Groundbreaking moments are often created by those who embody the courage to challenge the status quo in order to fight for principles that are good and just. As the founder of the Montgomery, Ala., Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson is the first person to lead this important organization that advocates on behalf of those who are incarcerated, facing the death penalty, and those who are challenged by poverty. While Stevenson is a venerated social-justice advocate, attorney, and law professor, the path that led him to this point was defined by early childhood moments that were crucial to his development into an advocacy leader.
Born in 1959, in Milton, Del., Stevenson was raised with his two siblings. In his book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” Stevenson recalls how his grandmother, who was raised by formerly enslaved people, would hug him closely when he visited. After one tight hug, a few moments would pass and Stevenson’s grandmother would ask if he could still feel her hug. Often wanting to receive more hugs from his grandmother, Stevenson would reply “no,” which would result in an additional, tight, loving hug from his grandmother. These hugs were not only a sign of affection from his grandmother. Stevenson revealed advice that she would repeat to him consistently throughout his childhood and how these words shaped his work later in life.
“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,” she told him, as he explained in his book.
Carrying this advice with him throughout his life and career, Stevenson continued on in his book to explain how this mindset influenced his work by explaining, “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Following his graduation from Eastern University with a bachelor’s degree, Stevenson was still uncertain of the path that he wanted to follow. As he considered studying law at Harvard University, Stevenson also pondered the possibility of attending the Kennedy School of Government to attain a master’s degree in public policy. In “Just Mercy,” Stevenson explained the questions that remained for him following the completion of his undergraduate studies and the answers that he already knew regarding his future.
“I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another,” Stevenson wrote. “It would have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wondered about, but couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.”
It wasn’t until 1983 that Stevenson uncovered his purpose pursuing a law education. He discovered a race-and-poverty litigation course that was a one-month intensive led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Betsy Bartholet, whose class would bring students outside the classroom and into the real work of aiding a social-justice organization. The opportunity led him to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, an organization that offered support to people who were on death row. In his “We Need to Talk About an Injustice” TED Talk from 2012, Stevenson outlined the justice issues that plague the system. In addition to systemic racism that is part of the foundation of the United States judicial process, normalizing prejudgment into every facet of the justice system, Stevenson also spoke on the ways in which economic disadvantages shape the types of treatment and protections different people receive under the law.
“Our system isn’t just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorted around race, they are also distorted by poverty,” Stevenson said. “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”
Considering the high cost of bail and legal fees, Stevenson sought to thwart the direct correlation between poverty and the poverty stricken who are unable to afford the high costs to defend themselves against a system that has deemed them guilty of the crimes they allegedly committed and a bail process that keeps people imprisoned without conviction.
With the founding of nonprofit EJI in 1989, Stevenson continued his work of defending those who were at the center of seemingly hopeless cases during which they were illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or experienced abuse while confined to prison or jail. Many of these characteristics are found in the cases of inmates who are on death row, such as in the story of Walter McMillian.
Sentenced to death for a 1986 Monroeville, Ala., murder of an 18-year-old white woman, McMillian—who was a Black man—maintained his innocence. According to EJI, McMillian was put on death row before the trial, a 15-month span of time. While the all-white jury convicted McMillian of capital murder, which carried a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, Judge Robert E. Lee Key overrode this verdict, sentencing the defendant to execution through electrocution. Spending six years on death row, McMillian received a second chance when Stevenson accepted the case.
“Walter’s experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly—not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of the crime,” Stevenson said in “Just Mercy.” “But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness.”
According to EJI, for every nine people who have been executed, one person who sits on death row is exonerated. To defend McMillian, who was reportedly attending a church fish fry during the time when the murder occurred, Stevenson began working on angles of the case that included uncovering the fact that witness testimony was coerced. The Alabama Bureau of Investigation determined that McMillian was innocent, yet prosecutors still had reservations about freeing him. With McMillian’s innocence confirmed, the state dropped the charges and he walked out of prison from death row in 1993.
While Stevenson’s career has been marked by a number of awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Genius Prize and being named one of the Time 100 in 2015, his work is continually defined by defending those who finds the system is working against them. In 2012, Stevenson was victorious in his quest to exclude children 17 or younger from sentences that require life imprisonment without parole. His work also led him to launch in 2018 the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In 2019, Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” was made into a film starring Michael B. Jordan, as Stevenson, and Jamie Foxx, as McMillian. Stevenson also worked on the movie as an executive producer.
“In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’ and that is a very sensible question,” Stevenson said during the 2012 TED Talk. “But there is another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit—but do we deserve to kill?”