Sussex County native honored at Oscars for civil-rights work
For a brief moment on Sunday, March 4, Bryan Stevenson of Milton could be seen on stage at the Oscars.
He was standing behind singers Andra Day and Common as they performed their Oscar-nominated song “Stand Up for Something” from the movie “Marshall.” The movie is about the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.
In 2016, Stevenson was honored by the American Bar Association with its Thurgood Marshall Award for his long-term contribution to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights, and Stevenson was one of 10 activists personally contacted by Day and Common to highlight the grassroots efforts of people who devote their lives to actually working (rather than talking) to make a difference.
Indeed, Stevenson has been the epitome of “standing up for something” for more than 30 years. It began in earnest when he moved from the lofty heights of Harvard University, where he was a graduate of its Law School and its School of Government, to Montgomery, Ala. He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, located on Commerce Street, which got its name from its primary commerce source of that time: slaves.
In 2012, Stevenson gave a TED Talk called “We Need to Talk About Injustice,” which is said to have resulted in the longest standing ovation of any speaker. In 2014, he authored the acclaimed book “Just Mercy.” One of those who has written in praise of the multi-year best-seller is Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu.
“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela — a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all,” wrote Tutu.
Stevenson was born and raised in Milton, but his sister, Christy Taylor, said he would reject the term “hometown hero,” as he was called on Facebook after his Oscars appearance.
“He didn’t stay around for the after-Oscars parties — just took the red-eye home and went back to work,” said Taylor. “He takes all the wonderful accolades lightly; he’s so modest.”
As for Stevenson, he just tweeted, “I’m thrilled that even for a moment, people watching the Oscars were reminded that there is an ongoing struggle for basic human rights and equal justice that should never be ignored.”
Although he born in 1959, five years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, desegregation in Delaware schools took more than a decade to be fully realized. Thus, Stevenson’s schooling began at the Colored School. But even after the schools were integrated, the Stevenson children, who lived in the Redden Forrest area of Sussex County, were keenly aware of the local presence of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Amongst other things, we were spat on while riding the school bus and called ‘nigger.’ There was always a sense of threat,” said Taylor.
But, according to Taylor — an admired music teacher and jazz musician who is well known throughout the area — their parents taught the children the appropriate way to respond to ignorance, groomed their self-confidence and made sure they were properly educated.
Her elder brother, Dr. Howard Stevenson Jr., is a professor of Africana studies in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative and a nationally-recognized clinical psychologist.
“Our mother was a tremendous influence in our lives,” said Taylor. “She gave us a fire in the belly for reading and by 1968 had saved up enough to buy encyclopedias for our home. Bryan was reading Victor Hugo by age 9. He was a funny kid. He loved sports and music, but he had a passion for quiet and alone-time. He was always very mature in his thinking.”
Others who were influential in Stevenson’s upbringing were teachers at Cape Henlopen High School.
“The late Harriet Jeglum was the English and drama teacher,” said Taylor. “She recognized Bryan’s gift for extemporaneous speaking and encouraged his entry into VFW-sponsored oratorical contests. Bryan won for the state of Delaware for many years. His topic was ‘Voice of Democracy.’ She also made sure that the students performed in meaningful plays. like ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ which was forward-thinking here at the time.
“Also, Coach Coveleski (soccer), Coach Baird (basketball) and Coach [Dave] Frederick (track) paid attention to both my brothers. It was through their efforts they got scholarships as undergraduates at Eastern University near Philadelphia.”
Frederick, who subsequently wrote about sports for a Cape-area newspaper, said about Stevenson, “Bryan and I go back at Cape to 1977. He was a gifted student. Theater was a big thing for him, and he played the lead in ‘Raisin in the Sun. He had a singing voice that made the lunch-ladies cry!
“I remember taking the winter track team to Colonial Williamsburg for the Christmas City Relays. The first night, I did a bed-check and my athletes had thrown two mattresses on the floor and were having a wrestling tournament. Bryan and a street-tough kid named Glen were getting after each other.
“That was and is quintessential Bryan — a person of deep humanity and humility; he has always been that type of guy. I know a part of him did not like being on stage at the Oscars, but he’s smart enough to know it furthers his life mission of equal justice for everyone.”
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, was founded by Stevenson in 1989. It provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails or prisons. It challenges the death penalty and excessive punishment, especially for children, and provides re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.
The EJI has associated the mass incarceration and excessive punishment of African-Americans in this era to those lynched by angry mobs in the not too distant past, and back to slavery.
In its report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” (https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report-landing), EJI has documented more than 4400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Racial terror lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. Although they happened mostly in the South, one lynching was recorded in Delaware.
On April 26, EJI will open the National Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/) in Montgomery, Ala.
“The Lynching Memorial, as it was called for years during its inception, design and build, is a great source of pride for my family and those of us in Delaware who know Bryan and his work,” said Taylor. “Over 30 of us will be making our way to Montgomery for the three-day event.”
One may wonder why there is a need for such a place.
“Bryan has traveled the world, giving speeches,” said Taylor. “He was impressed by how Germany has made a point of respectfully and publicly remembering the holocaust. Yet in America, lynchings are part of our dark past that are rarely spoken about. This memorial is designed to shed light, reveal truth and cause thought, remembrance and conversation. It will be a sacred place.”
According to the EJI website, “The main memorial structure is constructed of over 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. When visitors enter the memorial, perception shifts as visitors realize that the columns that appeared to be holding up the structure are actually monuments suspended from above, which evoke the lynchings that took place in the public square.”
An interesting aspect of the memorial is that it “is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.” One wonders when Delaware will claim its monument.
A group of Sussex Countians is currently in the early stage of working toward building a charter school to be known as the Bryan A. Stevenson School of Excellence. The board includes several young educators, and they are preparing their first fundraising efforts.
“We hope to benefit from the celebrity influence created by the opening of the memorial,” said Taylor. Amongst the celebrities expected at the event is Oprah Winfrey, who is its host, as well as an array of national civil-rights leaders and advocates, and many entertainers.
To learn more about Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative and to watch the TED Talk, go to www.eji.org. It will be well worth your time.