An honest reckoning with racial injustice in America
"We are haunted by our history of racial injustice in America because we don’t talk about it." This a guiding principle of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Ala. famous for its litigation to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment. Equally important however is its work outside the courtroom including its many educational programs according to Jacqueline Jones-Peace, EJI Sr. Attorney and Director of Development, who argues we can’t rectify racial injustice in the present without confronting our history of slavery, lynching and segregation.
EJI recently published a report on racial violence during Reconstruction, the 12 years following Emancipation that can only be described as one of the most horrific chapters in U.S. history. The report, titled Reconstruction in America, is a detailed narrative that chronicles many of our nation's past sins including mob lynching in the south, where Black people and their families were “robbed, harassed, beaten or killed simply for existing and crossing paths with the wrong white person at the wrong time,” as evidenced in the reporting. All told, EJI staff have documented thousands of formerly unrecognized episodes of violence and brutality against Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Yet for all we know about these atrocities, EJI estimates thousands more were lynched whose deaths may never be accounted for, while countless others survived violent attack and sexual assault by white Americans who were protected from prosecution and never served punishment. This injustice at the core of Reconstruction is just one story that must be told in order to have an honest conversation about racial justice today, Jones-Peace said. “Because we’ve failed to have a sincere reckoning with our history we’re unable to move into an era of justice, reconciliation and repair,” she said. “Until we have a more acceptable body of work documenting the unjust treatment of Black people in our country we’ll continue to spin our wheels.”
To that end, Leidos donated funds to EJI to support its high-quality research and reporting like Reconstruction in America as well as other educational tools including videos, websites, reports, lesson plans and community programs, all centered on teaching people about the unjust treatment of Black people in America. To learn more we welcome Jones-Peace.
EJI is famous for its criminal justice success. What's the overall mission that drives your work?
Jones-Peace: Our mission is to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment, to fight racial and economic injustice and to protect vulnerable people in our society. It’s a broad mission but we really do all of that in a number of ways. In terms of our strategic litigation and advocacy, we represent people who’ve been sentenced to death, wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. For example, we’ve protected thousands of juveniles from excessive punishment including life without parole. We won a U.S. Supreme Court case that ended mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, and have taken on a huge number of cases in which people are now entitled to new sentences. We represent them at these sentencing hearings, during the parole process as well as provide support when they rejoin society.
As a nation, it’s our failure to have an honest reckoning with our history of racial injustice that prevents us from moving on to an era of justice, reconciliation and repair.
We also work hard to improve prison conditions, work that has recently expanded due to the COVID-19 crisis. We advocate for the release of people who aren’t a danger or threat to society. Many of them have mental health issues or physical disabilities. For example, last year we won a United States Supreme Court case blocking Alabama’s attempt to execute a 67-year-old man suffering from dementia and serious mental health problems following multiple strokes. The Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of all prisoners rendered incompetent because of dementia.
Do you have a soft spot for any particular case?
Jones-Peace: All of our cases are compelling. But the case of Anthony Ray Hinton comes to mind. He spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Mr. Hinton now works as a Community Educator for EJI and has written a book, The Sun Does Shine, about his unimaginable and outrageous case. He’s one of the most incredibly kind, gentle and humble people that you will ever meet. I’m also a mother and a lover of children, so I was outraged to learn that children as young as 13 have been sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole. EJI has won new sentences and release for a number of 13 and 14-year-olds who were sentenced to die in prison. All of them had suffered through a horrific and traumatic childhood of neglect and abuse and were put in adult prisons, where they’re five times more likely to be assaulted and where they had no opportunity again in life to prove to someone they were not the same person they were at 13 or 14 years old. When you really think about it, that’s a death sentence. But now many of our clients are no longer in prison and that’s wonderful to see them free.
Tell us about the educational programs the Leidos donation will support. What’s the overarching philosophy behind this work?
Jones-Peace: As a nation, it’s our failure to have an honest reckoning with our history of racial injustice that prevents us from moving on to an era of justice, reconciliation and repair. So there are a number of ways we’re trying to educate the public about our history from the enslavement of Black people to the era of racial terror lynchings to segregation to the more modern period of mass incarceration. Our staff goes out and gathers this information from a number of sources, and we do a lot of original reporting to help educate as many people as we can.
In addition to our reports, we also produce videos and other companion materials that go along with them. We have an eleventh grade curriculum specifically around our lynching work and we’re working on other educational materials for fourth and eighth graders. Almost all of our work is available on our website. We have a whole team of community educators and racial justice fellows who give daily presentations to groups at our museum and memorial here in Montgomery. So we’re really trying to educate folks and get our message out.
Another major project in terms of education is our Community Remembrance Project, where we work with coalitions that are committed to exploring their own local histories of racial injustice. Working with these coalitions we honor lynching victims by hosting ceremonies and collecting soil from sites where these atrocities took place. Sometimes we have descendants of the victim participate. We install markers that provide more background and depth about what happened, and you can also use our interactive map to see where lynchings occurred in your own town. The goal here is to create opportunities to acknowledge the horrors of racial injustice at a very local level. We’ve placed about 30 markers in a number of states across the country. We have hundreds of communities that we are engaging with. These are the kinds of projects this money will help enable.
There’s a lot of excitement in the Leidos community about the company’s support for EJI. What can our readers do to get involved?
Jones-Peace: More than anything we ask people to educate themselves. The outcomes we’re trying to achieve are complicated and don’t lend themselves to quick easy fixes. It really does require each individual to learn about the issues. In terms of our criminal justice work these are local issues. It’s easy to focus only on the federal government broadly, but we all need to really understand what’s going on in our own states and local communities. What are the practices of the district attorney? How many judges of color are on the bench? These things are important to know. We recommend people immerse themselves in the reports we’ve published. In addition to the Reconstruction report we also have reports on the slave trade, segregation and the lynching of Black veterans. So we ask people to use these resources.
Another good place to start is to watch Just Mercy, which depicts a few of our death penalty row cases. People can also watch the HBO documentary True Justice which features our Executive Director and founder Bryan Stevenson. We have discussion guides for both the movie and documentary. You can read Bryan’s book also titled Just Mercy, or Anthony Ray Hinton’s book titled The Sun Does Shine. We also have a daily calendar with “on this day” entries about episodes of racial injustice. We’re on all social media channels which we use to highlight overlooked and marginalized people and events throughout history, and we invite everyone to follow us. The more educated you are the better you can teach others and amplify our message.
Finally we invite everyone to come to Montgomery. If you were in France, you would visit the Eiffel tower. We feel that strongly about our Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s not just history for history’s sake. Here you can immerse yourself in the educational experiences these sites provide. If you’re really interested in this country’s history of racial injustice and doing something about moving forward, we want you to visit us.
Those are my biggest suggestions, but there are more on the Get Involved page of our website. We’ve heard from a lot of organizations who are interested in a more typical day of volunteering, and we never discourage something like that, but the work we do doesn’t lend itself to just one day of volunteering But if you must, certainly consider a day of education, a day of reading, or a day of registering people to vote. Those things are all very supportive of the work we do regardless whether or not people are doing them at EJI.