I was representing a group of kids and went to see them in jail. They were 13 and 14 year olds who had been certified adults and – as “adults” – received very harsh sentences. I asked myself, how could this happen? How could a judge turn you into something you’re not?
My next thought: If a judge can turn you into something you’re not, he must have magic power – and I should ask him for some of it. And because I was up too late and wasn’t thinking straight, I started working on a motion, headed: “Motion to try my poor 14 year old black client as a privileged white 75 year old corporate executive.”
In the motion, I said there had been prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct and judicial misconduct. There was even a crazy line, in there, that in this county there was no conduct at all – just misconduct. The next morning I woke up and said, “did I dream that crazy motion or did I actually write it?” And to my horror, I had not only written it, I had sent it to court.
A couple of months went by and, finally, I had to go to court to present this crazy case. I was feeling overwhelmed. This was going to be so difficult; so painful.
When I got out of the car and was walking up to the courthouse there was this older black man, a janitor, and when he saw me he said, “who are you?” I said, “I’m a lawyer.” And he said, “you’re a lawyer?” I said, “yes sir.” And this man came over to me, hugged me, and whispered in my ear “I’m so proud of you.”
I have to tell you, it was energizing. It connected deeply with something in me about identity; about the capacity of every person to contribute to community, and perspective, and hope.
As soon as I walked into the courtroom, the judge saw me and said, “Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?” I said, “yes sir I did,” and we started arguing. And people started coming in because they were outraged that I had written these crazy things – police, and assistant prosecutors, and court workers. Before I knew it the courtroom was filled with people who were angry because we were talking about race – and poverty – and inequality.
As all this was going on, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the janitor pacing back and forth, and that he kept looking through the window and could hear all this hollering. Finally, with a very worried look on his face, he came into the courtroom and sat down behind me, almost at counsel’s table.
About 10 minutes later the judge said we would take a break. And during the break a deputy sheriff, offended that the janitor had come into court, ran over and said, “Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?” The older black man stood up. He looked at the deputy, looked at me, and said, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young men, ‘keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.’ ”
I am here today because many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends toward justice; that we cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity; that all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone; and that our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with a vision of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything – for those of you who share this vision – I have simply come to tell you this: Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Watch the TED video from which this story is excerpted.