Last Tuesday morning Betsy and I had the privilege of attending the 2nd annual fundraiser for Valiant Cross Academy, the innovative downtown private school. The guest speaker for the event was Bryan Stevenson, justice advocate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative located right here in Montgomery. Mr. Stevenson, as you are probably aware, is also largely responsible for the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Over 400,000 people have already visited the downtown museum and memorial, which just celebrated its first year anniversary.

    Mr. Stevenson is also author of the New York Times best-selling book Just Mercy, a recounting of his experience fighting for the freedom of a condemned death row prisoner. His story will be released next year as a movie starring A-list actors Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

    In his book Stevenson quotes his grandmother who would always greet him with a giant bear hug and say, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” Bryan Stevenson did just that.

   Soft-spoken yet dynamic, Stevenson articulated to the 700 people in attendance that, “the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.”

    He went on to stress that there is “still a presumption of guilt we assign to black and brown children” and that good people need to be “willing to do uncomfortable things” for change. Those uncomfortable things involve immersing ourselves in communities that are scary to us, in part because of the unfamiliarity, the economic gap and yes, the color of skin.

    I could go on and on heaping praise for the meaningful work Mr. Stevenson does and how lucky Montgomery is to count him as one of our own, as I have before in a column about a year ago. But I also want to shine light on the magnificent addition Valiant Cross has become to our community. Their goal is to transcend the challenges facing young African-American males by developing men of character through rigorous academics and leadership training.

    With a middle school located on Dexter Avenue and a high school on the grounds of Troy University’s Montgomery campus, Valiant Cross has made great strides since opening their doors in 2015 with an inaugural sixth grade class. Adding a grade per year, the school will serve 6th-10th grades beginning next school year.  

    “When it comes to African-American males, it is an opportunity gap not an achievement gap that our young men are faced with,” said Anthony Brock, who founded Valiant Cross Academy with his brother, Frederick.

    The Brock brothers felt compelled to start the school due to the alarming rate of students who were not prepared for college. The year-round, all-male school is heavy on the academics. Each school day is 10 hours long and includes twice the math and triple the literacy time of your typical school. Valiant Cross relies heavily on grants and private donations.

    Like Mr. Stevenson, the Brock brothers have impressive resumes. Both are products of the Montgomery Public School system. Anthony is a graduate of Sidney Lanier and Alabama State University. With a strong background in education, he was the last principal at St. Jude before the school closed in 2014. Frederick is a graduate of Jeff Davis High School and the University of Southern Mississippi. He went on to play four seasons in the NFL and most recently served as athletic director at St. Jude. The awards and acknowledgements the brothers have received for their unselfish public service are too numerous to list. Their success has benefited all Montgomery.

    The 135 young men attending Valiant Crossing represent the future leaders of our city. It was my honor to shake many of their hands, and I look forward to learning more about their individual struggles and achievements.

    Montgomery is the Capital of Dreams, and in the words of Bryan Stevenson, “we have to stay hopeful,” but “the narrative has to change.” Valiant Cross is doing its part. It’s time more of us join them and become willing to do “uncomfortable things.”