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Hanging on to hope to keep Black men, boys alive

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 8/10/2015, 10:20 a.m.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading peace and justice advocates, has called Bryan Stevenson “America’s Nelson ...

(NNPA) – South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading peace and justice advocates, has called Bryan Stevenson “America’s Nelson Mandela.” He has gotten innocent men off death row, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times, including to ban “death sentences” – capital punishment and life imprisonment without parole for offenses committed by juveniles.

In June, he spoke about “How to Keep Black Boys Alive” to 2,000 college-age Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools servant leaders at CDF-Haley Farm.

“We’re living at a time when there is an incredible crisis that young men of color are facing. There is a challenge that is unique in our history,” he said. “We’ve always had challenges but this is a different kind of challenge because it is structural, it is systemic, and it is institutional.”

Stevenson put it in perspective for the young college audience. In 1972 – 300,000 people were in jails and prisons in America compared to today with 2.5 million people behind bars. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned. And in Alabama, where he lives, a person with a criminal conviction permanently loses the right to vote. Right now in Alabama, 31 percent of Black men in the state have lost the right to vote.

He shared this story about visiting a new client on Alabama’s death row: As he parked, “This truck was there. And some of you all who live in the South see these things all the time. And this truck was like a shrine to the Old South. It has all of these bumper stickers on it. It had the Confederate flags everywhere. It had the gun rack.…

“There was a White guard standing at the prison door when I got there. And I said, ‘Hi, I’m here for a legal visit.’ And the first thing the man said to me was, ‘Well, you’re not a lawyer.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, sir, I am.’ He said, ‘I don’t believe you’re a lawyer.’ I said, ‘I am an attorney. I’ve been to this prison before.’

“He said, ‘Well, where is your bar card?’ Well, my bar card was in the car. He made me go back to the car to get my bar card. I came back. I felt insulted. I showed him my bar card. I said, ‘Look, I want to go inside now.’ And the man said, ‘All right, all right, but you’re going to have to get in the bathroom. I’m going to have to give you a strip search.’ I said, ‘No, sir, lawyers don’t get strip-searched coming into this prison.’ He said, ‘You’re coming into my prison. You’re going to get in that bathroom and get strip-searched.’”

After driving two hours to get there he made the very difficult decision to submit to the humiliating search. More hurdles and indignities followed. Finally, when the guard unlocked the door the guard asked, “‘Did you see that truck out there with all those bumper stickers and flags?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw that truck,’ He said, ‘I want you to know that’s my truck.’”