Bryan Stevenson urges America to heal racial tension by facing its mistakes

Bryan Stevenson delivers Sunday sermon at Christ Episcopal Church

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative speaks at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte.
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Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative speaks at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte.

Bryan Stevenson remembers a German telling him that his country is no longer comfortable with executions, with imposing the death penalty as punishment for crime.

“It would be unconscionable for us,” he remembers the scholar saying. And certainly not imaginable today that a disproportionate number of Jews would ever be executed there again, the man told Stevenson.

When he returned to Alabama, Stevenson thought of the thousands of African-Americans who died during and after slavery and as victims of homegrown racial terrorism. But America still had made no meaningful commitment to seeing that its mistakes were not repeated, Stevenson thought.

“You can’t go anywhere in Germany without seeing reminders of the people’s commitment not to repeat the Holocaust,” Stevenson told an audience Sunday morning at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte. “We don’t do that here. We do the opposite.”

Stevenson, 56, is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit in Montgomery, Ala., that provides legal services to the indigent and prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, as well as others who may have been denied a fair trial.

As of February 2015, Stevenson and his colleagues had saved 115 men from the death penalty. His work on behalf of two convicted 14-year-olds led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 barring life-without-parole sentences for killers under 18 – a ruling that changed the law in North Carolina and other states.

Fighting against excessive and unfair sentencing has been a major focus for the New York University School of Law professor. In 2014, Stevenson published some of his experiences in the best-seller “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

He was in Charlotte as a speaker for Christ Episcopal’s long-running Faith Forum to talk about healing a broken world.

Stevenson urged the audience of several hundred people to “find the courage to get past the discomfort” of facing past mistakes and those that linger.

Bigotry, hate and social injustice are difficult topics, but confronting those evils is necessary for healing and reconciliation, he told the group.

“There is something better than what we have experienced,” he said. “We have to get to a space where we are not bound by this history. That means we have to talk about it.”

Stevenson shared personal stories of men and women whose lives have been ravaged by racial bias in the criminal justice system and in other parts of society.

“It breaks your heart to have to deal with this, but it will break your heart even more when your children and your grandchildren and their great-grandchildren are as separated and burdened by this legacy as we are,” Stevenson said.

Speaking to audience at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte.

Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms