What Justice Requires: Bryan Stevenson on Jacob Lawrence
The human rights lawyer discusses the legacy of the Great Migration, as seen in Lawrence’s iconic Migration Series.
Jan 27, 2020
Bryan Stevenson on the power of art to communicate justice | MoMA BBC | THE WAY I SEE IT
What emerges in this work, for me, is a clear call for a new relationship with what it means to be treated fairly, what it means to be seen as equal, and what justice requires.
This week’s guest on The Way I See It, our radio collaboration with BBC, is Bryan Stevenson, one of the most compelling civil rights leaders of our day. He is the founder and leader of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that works to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerate innocent death row prisoners, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children prosecuted as adults. His New York Times bestseller Just Mercy, which tells the story of one of Stevenson’s earliest attempts to free a wrongfully condemned black man, was adapted into a movie that’s currently in theaters.
As he confronted these issues, Stevenson began to think hard about history and how we tell stories about our country. “The whole of the United States was shaped by this period that very few people talk about.” Marking and memorializing the victims of our troubled racial past has become an important part of his activism, including the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims of lynching, in Montgomery, Alabama.
For our radio program, we’ve asked 30 luminaries to share their perspective on an artwork that they love. Stevenson chose The Migration Series (1940–41), a 60-panel series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence that describes the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans fled the rural American South for the North and West after World War I. Stevenson sees the work as a powerful “call for a new relationship with what it means to be treated fairly, what it means to be seen as equal, and what justice requires.”
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Lawrence’s Migration Series describes the brutality and violence and hopes and dreams that spurred the mass exodus of millions of black Americans from the South towards the North and West. Stevenson sees Lawrence’s work not only as a description of a particular moment in time but also as part of the legacy of that moment in our world today. “These images that convey the hardship and the struggle are really powerful.” Stevenson says, “I grew up in a poor, racially segregated community—they speak to people like me. I could identify with these images, everyday people finding a way to cope with these enormous challenges.” He notes that without shying away from “the anguish of poverty, the distress of being terrorized and threatened, and the grief of oppression and lynching,” Lawrence describes the “humanity, dignity, and aspiration” that is also a part of the story. Noting the importance of the artist’s storytelling, Stevenson says, “What is most exciting about Jacob Lawrence’s art is it’s an effort to end the silence. And when you end silence and you can begin to speak truth. There is something powerful about that.”
This is one of many conversations about art in The Way I See It, a 30-episode radio series from MoMA and BBC offering fresh perspectives on artworks in our new galleries, hosted by art critic and broadcaster Alastair Sooke. Find The Way I See It on BBC Sounds or wherever you get your podcasts.
Bryan Stevenson. Photo: Rog and Bee Walker for Equal Justice Initiative
Major support for the program is provided by The Museum of Modern Art’s Research and Scholarly Publications endowment established through the generosity of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Edward John Noble Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Perry R. Bass, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Challenge Grant Program.
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