Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., in a room where soil from lynching sites is exhibited


Bryan Stevenson


WHAT TEXTBOOKS BLANDLY label the Great Migration—the movement of millions of African Americans in the 20th century from the rural South to Northern cities—is recalled more viscerally by the people who lived it. When as a boy he visited his grandmother in Philadelphia, Bryan Stevenson heard firsthand of the brutality that drove black families north: forced servitude, the matrix of laws and threats known as Jim Crow, and lynching.

So when Stevenson picked up his law degree from Harvard and moved toward Alabama, what he obeyed was no normal impulse. Marines are trained to run in the direction of gunfire, first responders into flames. Stevenson has spent his life advancing on truths the nation ties itself in knots to avoid.

“If you’re in a country where we have just refused to acknowledge the history of slavery, I think that creates a certain kind of comfort with that history—a certain indifference to the victimization and the anguish and the trauma that that history created, which we can only address by talking more directly about that history,” Stevenson tells TIME. “I am a proponent of truth and reconciliation. I just think those things are sequential.”

He came to the South to advocate for prisoners facing execution, almost all of whom were black. One had been railroaded in the town where To Kill a Mockingbird was set. Legal executions of African Americans had surged, but not out of the blue; they climbed just when lynchings were deemed unseemly. What had taken place on the courthouse lawn moved indoors, black robes replacing white.

Seeing the connection, Stevenson began a new project: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial devoted to victims of lynching. It opened in April in Montgomery. Inside, the names of 4,400 lynching victims are inscribed on 6-ft. steel slabs hanging from the ceiling. Outside, an equal number of slabs were laid, waiting to be claimed by the counties where killings occurred. Those not collected will remain in the courtyard in silent reproach. That’s the idea: we have to own it.

In the heart of the South, Stevenson detects progress. He notes that the lynching memorial met far less local resistance than his earlier project in a city cluttered with monuments to the Confederacy, to place plaques at former slave markets. All whites approach this subject with apprehension, while some fear of bearing blame. Stevenson, who titled his best-selling memoir Just Mercy, says, “I have no interest in punishing people for this history. I want to liberate us. I think people fear because they don’t understand what’s on the other side.”

His voice is quiet, like his charisma. “We are not just slave states in the

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