Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, who will speak Thursday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for the Open Society Institute's "Talking About Race" event.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, who will speak Thursday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library for the Open Society Institute's "Talking About Race" event. (Robert Fouts / Handout, Baltimore Sun)

If the attorney, activist and author Bryan Stevenson has his way, dozens of sites around the South will one day erect memorials to mark the spot where African-American victims were hanged by lynch mobs during the Jim Crow era.

Stevenson, the founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, comes to Baltimore on Thursday as the featured speaker at the Open Society Institute's "Talking About Race" event. He'll discuss "Lynching in America," the report released by his organization this month, as well as his 30 years of experience fighting for prisoners on death row.

Advertisement

The report documented 3,959 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950 — at least 700 more than had been previously reported.

Because lynchings were less frequent in Maryland, the state wasn't included in the report. Nonetheless, so-called "mob justice" erupted in Maryland with tragic regularity. According to the Archives at Tuskegee Institute, there were 27 lynchings of African-Americans in Maryland between 1882 and 1968 and two lynchings of Caucasians.

"It's increasingly clear to me that we are still haunted by the issue of racial inequality," Stevenson said.

"Slavery didn't end after the Civil War. It evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence, which were used to sustain racial hierarchy and white supremacy."

For Stevenson, lynching is a form of terrorism. Just as there are public memorials to people who died in foreign wars and during the Sept. 11 attacks, he thinks there should be markers to the victims of lynching — memorials that could help a divided America to heal.

The lynching study, he said, is the second of what will be four reports exploring America's history of racial inequality.

"I think a lot of our contemporary issues are rooted in our failure to talk honestly about the issues that lead up to the problems we have today," Stevenson said.

"After a lot of resistance, we were able to put up grave markers in downtown Montgomery, and I'm amazed at the impact they have had. I see poor, white rural families and young people of color gathered around these sites having conversations."

Maryland Historical Society President Burt Kummerow is in favor of erecting memorials locally to victims of lynchings.

"With good reason, we go to great lengths to remember and memorialize the victims of tragedy and trauma," he wrote in an email. "How can we not remember and memorialize these sad victims of racial intolerance just as much?"

Stevenson, 55, is the great-grandson of enslaved people. He grew up on Delaware's Eastern Shore and began his education attending a segregated school.

In 1985, after earning a law degree from Harvard University, he traveled to Alabama to combat racial inequality. Since founding the Justice Initiative in 1989, Stevenson said he has helped to win court-ordered relief for 115 people on death row, most of whom were African-American. Some were exonerated outright, while other prisoners have benefited from reduced sentences.

His 2014 book "Just Mercy" weaves together the stories of some of his clients — and in particular, his successful efforts to free death-row inmate Walter McMillian.

Stevenson later was recognized with a 1995 MacArthur "genius" award.

Advertisement

For him, there's a direct connection between lynchings and death row executions. He points out that the vast majority of condemned inmates are African-American males.

As he put it: "The dividing line between slavery and mass incarceration is pretty thin. The particular challenge of slavery in the American context is the presumption of dangerousness. We have just accepted that African-American men are predatory and violent, so it didn't make sense to accommodate them with a [fair] trial."

In 2008, Stevenson testified before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. The commission later issued a report that eventually helped to repeal the state's death penalty.

Currently, 32 states have the death penalty. Eighteen (including Maryland) and the District of Columbia do not. But Stevenson thinks that popular opinion is beginning to shift toward a nationwide ban. He points out that people typically on the opposite end of the political spectrum recently have teamed up to tackle the justice system.

"I think we're getting to the point where we could start seeing some real change," Stevenson said.

"When both George Soros and the Koch brothers are funding criminal justice reform, that says something really significant."

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement