Bryan Stevenson: "The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war" on history of racism

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative who is the subject of the new HBO documentary "True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality," says that it is imperative that Americans confront the brutal, ugly truth of our country's history. 

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, he said, "I don't think we've really ever talked about the hardship, the legacy of enslaving black people for 2 1/2 centuries. We've just never dealt with the details of that. And because we didn't, we didn't understand the significance of that.

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Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson. CBS News

"We need to understand the greater evil of American slavery wasn't involuntary servitude and forced labor; it was this idea that black people aren't as good as white people, that they're not fully human. The Supreme Court said we're three-fifths human, and that created this ideology of white supremacy that we never addressed. The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. They weren't required to repudiate and acknowledge the wrongfulness of bigotry and slavery. They actually glorified that era, and that created a century where black people were pulled out of their homes, beaten, drowned, hanged in this era of terrorism, but we haven't talked about it."

The new documentary includes his fight to create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the country's only memorial dedicated to lynching victims.

Stevenson said that, in order to address America's racial history, "We have to acknowledge that we are in a space that is polluted by our failure to deal honestly, and we have to make a commitment to that. Then we have to learn the details [of history]. We've lynched thousands of black people in this country for the first half of the 20th century. Six million black people fled the American South as refugees from terror and violence. It wasn't, you know, the Klan, it was people unmasked – law enforcement officers, teachers, criminal justice officials that tolerated lawlessness and mob violence – and we haven't acknowledged any of that. So, we're going to have to do that.

"That's why we've opened this memorial. Most people in this country can't name a single African-American lynched between 1877 and 1950. And that's wrong."

A new memorial honors more than 4,000 victims of lynching

"And then we're going to have to deal with this narrative legacy," Stevenson continued. "In Germany you can't go 200 meters without seeing a marker or stone placed next to the home of a Jewish victim. They want you to go to the Holocaust Memorial. We haven't created that in this country."

"Once the country acknowledges something, the question becomes, do you apologize for it?" said co-host Tony Dokoupil. "You pointed out in the documentary there's a lack of apology in our political culture today."

"I think we sometimes think when we say we're sorry that makes us weak," Stevenson said. "I actually think apology is the way you get strong. Show me two people who've been in love for 50 years – they've learned how to navigate the mistakes, that saying 'I'm sorry' is how you build trust. It's critical. We haven't done that. Even after the 1960s when we passed the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, we rushed to get past that without dealing with all of the damage that was done during that era.

"I grew up in a community where those signs, 'White' and 'Colored,' weren't directions, they were assaults. They created injuries. My parents were humiliated every day, and we haven't dealt with that."

Co-host Gayle King asked, "What do you say to people like Mitch McConnell and others that say this happened long ago, the people that are living today have nothing to do with the sins created back then?"

"We are still dealing with this," Stevenson replied. "There's a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned to black and brown people. That's why we've have so many of these police shootings. That's why we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. It's why people like Anthony Ray Hinton, who's in the film, were wrongly convicted and condemned. And so that consequence of this history is everywhere.  The projection is that one in three male black babies is expected to go to jail or prison."

Dokoupil said, "Part of the reason that's possible is because we've built a criminal justice system and a prison system that can house all those people, and one reason is the 1994 crime bill which subsidized the building of those jails and prisons. Should Joe Biden, who was a key sponsor of that bill and voted for it, apologize for it?"

"I think all of us need to take responsibility for the fact that we allowed this narrative of fear and anger, the politics of fear and anger, to replace the anger and resistance to civil rights," Stevenson said. "That's how we went from 300,000 people in jails and prisons to three million today. When we try to make this one person's responsibility, we miss the mark.

"We are all complicit in the way we have created mass incarceration. We tolerate the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and we all have a role to play in deconstructing that. I don't want to excuse anybody who was voting for the '94 act, but I do want to make us appreciate that this is a larger problem than just one act. It is a consequence of a legacy that we haven't addressed."

King said, "Part of the documentary shared your personal story, which I was also moved by, about why you do this work. It's so thankless. You receive a lot of criticism. Why, when you get beaten down, do you keep getting up and doing it?"

"I'm standing on the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less," he replied. "I live in Montgomery, Alabama in the shadow of the advocacy of Rosa Parks and Dr. King and Jo Ann Robinson. I am just empowered by what they did. I wouldn't be here if lawyers hadn't come into our community to open up the schools that were segregated so that I could go to high school and college. I'm standing on those shoulders and I just feel an obligation to carry on this tradition, because there are too many other children in this country that would be denied their opportunities until we change and create new justice."

The documentary "True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality" debuts on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now on Wednesday, June 26. To watch a trailer click on the video player below.

True Justice (2019) | Official Trailer | HBO by HBO on YouTube
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.