Bryan Stevenson (born November 14, 1959) is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a law professor at New York University School of Law. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. He has helped achieve United States Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or to life imprisonment without parole. Stevenson has assisted in cases that have saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty, advocated for the poor, and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice.
Stevenson in 2012
|Born||November 14, 1959|
Milton, Delaware, U.S.
|Education||Eastern University (BA)|
Harvard University (JD, MPP)
|Occupation||Director of Equal Justice Initiative|
Professor at New York University School of Law
|Known for||Founding Equal Justice Initiative|
|Awards||Right Livelihood Award (2020)|
He initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors the names of each of more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the 12 states of the South from 1877 to 1950. He argues that the history of slavery and lynchings has influenced the subsequent high rate of death sentences in the South, where it has been disproportionately applied to minorities. A related museum, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, offers interpretations to show the connection between the post-Reconstruction period of lynchings to the high rate of executions and incarceration of people of color in the United States.
In November 2018, Stevenson received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the American Philosophical Society as a "Drum major for justice and mercy." This is the most prestigious award the society gives for distinguished public service. In 2020, he shared Right Livelihood Award, widely known as "Alternate Nobel Prize" with Nasrin Sotoudeh, Ales Bialiatski, and Lottie Cunningham Wren.
Born on November 14, 1959, Stevenson grew up in Milton, Delaware, a small rural town located in southern Delaware. His father Howard Carlton Stevenson, Sr., had grown up in Milton, and his mother Alice Gertrude (Golden) Stevenson was born and grew up in Philadelphia. Her family had moved to the city from Virginia in the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Stevenson has two siblings: an older brother Howard, Jr. and a sister Christy.
Both parents commuted to the northern part of the state for work, with Howard, Sr., working at a General Foods processing plant as a laboratory technician and Alice as an equal opportunity officer at Dover Air Force Base. She particularly emphasized the importance of education.
Stevenson's family attended the Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church, where as a child, Stevenson played piano and sang in the choir. His later views were influenced by the strong faith of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where churchgoers were celebrated for "standing up after having fallen down". These experiences informed his belief that "each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
When Stevenson was 16, his maternal grandfather, Clarence L. Golden, was stabbed to death in his Philadelphia home during a robbery. The killers received life sentences, an outcome Stevenson thought fair. Stevenson said of the murder: "Because my grandfather was older, his murder seemed particularly cruel. But I came from a world where we valued redemption over revenge."
As a child, Stevenson dealt with segregation and its legacy. He spent his first classroom years at a "colored" elementary school. By the time he entered the second grade, his school was formally desegregated, but the old rules from segregation still applied. Black kids played separately from white kids, and at the doctor's or dentist's office, black kids and their parents continued to use the back door, while whites entered through the front. Pools and other community facilities were informally segregated. Stevenson's father, having grown up in the area, took the ingrained racism in stride, but their mother noted that this was not right. In an interview in 2017, Stevenson recalled how his mother protested the day the black children from town lined up at the back door of the polio vaccination station to receive their shots, waiting hours while the white children went in first.
Stevenson attended Cape Henlopen High School and graduated in 1978. He played on the soccer and baseball teams. He also served as president of the student body and won American Legion public speaking contests. His brother, Howard, takes some credit for helping hone Stevenson's rhetorical skills: “We argued the way brothers argue, but these were serious arguments, inspired I guess by our mother and the circumstances of our family growing up.” Stevenson earned straight A's and won a scholarship to Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. On campus, he directed the campus gospel choir. Stevenson graduated in 1981.
Stevenson earned a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School and a master's degree in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. During law school, as part of a class on race and poverty litigation with Elizabeth Bartholet, he worked for Stephen Bright's Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization that represents death-row inmates throughout the South. During this work, Stevenson found his career calling.
Southern Center for Human RightsEdit
After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta, and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights full-time. The center divided work by region and Stevenson was assigned to Alabama. In 1989 he was appointed to run the Alabama operation, a resource center and death-penalty defense organization that was funded by Congress. He had a center in Montgomery, the state capital.
Equal Justice InitiativeEdit
When the United States Congress eliminated funding for death-penalty defense, Stevenson converted the center and founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery. In 1995, he was awarded a MacArthur Grant and put all the money toward supporting the center. He guaranteed a defense of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty, as it was the only state that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row. It also has the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.
One of EJI’s first cases was the post-conviction appeal of McMillian, who had spent months on death row before being convicted of murder. Stevenson was able to discredit every element of the prosecution’s initial case, which led to McMillian being exonerated and released from jail in 1993.
Stevenson has been particularly concerned about overly harsh sentencing of persons convicted of crimes committed as children, under the age of 18. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty was unconstitutional for persons convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18. Stevenson worked to have the court's thinking about appropriate punishment broadened to related cases applying to children convicted under the age of 17.
