Sometimes the facts of the crime are so distracting - there's been some tragic murder or horrific incident, and people aren't required to think as carefully and thoughtfully, and directly, about this legacy of racial inequality and structural poverty. And what it's contributing to these wrongful convictions.
When you come to Montgomery, you see fifty-nine monuments and memorials, all about the Civil War, all about Confederate leaders and generals. We have lionized these people, and we have romanticized their courage and their commitment and their tenacity, and we have completely eliminated the reality that created the Civil War.
The landscape in Montgomery and in the South is just saturated with imagery. Markers are everywhere. There's a marker for the first Confederate post office, there's a marker for a ball that Robert E. Lee hosted, there's a marker for where Jefferson Davis had a meeting. We love reminding people about all that was going on in the mid-nineteenth century.
Embracing a certain quotient of racial bias and discrimination against the poor is an inexorable aspect of supporting capital punishment. This is an immoral condition that makes rejecting the death penalty on moral grounds not only defensible but necessary for those who refuse to accept unequal or unjust administration of punishment.
I do talk and think a lot about the legacy before me. I feel like if I didn't know that people had been in Montgomery sixty years ago trying to do similar things that I'm trying to do, with a lot less, with fewer resources, with less security, with less encouragement, with less opportunity - if I didn't know that, then I think doing what I do would be much, much harder.
Once we had a rail station in Montgomery that connected to Columbus and went all the way up to Virginia, slave traders could transport thousands of slaves at a fraction of the cost than they could transport by boat, and certainly by foot. And that's how Montgomery became such an active slave-trading space.
In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’ And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill?’
There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
I talk about my grandmother a lot, because she's an amazing person - not in some dramatic, distinct, unique way, but anybody who is the daughter of enslaved people and who has found a way to be hopeful and create love and value justice and seek peace is a remarkable person.
Living in Montgomery, I've been antagonized by the emergence of a narrative about our history that I believe is quite false and misleading, and actually dangerous. And the narrative that emerges when you spend time in the South - places likes Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana - is that we have always been a noble, wonderful, glorious region of the country, with wonderful, noble, glorious people doing wonderful, noble, glorious things. And there's great pride in the Alabamians of the nineteenth century.
When I stepped into this world, I saw that we were all burdened by a certain kind of indifference to the plight of poor people. We were burdened by an insensitivity to a legacy of racial bias. We were tolerating unfairness and unreliability in a way that burdened me and provoked me.
I've come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that, there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.
I think there is a contempt for the human dignity of people who were enslaved. You couldn't see them as fully human and so you didn't respect their desire to be connected to a family and a place. That was the only way you could tolerate and make sense of lynching and the terror that lynching represented.