bounds. As a result, a court, upon petition by such a prisoner, must hold a re-sentencing hearing in order to give the petitioner “the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” Alternatively the state could make them eligible for parole without a hearing

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the instant case, was 17 when he committed the murder and now is 69 in a Louisiana prison. The Court’s opinion said there was evidence that he deserved to be released, describing “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and noting that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program and had offered advice to younger inmates.

The opinion for the Court was written by Mr. Justice Anthony Kennedy and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

Bryan Stevenson was the successful attorney for the petitioner in the 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which is discussed in Chapter Fourteen of his book, Just Mercy.[2] Although he was not the attorney for the petitioner, Montgomery, in the case decided today, Stevenson did submit an amicus curiae brief supporting Montgomery on behalf of the Equal Justice Initiative on Behalf of Dozens Sentenced to Die in Prison When They Were Children.

New York Times editorial applauded the latest decision with these words: “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly over the last decade that it is morally and constitutionally wrong to equate offenses committed by emotionally undeveloped adolescents with crimes carried out by adults. It made this point again [in the Montgomery case]when it ruled that people who were sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles have the right to seek parole.” The Times concluded by recommending that the Court “should take the final step. That means outlawing life sentences without parole for children altogether, whether mandatory or not.”

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[1] Opinions, Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016); U.S. Sup. Ct. Docket, Montgomery v. Louisiana (No. 14-280); Liptak, Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2016)

[2] Docket, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (U.S. Sup. Ct.); Opinions, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012),  A prior post reviewed the amazing advocacy for justice by Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice      

 

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now based in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson is conducting amazing advocacy for racial justice in many different ways: as an attorney for individuals who have been victimized by the U.S. criminal justice system; as the founder of a non-profit human rights organization (the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)) devoted to those causes; as an author and speaker; and as the creator of various ways to honor his predecessors who strove for justice and the victims of injustice. Let us review these ways in which Stevenson demonstrates his advocacy after looking at his biography.

Stevenson’s Biography

 He was born in 1959 in Milton, Delaware and grew up in a poor rural community. Attending a “colored school” for his early years, he graduated from a racially integrated public high school and then Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Philadelphia “Christian university dedicated to the preparation of . . . students for thoughtful and productive lives of Christian faith, leadership and service.” He then attended and obtained a J.D. degree from the Harvard Law School; and a Masters in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Stevenson is an attorney and the Founder and Executive Director of EJI, which specializes in advocacy for children in adult prisons, death-row inmates, prison and sentencing reform and combating race and poverty (. He also is a Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law.

In 1995 he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that in his “drive to expose biases under which capital punishment is imposed, Stevenson has articulated how its use is linked to race and class discrimination and to systemic defects in criminal procedures.”

In 2000 Stevenson was awarded Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize. The award stated he is “a courageous representative of all the individuals, women and men from the entire world, who have maintained tirelessly that the right to life cannot be controverted, that the death penalty is an ultimate form of torture, and that the state does not have the right to kill its citizens.”

Stevenson, the Attorney

In 2015 EJI attorneys won the release of innocent people on death row or in prison for life. They also were successful in obtaining new trials for people illegally convicted and relief for those unfairly sentenced. They have documented and challenged abusive conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. They have continued to fight against prosecution of children in adult courts and to obtain new sentences for individuals who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children.

EJI’s work does not end when a client is released from prison. It provides them with re-entry assistance, including housing, employment, training and support. Its Post-Release Education and Preparation Program has been recognized as a model for such programs by various state officials.

Stevenson The Author

 Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” provides interesting accounts of some of the significant cases in which he and EJI have been involved to provide context for a general discussion of particular problems in the American criminal justice system.

For example, Chapter Sixteen, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” opens with brief discussions of Stevenson’s 2010 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to impose life sentences without parole on children convicted of non-homicide crimes, and in 2012 when the Court held the same was the case when the crime was homicide. The chapter’s footnotes provide citations to these Supreme Court decisions and other mentioned cases.

Chapter Twelve, “Mother, Mother,” is another example. It recounts the trial and unjust conviction of a mother for murdering her stillborn child and sentenced to life without parole. Stevenson and EJI then entered her case and eventually obtained her release from prison. This case is then used as a platform to discuss the many problems created by incarcerating women with more details in footnotes.

The book also tells of instances in which Stevenson is touched, emotionally and spiritually, by clients who are in prison.

In the Introduction, for instance, Stevenson as a 23-year old law student was panicked and nervous when he visited a Georgia death-row inmate, who was immediately happy to learn that he would not have an execution date the next year and then gently led Stevenson into a three-hour general conversation. When the inmate was being returned to his cell, he started singing a black spiritual hymn: “I’m pressing on, the upward way. New heights I’m gaining, every day. Still praying as, I’m upward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson confesses that this hymn was “a precious gift” and that the prisoner gave him “an astonishing measure of his humanity” and an altered “understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”

This and other experiences with death-row prisoners that summer constituted “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated [that] made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful” and led to Stevenson’s being “committed to helping the death row prisoners.”

In addition, the book concludes with the “Author’s Note,” in which Stevenson seeks to recruit others to the cause of racial justice, He says, “there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.” An invitation then is extended for the reader to contact EJI for more information.