EJI mounted a litigation campaign to gain review of cases in which convicted children were sentenced to life-without-parole, including in cases without homicide. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the US Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that mandatory sentences of life-without-parole for children 17 and under were unconstitutional; their decision has affected statutes in 29 states. In 2016, the court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that this decision had to be applied retroactively, potentially affecting the sentences of 2300 people nationwide who had been sentenced to life while still children.
By August 2016, EJI has saved 125 men from the death penalty. In addition, it has represented poor people, defended people on appeal and overturned wrongful convictions, and worked to alleviate bias in the criminal justice system.
The EJI offices are near the landing at the Alabama River where slaves were unloaded in the domestic slave trade; an equal distance away is Court Square, "one of the largest slave auction sites in the country." Stevenson has noted that in downtown Montgomery, there were "dozens" of historic markers and numerous monuments related to Confederate history, but nothing acknowledging the history of slavery, on which the wealth of the South was based and for which it fought the Civil War. He proposed to the state and provided documentation to three slavery sites with historic markers; the Alabama Department of Archives and History told him that it did not want to "sponsor the markers given the potential for controversy." Stevenson worked with an African-American history group to gain sponsorship for this project; they gained state approval for the three markers in 2013, and these have been installed in Montgomery.
National Memorial for Peace and JusticeEdit
Stevenson acquired six acres of former public housing land in Montgomery for the development of a new project, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to commemorate the nearly 4,000 persons who were lynched in the South from 1877 to 1950. Many lynchings were conducted openly in front of mobs and crowds in county courthouse squares. Stevenson argues this history of extrajudicial lynchings by white mobs is closely associated with the subsequent high rate of death sentences imposed in Alabama and other southern states, and to their disproportionate application to minority people. He further argues that this history influences the bias against minorities as expressed in disproportionately high mass incarceration rates for them across the country. The memorial opened in April 2018.
Associated with the Memorial is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which also opened in April 2018. Exhibits in the former slave warehouse include materials on lynching, racial segregation, and mass incarceration since the late 20th century. Stevenson articulates how the treatment of people of color under the criminal justice system is related to the history of slavery and later treatment of minorities in the South.
Stevenson wrote the critically acclaimed memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau. It was selected by Time magazine as one of the "10 Best Books of Nonfiction" for 2014, and was among The New York Times "100 Notable Books" for the year. It won the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction. A film based on the book, called Just Mercy and starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, premiered on September 6, 2019, at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released in theatres on December 25, 2019.
Stevenson conducts an active public speaking schedule, in large part for fundraising for the work of EJI. His speech at TED2012 in Long Beach, California brought him a wide audience on the Internet. Following his presentation, attendees at the conference contributed more than $1 million to fund a campaign run by Stevenson to end the practice of placing convicted children to serve sentences in adult jails and prisons. His talk is available on the TED website; by April 2020, it had been viewed more than 6.5 million times.
Stevenson has been a commencement speaker and received numerous honorary degrees, including from the following institutions: University of Delaware, 2016, honorary Doctor of Laws degree; Williams College, 2016, honorary doctorate; Loyola University Chicago, Stritch School of Medicine, 2011, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa; College of the Holy Cross, 2015; Wesleyan University, 2016, honorary degree; University of Mississippi, 2017s fall convocation; Northeastern University, fall 2017 convocation; Emory University, spring 2020 commencement and honorary doctor of laws degree.
In June 2017, Stevenson delivered the 93rd Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in New Orleans, Louisiana, joining the ranks of previous lecturers including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kurt Vonnegut.
Stevenson is featured in episode 45 of the podcast Criminal by Radiotopia from PRX. Host Phoebe Judge talked with Stevenson about his experiences during his 30 years spent working to get people off of death row, and about his take on the deserving of mercy.
On May 24, 2018, Stevenson delivered the Commencement address for The Johns Hopkins University Class of 2018.
- 1991 ACLU National Medal of Liberty
- 1995 MacArthur Fellow
- 2000 Olof Palme Prize
- 2009 Gruber Prize for Justice
- 2011 Four Freedoms Award
- 2012 Smithsonian magazine's American Ingenuity Award in Social Progress
- 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction
- 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction
- 2017 The Stowe Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice
- 2018 The Benjamin Franklin Award for distinguished public service from the American Philosophical Society
- 2019 Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement
- 2020 Right Livelihood Award
By Bryan Stevenson:
- Stevenson, Bryan (Summer 2006). "Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases" (PDF). Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. 41 (2): 339–367. OCLC 1002849873. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 18, 2012. Retrieved September 27, 2015.
- "Stevenson, Bryan (Summer 2003). "The Ultimate Authority on the Ultimate Punishment: The Requisite Role of the Jury in Capital Sentencing" (PDF). Alabama Law Review. 54 (4): 1091–1155. Retrieved September 27, 2015.
- Stevenson, Bryan (June 2002). "The Politics of Fear and Death: Successive Problems in Capital Federal Habeas Corpus Cases" (PDF). NYU Law Review. 77 (3): 699–795.
