Called "America's Nelson Mandela," Bryan Stevenson is a talented and tireless defender of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the U.S. criminal justice system, especially African Americans, minors, and the mentally disabled. Stevenson's nonprofit legal organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989, has prevented the deaths of 115 male prisoners and persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to end life sentences without parole for minors as young as 13. Stevenson is also the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), which Tim Adams of the London Guardian called a "powerful, profoundly affecting memoir" documenting "the policy of mass incarceration, the barely credible inhumanity that has seen young boys kept in solitary confinement for years and decades, and the evidence of institutional racism at the heart of the American justice system."
Stevenson was born in Milton, Delaware, a poor and racially segregated town where he came of age during the 1960s. In an interview with Alex Carp in Guernica Magazine in 2014, Stevenson said, "More personally, I grew up in the rural South, in a community where black children couldn't go to the public schools. My parents bore the burden of segregation, with all of that humiliation, with all of that stigma. And I saw that play out in their lives. My dad couldn't go to high school because there was no black high school in our county." Even following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated America's public schools, deeply rooted prejudice and discrimination led to segregated activities at school and in the community. For example, Stevenson could not play on the monkey bars when white children were on them, and he and his family entered through the back door when going to doctor's appointments.
The matriarch of Stevenson's family was his maternal grandmother, Victoria Golden. Her parents had been slaves in Virginia. Golden had grown up with the threat of lynchings before moving north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South. Stevenson told Adams that his grandmother's stories, the things she had heard from her own father about slavery, left a lasting impression on him, making slavery seem like something close to him and his family and convincing him, from an early age, of the importance and power of law.
"I talk about my grandmother a lot," he told Adams, "because she's an amazing person--not in some dramatic, distinct, unique way, but anybody who is the daughter of enslaved people and who has found a way to be hopeful and create love and value justice and seek peace is a remarkable person. And my parents, who grew up in terror and dealt with segregation and humiliation, nonetheless taught us to be hopeful and open and loving and not hateful toward anyone." Stevenson's mother, a product of the less racially oppressive culture she knew growing up in Philadelphia, also impressed on Stevenson the importance of fighting back against discrimination.
Found His Calling in Law
At Cape Henlopen High School, Stevenson was an excellent student and a budding orator, winning several public speaking contests while also serving as president of the student body. He attended Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he played the piano for the church choir. The church's tradition of parishioners publicly confessing their sins also contributed to Stevenson's future role as a so-called death penalty lawyer. He began seeing people as distinct from their sins, or as more human than even their worst sin would suggest.
Stevenson enrolled at Eastern University, a Christian school in Philadelphia, where majored in political science and philosophy and directed the campus gospel choir. A top student, Stevenson next headed to Harvard University to pursue a law degree and a master's degree in public policy. At Harvard, Stevenson told Paul Barrett in NYU Law Magazine, "I stopped almost immediately trying to fit in. I thought about it more like a cultural anthropologist." Although Stevenson felt as if he did not fit in at Harvard, he soon found the right place for himself within the legal world.
In January of 1983 Stevenson traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, for a month-long internship with the Southern Center for Human Rights, a legal and nonprofit advocacy organization working throughout the Southeastern United States. Stevenson began work writing appeals for several death row clients and never looked back. After graduation, he continued to work for the Southern Center for Human Rights, where the organization's founder, Stephen Bright, sent him to defend death row inmates in Alabama. During this same time, Stevenson was sitting inside his car outside of his own apartment when a SWAT unit pulled up, pointed a gun at him, and yelled, "Move and I'll blow your head off!" In an interview with National Public Radio's Fresh Air more than 30 years later, Stevenson recalled how the incident had "reinforced what I had known all along, which is that we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent."
Started the Equal Justice Initiative
After several years working in Alabama, Stevenson started his own small legal office in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989. With one assistant, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit that focused on social justice and human rights within the context of America's criminal justice system. The EJI gave free legal services to clients who were the victims of racial bias or poor representation. It was a lean living--the nonprofit relied entirely on contributions--and the kind of crushing work that even the most dedicated lawyers did not often do long term.
However, Stevenson was known for his remarkable record of endurance in the field. Barrett described him as "single and famously ascetic" and cited his ability to virtually work around the clock, not just on his EJI cases but also as a professor of clinical law at New York University. As of 2015, Stevenson had argued five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and had taken on countless cases of those who had been wrongly accused, tried, and convicted.
