Yesterday I was in Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour. We spent a couple of hours at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Some of you may be familiar with his best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. EJI’s offices are located in the heart of Montgomery’s 19th-century slave trading market. This is a fitting location for an organization committed to fighting the narrative of racial difference in America.
During our visit we heard a presentation from two EJI “Law Fellows,” Luke Fredericks and Evan Milligan. Fredericks started the presentation by describing four eras in the history of race in the United States.
- Slavery. This was the period when the “narrative of racial difference” was born. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but it did not erase this narrative. We are still dealing with the legacy of this narrative.
- Racial Terror: This was the period between Reconstruction and the World War II when whites employed violence to keep the races separate. EJI is particularly interested in the history of lynching in America. It has uncovered 360 race-based lynchings in Alabama history. In order to remember these lynchings, EJI has created an exhibit of glass jars filled with dirt and clay gathered from the sites where the lynchings took place (see picture below). It is a powerful exhibit–perhaps one of the most moving exhibits I have ever seen. EJI is interested in lynching because it believes this practice was the historical antecedent to the death penalty. Fredericks argued that sometime in the 1930s southern politicians realized that the practice of lynching was giving the South a bad name in the world. In response, they used the death penalty as a means of dealing with the race problem in a more official and sanctioned way. This, according to Fredericks, just might explain why a disproportionate number African Americans have been executed over the last 75 years. Since EJI lawyers are in the business of helping death row prisoners, the history of lynching in American is a usable one.
- Mass Incarceration. Today 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison. Most of them are people of color. EJI wants to address some of the systemic issues behind these statistics.
Fredericks, who was a history major at the University of Maryland, kept reminding us that the pursuit of justice does not happen in a vacuum. In the process, he put his history degree to good use by challenging us to understand the problems of race and mass incarceration in America through context, change over time, and continuity.
In order to provide such context, EJI is getting into the museum and monuments business. It just released a new website on the history of lynching in America and will soon open a permanent exhibit on the subject. EJI also plans to create a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery.
Everything about the work of EJI draws heavily on the skills and practices of historians. EJI’s legal activism relies on the connections between the past and the present. Granted, history can only take us so far when it comes to changing the world (or advocating for death-row inmates), but activism is often superficial without understanding the historical context out of which social ills arise. EJI uses archival research, oral history, and storytelling (“we use individual narratives to change the way people think and feel”) to provide the necessary context for its advocacy work on behalf of death-row inmates.
So if you want to change the world, start by reading history.