How Lynching Shaped American History—From the Old South to Modern Prisons

For Bryan Stevensen, the largest evil surrounding African-American history isn’t slavery, but the pervasiveness of white supremacy and the difficulty we have discussing it openly.
Stevenson

Photo of Bryan Stevenson by Steve Jurvetson / Flickr.

“We don’t like to talk about our history,” says Bryan Stevenson in the TED Talk below. “And because of that we really don’t understand what it has meant to do the things that we’ve done.”

After thousands of hours of research, Stevenson's organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), found that 3,959 black men, women, and children were killed by lynching between 1877 and 1950. That death toll is 700 more killings than previously reported.

Stevenson is a celebrated civil rights attorney as well as founder and director of EJI, a nonprofit organization that offers legal representation to people who would otherwise be denied fair treatment within the legal system. The organization’s latest report, “Lynching in America”, examines how the history of lynching has shaped African-American life today.

"We really don’t understand what it has meant to do the things that we've done.”

EJI found that both state and local governments were often accepting of or indifferent to lynchings, claiming they could do nothing about “angry mobs” that tortured and killed African-Americans. It’s behavior like that, says Stevenson, that has perpetuated institutional racism in Americaespecially as seen in the South's mass incarceration of African-Americans.

For Stevensen, the largest evil surrounding African-American history isn’t slavery, but the pervasiveness of white supremacy and racial differentiation, and the difficulty we have discussing it openly.

“Suffering must be engaged, heard, recognized, and remembered before a society can recover from mass violence,” reads the EJI’s latest report.

The work that Stevenson continues to do with EJI has spread far beyond criminal justice circles. In fact, world-renowned social rights activist Desmond Tutu recently wrote in Vanity Fair that Stevenson is “shaping the moral universe.”

In this talk, Stevenson reflects on what’s wrong with our criminal justice system, how those challenges influence our whole society, and what we can start doing to fix it.