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Bryan Stevenson: Justice System Reformer

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

“Each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” This is one of Bryan Stevenson’s core beliefs. Stevenson is one of the country’s leading defenders of those on death row. He has successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent children under eighteen from being sentenced to death of life imprisonment without parole and he actively works to reverse and prevent racially biased injustice. He is currently focused on rectifying and preventing unjust sentences for the mentally ill.

Stevenson was born in Delaware in 1959 and attended segregated schools until the second grade. Even after desegregation reached his neighborhood, kids still self-segregated. White kids hurled slurs. On the playground, Black kids couldn’t use the monkey bars while the White kids were using them. Black parents still needed to use the back door at a doctor’s office and wait until after the White kids in the White waiting room were served first. Confederate flags served as daily reminders that the hearts of White residents were still committed to the culture of Black oppression.

While Stevenson’s father was resigned to this culture, his mother bristled and refused to accept less than what her children deserved. When Bryan was automatically placed with all the other Black children into the lowest of three academic tiers, his mother tirelessly appealed in writing and in person until he was moved up to the all-White accelerated group. When store clerks would try to avoid touching her hand by placing her change on the counter, she’d insist they pick the change up and hand it to her the way they did for every White customer. The family’s membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church also had a strong influence. Church members regularly celebrated those who “stood up after falling down.” This culture of redemption would greatly influence Stevenson’s views.

Stevenson earned a scholarship to Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where he majored in philosophy. When it dawned on him in his senior year that no one was going to pay him to philosophize, he decided to go to law school, without really appreciating what lawyers did. He just knew he needed more time to find his way and indulge his love for learning. He attended Harvard and earned both a Master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. While there, he felt like an outsider. But while taking a course on race and poverty litigation, he interned for a non-profit now known as the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented death row inmates throughout the South. It was during this internship in Atlanta that he found his life’s calling.

Stevenson continued to work with the non-profit after graduation and soon became its director. When government funding for the organization was eliminated, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. While he felt that his faith demanded that he work for justice for those wrongly accused or unfairly treated, his personal experiences also fueled his passion. When he was a teen, his grandfather was murdered during a burglary of his home. The experience showed Stevenson what it was like to be a family member hoping that a perpetrator received punishment. Yet he was also no stranger to being wrongly accused simply because he was Black. As he tells the story in his book Just Mercy, while living in Atlanta, he arrived home from work late one night and lingered in his car to listen to the end of a song on the radio. A passing police cruiser stopped and a nervous White officer demanded that Stevenson get out of the car. Despite wearing a suit and tie, and being just outside his own apartment, the officer pointed a gun at him and shouted “Move, and I’ll blow your head off!” Another officer threw Stevenson across the hood of his car and searched him. Neighbors gathered to watch. Frightened yet enraged, Stevenson reminded himself of his mother’s advice: don’t challenge angry White cops. The police eventually let him go without any charges. Months later the Atlanta Police Department officially apologized, but only after Stevenson had filed an administrative complaint and implied he might pursue a misconduct suit. He faced similar overt and veiled hostility when he moved to Montgomery. Dueling experiences as both a victim’s family member and a wrongly accused defendant allowed Stevenson to see crimes in shades of gray.

In time, Stevenson grew the Equal Justice Initiative from a skeleton crew of interns and under-paid lawyers into a team of one hundred fifty. The group’s work has expanded beyond representing death row inmates to include advocating against unjust sentences for children, the disabled and those with mental illness. EJI also works for prison and sentencing reform, anti-poverty initiatives and public education. The website is a rich resource for reports on lynching, slavery, racial bias in sentencing, and prison conditions. Stevenson’s successful efforts to exonerate a Black man wrongly convicted of murder is featured in the book and movie Just Mercy. In his TED Talk, which has been viewed 8 Million times, Stevenson asks us to not turn a blind eye to injustice, explaining that in 1972, there were 300,000 people in U.S. jails. Now, there are over 2.3 Million in prison and over 7 Million on probation or parole. Black males make up 40% of this population, despite representing only 6% of the U.S. population. In Southern states, the statistics are even more damning.