One of Stevenson's most well-known cases was that of Walter McMillian, a black man on death row in Alabama who was convicted of killing 18-year-old Ronda Morrison in 1986. During the trial, six black witnesses told a jury of 11 whites and one black they had seen McMillian at a church fish fry at the time of the murder, and yet three other witnesses testified against McMillian. Stevenson took up the case during the early 1990s, finding tapes that proved the police had coerced the three witnesses to falsely testify against McMillian, who had been having an affair with a white woman at the time of Morrison's murder. Stevenson managed to get McMillian exonerated in 1993, after the key witnesses admitted they had been coerced into testifying against McMillian.
Stevenson later told Fresh Air, "This is one of the few cases I've worked on where I got bomb threats and death threats because we were fighting to free this man who was so clearly innocent. It reveals this disconnect that I'm so concerned about when I think about our criminal justice system." He added, "It took us six years to get a court to ultimately overturn the conviction. I think it speaks to this resistance we have in this country to confronting our errors, to confronting our mistakes."
Extended His Impact beyond the Courtroom
In 2012 Stevenson gave the TED talk "We Need to Talk about Injustice," in which he outlined his conviction that the United States has never dealt with the trauma and legacy of slavery and that the current criminal justice system is dogged not only by this refusal to recognize the consequences of slavery but also by an increasingly punitive and privatized system wherein corporations are reaping profit from the criminalized lives of blacks and other vulnerable people. A deeply compelling speaker, Stevenson received two standing ovations.
Stevenson's EJI has also branched out from legal defense, hoping to shape the public's understanding of slavery, race, and poverty. In Montgomery, Alabama, where there are no fewer than 59 public markers commemorating the Confederacy, Stevenson sought to erect markers that addressed Montgomery's once-burgeoning slave trade. After resistance, the city permitted him and his colleagues to erect three markers that pertain to Montgomery's history of slave trading. In the future he hopes to take the effort to other cities.
Perhaps as another extension of his desire to educate, Stevenson published the memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption in 2014. He told Adams, "I wrote the book because I am persuaded that if most people in America saw what I see on a regular basis they would not be able to reconcile themselves with these realities." He continued, "But our instinct is to deny. We have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, and yet we don't feel bad about it. I think we sometimes seem to feel that we give up too much power if we even recognise that we have made, and continue to make, colossal mistakes in this area."
Stevenson is the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards, including the Olof Palme Prize, the Gruber Prize, and a Lannan Grant. In a testament to his indefatigable dedication to social justice, his prize money flows directly back to EJI. "Fifty years ago the people doing what I do would have said 'my head is bloody but not bowed,'" Stevenson told Adams. "I don't have to say that. I don't think I can afford to be less courageous than they were."
Born Bryan Allen Stevenson on November 14, 1959, in Milton, DE; son of Howard Carlton (a factory worker) and Alice Gertrude (a clerk). Politics: Democrat. Education: Eastern University, BA, political science, philosophy, 1981; Harvard Law School, JD, 1985; Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, MPP, 1985. Addresses: Home--Montgomery, AL, and New York, NY. Office--New York University School of Law, 245 Sullivan St., Suite 628, New York, NY 10012. Web--http://bryanstevenson.com.
Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, executive director, 1989-95; Southern Center for Human Rights, attorney; Equal Justice Initiative, founder and executive director, 1989--; New York University School of Law, assistant professor and associate professor of clinical law, 1998-2002, professor of clinical law, 2003--.
Reebok Human Rights Award, 1989; National Medal of Liberty, American Civil Liberties Union, 1991; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1995; Wisdom Award for Public Service, American Bar Association; Public Interest Lawyer of the Year, National Association of Public Interest Lawyers, 1996; Citizen Activist Award, Gleitsman Foundation, 2000; Olof Palme Prize, 2000; Award for Courageous Advocacy, American College of Trial Lawyers, 2004; Lawyer for the People Award, National Lawyers Guild, 2004; Distinguished Teaching Award, New York University, 2006; Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize, Santa Clara University School of Law, 2008; Gruber Prize, Gruber Foundation, 2009; Lannan Grant, Lannan Foundation, 2015.
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau, 2014.
- Guardian (London), February 1, 2015; February 6, 2015.
- NYU Law Magazine, 2007.
- "Bryan A. Stevenson," New York University School of Law, 2015, https://its.law.nyu.edu/facultyprofiles/profile.cfm?section=bio&personID=20315 (accessed June 10, 2015).
- Carp, Alex, "Walking with the Wind," Guernica Magazine, March 17, 2014, https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/walking-with-the-wind/ (accessed June 14, 2015).
- "One Lawyer's Fight for Young Blacks and 'Just Mercy,'" Fresh Air, National Public Radio, October 20, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/10/20/356964925/one-lawyers-fight-for-young-blacks-and-just-mercy (accessed June 14, 2015).