This past Thursday I had the great privilege of seeing Bryan Stevenson speak (and the even greater privilege of hosting him for a Q&A at the law school). Stevenson is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, NYU Law School professor, co-founder and ED of the Equal Justice Initiative (get one of their calendars now), and the author of the 2014 book Just Mercy. He is also one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen. (You can check out his 20 minute TED talk for a brief example, but he spoke at Santa Clara for an hour without notes, and I will try to link to that if and when it becomes available) [UPDATE: Here is the video.] Sometimes proximity to greatness takes the wind out of my sails and I spend time afterwards wondering why it is that I’ve wasted my life. But with Stevenson, I left energized. Perhaps it was his humility, or something about his demeanor, or the fact that he is someone who really focuses on other people. Perhaps it’s because I agree with him that criminal justice reform is civil rights work.
Or maybe it’s because he focuses not so much on the past, but on the present. We still have many challenges. Felon disenfranchisement laws threaten to roll back much of the progress of the Voting Rights Act. But even our relationship to the past needs work. EJI issued a report last year documenting nearly 4000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between the Civil War and WWII. Stevenson wants local memorials to those lynchings. As he put it, no one today should be able to walk past a location where someone was lynched without knowing about it. Stevenson even suggested that law enforcement come to the opening of such memorials and issue an apology and a promise: an apology that their predecessors who wore the uniform were unable or unwilling to stop the violence, and a promise that they themselves will never let it happen again. This is more than just a distant, bloodless reminder of what happened—an apology and a promise would tie the conditions of the present and policy for the future to the events of the past. It’s inspired me and some colleagues to begin looking into California’s extra-/non-judicial violence. (As a starting point for others who are interested, I’d suggest Clare McKanna’s excellent Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California).
It’s this kind of linkage that’s exciting to me as an academic. One of the symptoms of post-tenure depression syndrome for me was feeling like there were plenty of good ideas out there already—that what I needed to do was not to write, but to do. (Frankly, it’s also the reason why I find it difficult to blog—that and a case of imposter syndrome so crippling that I actually think I’m not an imposter, I’m just really that bad.) It’s why I’m spending this semester teaching a class on bail with the goal of actually trying to move policy (much more on that later—though I’m often too busy meeting and teaching on it to reflect on it here). There, our answers and suggestions involve a “law on the ground” versus “law on the books” analysis of what’s actually going on in local counties, the kinds of research that involves much more minutiae and much less theorizing (see Mona Lynch’s excellent treatment of it here). But this, too, is a theme of Stevenson’s, what he calls proximity. We need to go where there is suffering, that we learn things from it that we can’t from a distance, and that, ultimately, it is more healing and instructive for the person doing the visiting than the person being visited.
So, with that in mind, it’s my hope for this MLK Day that some of you reading this find a place in which you can be “proximate” in a human and personal way to some kind of injustice and suffering, no matter what kind it is, no matter where it is. I can’t begin to say what will come of it, or what the solutions might be. But I think that if we are to really honor the legacy of our civil rights heroes, we have to do, not just remember.