Under Stevenson’s leadership, EJI has created two museums at their Montgomery, Alabama headquarters: The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Together, these museums pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands who suffered under slavery, Jim Crow and the school to prison pipeline. In addition to serving as EJI Executive Director, Stevenson is a full-time professor at New York University School of Law. There, he encourages students to educate themselves on issues of legal injustice and to lend their services toward affecting change.

Stevenson was selected to be the final story of this month’s Black History Month’s profiles because his words call us all to do more. He is a frequent speaker who shares the same message as Amanda Gorman, Emmanuel Acho, and Melanie Campbell: open your eyes, learn about our complicated and painful history, learn about our complicated and painful present day, sit with discomfort and then take action. This month has profiled ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. We hope that you, in your own ordinary and extraordinary ways, will chose to follow in their footsteps, one small step at a time.

The following excerpts are combined from commencement speeches at Wesleyan University (2016) and the College of the Holy Cross (2015), where Bryan Stevenson outlines how each one of us can change our world:

We are living in a country where we need more mercy, where we need more hope, where we need more justice. In my work in the criminal justice space, I’ve seen some radical changes in this country over the last 40 years. In 1972, we had 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today we have 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have 6 million people on probation or parole. There are 70 million Americans with criminal arrests, which mean when they apply to get a job or to get a loan, they are disfavored. The percentage of women going to prison has increased dramatically, 640 percent increase in the number of women being sent to prison, 70 percent of whom are single parents with minor children. And when they go to jails or prisons, their children get displaced.

We’re doing some terrible things in poor communities where there’s hopelessness and despair. I sit down with 12 or 13 year old children who sometimes tell me that they don’t expect to be free by the time they’re 21. They’re not making that up. The Bureau of Justice now predicts that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime. One in three. The statistic for Latino boys is one in six. There is this distance between people who have the capacity to change things and the people who are suffering because of the lack of change, and I want to talk to you very briefly about what I think we need to close that distance.

There are four things I think you can do to change the world. And if you do them, I absolutely believe that whether the issue is criminal justice, whether the issue is food security, whether the issue is the environment, whether the issue is income equality or international human rights, I believe you can change the world.

The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts of the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. When you get close, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance.

But we cannot achieve changing the world with proximity alone. The second thing I think we have to do is that we’ve got to change the narrative. You see, every problem has a narrative that sustains it and those narratives have to be confronted. It’s not enough to understand the problem and understand the solution. You’ve got to change the narrative. Mass incarceration was created by some policy choices. We decided to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue. We could have said drug dependency is a health problem and used the health system, but we chose to call it a crime problem. We didn’t do that for alcoholism. In this country, we said alcoholism is a disease. And if you know someone who suffers from alcoholism and you see them going in to a bar, you don’t think, let me call the police. But we didn’t do that for drug addiction, and now we put hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons. But underneath that decision was a narrative, and that narrative was shaped by what I call the politics of fear and anger. We’ve had politicians preaching to us, “Be afraid, be angry.” And I will warn you that when you make decisions rooted in fear and anger, you will tolerate abuse, you will tolerate inequality, you will tolerate injustice, and we’ve got to change that narrative.

I think we have to change the narrative about race in this country. The truth is that we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. We have a criminal justice system that doesn’t value people fairly based on their race. We’ve got to change this narrative of racial difference that we have created in America.

We live in a post-genocidal society. We’re living on land where there was a genocide. Before white settlers came, there were indigenous people on this continent and we slaughtered them by the millions through famine and disease and war. And we haven’t done the things you’re supposed to do to recover as a post-genocidal society. That history of genocide made us tolerant of slavery.

