the Shadow of White Supremacy

Lydialyle Gibson in Harvard Magazine:

Resendstevenson005_smThe audience could sense where the story was going almost as soon as Bryan Stevenson began telling it. Two black children in the barely desegregated South, hurtling with giddy, unguarded elation toward their first swim in a pool that until recently had been available only to whites. A swim they’d been dreaming of for years. As Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A.’85, LL.D. ’15, kept talking, an electricity of unease began to intensify among the listeners packed into First Parish Church last week—as many people as the pews would hold—who’d come to hear him deliver Harvard’s 2017 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center. A civil-rights lawyer who for three decades has defended death-row inmates and fought for criminal-justice reform from a warehouse-turned-office in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, a New York University law professor, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

…At the other end of the pool was a cluster of white children, whose parents were lounging nearby. At first, Stevenson and his sister didn’t really notice them. But then suddenly, the parents were screaming at their children to get out of the water, snatching them up by the arms, hustling them away crying. A little white boy was the last one left amid the commotion, and as Stevenson and his sister looked on in horror and confusion, the boy’s father waded into the pool to grab him. “And then I did this thing that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do,” Stevenson recalled. “I asked that man a question, even though I didn’t know him. I turned to him, and I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I will never forget, the man looked at me and he said, ‘You’re wrong, n—–.’”

It wasn’t the first time Stevenson had been called that, but in that moment, he was unprepared to hear it, and the slur cut right through him. After the white families withdrew, he and his sister ran to their mother to tell her what had happened, afraid they’d be in trouble. They weren’t, but she was angry. She told her children to get back in the pool. They didn’t want to. She insisted. “Don’t let those people run you from the pool,” Stevenson remembers her saying. The next day, the family continued on to Disney World. “I know we had fun,” Stevenson said of the week in Florida, but he is fuzzy on the details. Instead, “What I remember most vividly about that trip was getting back into the pool, standing in a corner, holding my sister’s hand and desperately trying not to cry.”

In the years since, he’s wondered, do the white kids remember the day they were pulled out of the pool? Does that father remember what he said? Do any of them tell the story, as Stevenson and his sister still do? “And my fear is that they don’t remember,” he said. “My fear is that they haven’t been talking about it the rest of their lives. My fear is that it just evaporated. It was one more moment in a life of segregation with no consequences, no legacy, no shadow.”

More here.