- Stevenson, Bryan (2014). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (print) (First ed.). New York: Spiegel & Grau. ISBN 9780812994520. LCCN 2014430900. OCLC 978357094.
- Equal Justice Initiative (January 2008). "Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13-and 14-Year Old Children to Die in Prison" (PDF). Equal Justice Initiative. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- McGreal, Chris (April 1, 2018). "I went to death row for 28 years through no fault of my own". The Guardian. Retrieved April 1, 2018.
- American Philosophical Society (2018). "2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal". www.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved April 6, 2019.
- Barrett, Paul (2007). "Bryan Stevenson's Death-Defying Acts". NYU Law Magazine. Retrieved September 27, 2015.
- Toobin, Jeffrey (August 15, 2016). "The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row". Profiles. The New Yorker. Condé Nast (published August 22, 2019).
- Grant, Meg (November 27, 1995). "A Stubborn Alabama Lawyer Stands Alone Between Death and His Clients". People. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
- Exra Klein (May 16, 2017). "Bryan Stevenson on why the opposite of poverty isn't wealth; it's justice". The Ezra Klein Show (Podcast). Vox Podcast Media Network. Retrieved December 31, 2018.
- Moorer, Regina (November 28, 2018). "Equal Justice Initiative". Encyclopedia of Alabama (published June 14, 2013). Retrieved April 3, 2015.
- Alexander, Bryan. "How accurate is 'Just Mercy'? The real case behind Michael B. Jordan's Bryan Stevenson movie". USA TODAY. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
- Applebome, Peter (March 3, 1993). "Alabama Releases Man Held On Death Row for Six Years". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
- "Death in Prison Sentences". Equal Justice Initiative. Archived from the original on October 1, 2012. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- "The National Memorial for Peace and Justice". Equal Justice Initiative.
- Ortiz, Erik (April 28, 2018). "New museum on America's history of lynchings invokes powerful emotions". Retrieved January 12, 2020.
- Riley, Ricky (June 20, 2016). "Social Justice Activist Smashes Myth that Slavery Ended in 1865 With Brilliant Examination". Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- Warden, Rob (October 23, 2014). "Book review: 'Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption' by Bryan Stevenson". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
- "Anthony Doerr wins Carnegie Medal for fiction". Midcontinent Communications. Associated Press. June 28, 2015. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved June 28, 2015.
- "Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Nonfiction Winner". Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Retrieved August 24, 2016.
- N'Duka, Amanda (April 20, 2018). "Warner Bros Dates Melissa McCarthy Comedy 'Superintelligence' & Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy'". Deadline.
- Lillie, Ben (March 1, 2012). "All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone: Bryan Stevenson at TED2012". TED Blog. TED Conferences. Retrieved March 6, 2012.
- Anderson, Chris (March 5, 2012). "TED's first response to Bryan Stevenson's talk on injustice". TED Blog. TED Conferences. Retrieved March 6, 2012.
- We need to talk about an injustice, a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson
- Rhodes, Jerry (March 28, 2016). "167th Commencement - UDaily". UDaily. University of Delaware Office of Communications & Marketing. Retrieved August 24, 2016.
- "Commencement 2016". Udel.edu. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
- "Williams College Announces Its 2016 Honorary Degree Recipients" (Press release). Williams College Office of Communications. March 16, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
- Loyola University Chicago, Office of Registration & Records
- Stevenson, Bryan. 2015 Commencement Address (Speech). College of the Holy Cross: College of the Holy Cross. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
- Rubenstein, Laura (May 22, 2016). "Honorary Degree Recipient Bryan Stevenson Delivers 2016 Commencement Speech (with video)". News @ Wesleyan. Archived from the original on May 8, 2017. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
- "Author Bryan Stevenson Challenges UM Freshmen, First-Year Students - Ole Miss News". Ole Miss News. August 23, 2017. Retrieved August 24, 2017.
- "Event Information - First Pages at Northeastern University". First Pages at Northeastern University. Archived from the original on September 4, 2017. Retrieved September 4, 2017.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
- "Commencement 2020 | Emory University | Atlanta GA". alumni.emory.edu. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
- "Ware Lecture". Unitarian Universalist Association. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
- "Just Mercy". Criminal (Podcast). No. 45. Radiotopia. July 16, 2016. Retrieved June 17, 2017.
- Bryan Stevenson (May 24, 2018). "A Blueprint for How to Change the World". Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
We need you to leave this university with high expectations for what you can do to create a more just world
- "Bryan Stevenson honored with National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award and ABA’s Thurgood Marshall Award", NYU Law News, August 9, 2016.
- "2012 American Ingenuity Award Winners". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian. Retrieved October 11, 2018.
- "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
- Lartey, Jamiles (June 26, 2019). "Bryan Stevenson: the lawyer devoting his life to fighting injustice". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
- "Bryan Stevenson". PEOPLE.com. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
- Lantz, Brianna (January 9, 2020). "Breaking Bonds of Silence: An Interview with Bryan Stevenson". Nations Media. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
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