You see I don’t think the great evil of America’s slavery was involuntary servitude and forced labor. We teach that too often in our history books. But for me, the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it. This ideology of white supremacy, this notion that some people aren’t as good as other people based on their color.

We said black people are different. We said, they’re not this, they’re not that. We got comfortable with this idea that we could enslave them, and we never dealt with this narrative of racial difference. We never dealt with that ideology of white supremacy. And we didn’t end it in the middle of the 19th century.

I don’t think slavery ended in 1865; I think it just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence, and that era of lynching so has undermined our ability to be free, and we can’t move on until we change this narrative. Older people of color come up to me sometimes and say, “Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody on TV talking about how we’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.” They say, “We grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed and lynched and menaced, and this era of terror shaped our lives.”

The demographic geography of this nation was shaped by racial terrorism. The people of color in New England, the people of color in Boston, in Cleveland, in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn’t go to these communities as immigrants looking for economic opportunity; they came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terrorism in the American south. And we’ve got to change that narrative.

Even when we talk about civil rights, I worry that we’re too celebratory. I hear people talking about the Civil Rights Movement sometimes, and it sounds like a three-day carnival. On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington. And on day three, we just changed all the laws and racism was over. And it would be great if that was our history. But that’s not our history. Our history is that for decades we beat and battered and excluded people of color. We told black people, “You’re not good enough to vote just because you’re black.” We said to people of color, “You’re not good enough to go to school with the rest of us.” My parents were humiliated every day of their lives. Those signs that said “white” and “colored” weren’t directions, they were assault. We’ve got to change the narrative.

In South Africa, there was a recognition that they couldn’t recover from apartheid without choosing reconciliation. In Rwanda, there was a recognition that they can’t get past the genocide without choosing reconciliation. If you go to Germany today, in Berlin, you can’t go 100 meters without seeing the markers or the stones that they place next to the families’ homes of Jewish people who were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to Auschwitz and reflect soberly on their history. In this country, we do the opposite. We don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation. And now, we are burdened with this presumption of dangerousness and guilt that follows you. To the graduates of color, I hate to tell you this, but you will go places in this country where you will be presumed dangerous and guilty because of your color, and we will not make progress until we change the narrative.

You can’t change the world by just getting proximate and changing narratives. The third thing I think we have to do is that we have to stay hopeful. If your activism is not rooted in a hope of something, if your work is not rooted in a hope of something, then you’ve got to reorient. Hope is essential. Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope is what gets you to speak when other people want you to be quiet. Your hope is vital.

What I’m asking you to do will exhaust you. But if you’re courageous, you will find something on the other side of your hopefulness that is transformative.

Fourth and finally, I don’t think you can change the world by just getting proximate, just changing narratives, just being hopeful. The fourth thing you have to do is that you’ve got to be willing to do uncomfortable things. I wish I didn’t have to say that because it’s so nice if you can only do the things that are comfortable. But the truth is we can’t change the world by doing just what’s convenient and comfortable. I’ve looked for examples where things changed, where oppression was ended, where inequality was overcome, when people did only what was convenient and comfortable, and I can’t find any examples of that. To change the world, you’re going to sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices, to be in uncomfortable places, and be proximate and be hopeful and change narratives.

I am persuaded that justice needs hope. Injustice exists, injustice prevails, where hopelessness persists. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. It is the enemy of progress and your hope is vital — it’s precious, it’s essential if we are going to change the world. Your hope will sometimes have to cause you to stand up when other people are sitting. It will cause you to speak when other people are quiet. But in your hope you believe the things that others have not seen and you begin to change the world.

Change the world. Do justice. We need you to do it.

To learn more about Bryan Stevenson, we recommend Bryan Stevenson’s Death Defying Acts and the book Just Mercy

For a rich resource on the issues of slavery, Jim Crow, the history of lynching, poverty, and social injustice, please visit The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Full texts of Stevenson’s commencement speeches can be found here:

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