This book has received great reviews, has been a New York Times Bestseller and has won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, an NAACP Image Award and the Dayton Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Stevenson The Speaker

A prior post mentioned Stevenson’s then forthcoming presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. I attended this event even though I had never heard of him and thought his presentation would be a legal analysis of the changes needed in the American criminal justice system. Instead it was an emotional, passionate call for such reform and more of a sermon than a legal discussion. At the halfway point, the moderator, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, said that in his many years as the moderator of the Forum he had never heard such a moving presentation.

Nine months later I watched his televised conversation with Charlie Rose. “An Hour with Bryan Stevenson,” Charlie Rose Show (Aug. 19, 2015), when he was just as impressive. Here are some of his pithy, insightful comments:

  • “Everyone is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.”
  • “No matter what you’ve done, your life matters or has value.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “All lives have equal value.”

Another example of Stevenson as a speaker is his TED Talk of March 2012,“We need to talk about an injustice.”

EJI’s Other Racial Justice Efforts

Over the last four years EJI has published major reports about the domestic slave trade, Slavery in America; and racial lynchings, Lynching in America; its third report was released in late 2015:The Anti-Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts from all of these reports are provided in EJI’s educational 2016 Calendar. For example, the month of October focuses on “Racial Terror Lynchings” with a large photograph of a crowd watching an 1893 Texas lynching and with this comment on October 5th: “1920: A mob lynches four black men in Macclenny, Florida, seizing three from the county jail and shooting the fourth dead in the woods.” EJI also has produced a film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.[1]

In addition, EJI has erected historic markers about the domestic slave trade in its home base in Montgomery, Alabama and is working on a national memorial in the city about American racial inequality and lynchings. Its first historical marker about Lynching in America recently was erected in Brighton, Alabama pursuant to a plan to place such markers at every lynching site in the country.

EJI’s office building in Montgomery is the site of a former slave prison and close to the city’s slave market. In late 2016 it plans to convert part of its building to a museum about the history of racial inequality in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. EJI also uses its building to host programs and presentations about its work and the need for reforming the criminal justice system while similar presentations are made by its staff at colleges, universities, churches, community groups, high schools and conferences.

An insight to such programs has been provided by Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, who along with 50 other faith leaders attended a two-day program at EJI in December 2015. Stevenson emphasized to this group these preconditions for reforming the American criminal justice system: (1) proximity to those most impacted by the system; (2) changing the narrative; (3) replacing hopelessness with hope; and (4) committing ourselves to uncomfortable things.[2]

These messages were made flesh by the Wallis group’s making pilgrimages to two sites where black men had been lynched, digging up dirt from those sites and placing the dirt in glass jars marked with the individuals’ names, birth and death years and the names of the lynching sites (part of EJI’s Soil Collection Project) and then holding prayer services in memory of the individuals. Another moving experience for the Sojourners group was spending time with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s concluding message for the group: “I have always had to believe in things I haven’t seen.”

Conclusion

What an amazing human being! What amazing efforts for social justice! I give thanks to God for this amazing servant!

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[1] EJI, Annual Report 2015.

[2] Wallis, It’s Never Too Late to Do Justice, Sojourners (Dec. 17, 2015) EGI, EGI Hosts Sojourners Faith Table Retreat (Dec. 16, 2015). Willis was a speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in 2010 and will be returning on February 4, 2016 to discuss “America’s Original Sin: Racism and White Privilege,” the title of his book being published today. In a Foreward to the book, Stevenson says , “the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse“ to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it.” Moreover, the church has been complicit in the refusal “to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation” and the emergence of “new forms of racial subordination.” Indeed, according to Stevenson, “Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”

 

 

 

 

TODAY on Minnesota Public Radio: Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: Reforming the Criminal Justice System”

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Today (November 26th) Minnesota Public Radio will broadcast at Noon (CST) and 9:00 p.m. (CST) Bryan Peterson’s presentation yesterday at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, “Just Mercy: Reforming the Criminal Justice System.” It is great! Listen![1]

I was at the Forum yesterday and heard one of the most inspiring and articulate presentations I have ever heard on any subject. I was expecting to hear a detailed agenda for making legal changes in our criminal justice system. Instead, Stevenson delivered this powerful message to every citizen in this country:

  1. Everyone needs to get closer to the poor people and the incarcerated.
  2. Everyone needs to reflect on the history of racial injustice in our country and change the narrative on race. We need truth and reconciliation on race.
  3. Everyone has to find a way to stay hopeful about changing this injustice. It is not easy. It requires a reorientation of the spirit.
  4. Everyone needs to choose to do uncomfortable things. Go inside prisons, for example. The opposite of poverty is justice, not wealth. The quality of a society is judged by how it treats the poor.

Book

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is committed to eliminating bias against the poor and people of color in the criminal justice system. A professor at New York University Law School and a graduate of Harvard Law School, he argued for and won the historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. His new book, Just Mercy, profiles the lives of men, women, and children who are at the mercy of a broken criminal justice system.

Stevenson grew up in Alabama. He started school in a “colored school” and only after desegregation of his town’s schools was he able to obtain a high school education. His great-grandparents were slaves, and his parents daily were subjected to humiliation because of their race.

Thank you, Bryan Stevenson for inspiring and challenging us.

[1] An oral recording of the Town Hall presentation is available on the web.