Bryan Stevenson reflects on work of EJI ahead of new feature film debut

It all started in Montgomery in 1989.
Updated: Dec. 19, 2019 at 6:17 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The first showings of a new feature film ‘Just Mercy’, which documents the work of the Equal Justice Initiative and the powerful bestselling memoir by EJI Director Bryan Stevenson, will take place in Montgomery this weekend.

Montgomery’s EJI is responsible for creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum which opened in 2018. Both are dedicated to the legacy of slavery and lynching of black people in this country.

But, EJI’s work goes back several decades. It all started in Montgomery in 1989 and for 30 years, it’s been centered around a different form of peace and justice than what can be seen at the memorial and museum.

Much of EJI’s work has been behind the scenes and inside the walls of the court system until Stevenson’s book ‘Just Mercy’, was published in 2015. The upcoming feature film is based on that book.

“For most of my career, we have been undercover. EJI as an institution has not been very public. We didn’t have a sign on the door until about five years ago,” Stevenson said.

At the beginning of his career, Stevenson worked as an attorney until he realized something needed to change.

“When it became clear that the criminal justice reform was going to require a bigger broader public conversation, we began to think differently about that,” said Stevenson.

[FULL INTERVIEW: Bryan Stevenson talks movie, EJI’s work]

As Stevenson has worked to protect people in prison, ensure fair sentencing practices, and release those who were put away for crimes they didn't commit, he connected some dots. The way he sees it, the issues he's fought alongside his clients, are deeply rooted in our country's history.

“There’s a history that we don’t learn in school that we need to know. I think there’s a tragedy that occurs in our courts and jails and prisons when were not serious about protecting the rights of the accused. And I think there’s a reckoning we have to make in this country to overcome the legacy of slavery and lynching and segregation.

And so, this otherwise private person put the perspective on paper. He documented the landmark case of Walter McMillan who was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. ‘Just Mercy’ hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

“The book, for me, was an opportunity to just bring people into a space that I’ve been occupying for a long time and just ask them to see what I see, to just look at it. Because, I think when you’re holding a 13-year-old child who’s been abused in a prison and been told they’re going to die in prison and your seeing women being assaulted while they are in custody for very minor crimes and you see people wrongly accused or unfairly sentenced, I think we all have that desire to want to do something,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson is a leader, though, and helping more people understand the power the past still has on the present.

“We have been injured by this history. We have been hurt by this history, there are open wounds,” Stevenson said. “If we pretend that they don’t exist, we can’t treat them, we can’t heal them. I do think knowledge is powerful. And if we can understand the past, we can prepare for the future in ways that we won’t be prepared if we don’t understand the past.”

So, the book, the lynching memorial, legacy museum, and now the movie, Stevenson says, is just the beginning. There’s still a long way to go.

Stevenson said he doesn’t see himself as the activist that Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks or Johnnie Carr were during the Civil Rights movement. He sees himself as an heir to the work they did and feels a responsibility to continue it.

“It feels exciting to have started the journey. Right? And that doesn’t mean things aren’t gonna be really hard, things have to be navigated and overcome. But I feel like we’ve started that we’re in a radically different place than we were, you know, 30 years ago.

Aside from the advanced showings coming up in Montgomery, ‘Just Mercy’ will open in theatres in January.

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