#500 Empowering African Stories: Bryan Stevenson
By: Amy Xiang
Bryan Stevenson is many things: a lawyer, a social justice activist, a founder and director of a non-profit, a professor, an author. In short, his identity is his work. He shares some of his passion for this work in a 2012 TED Talk about the injustices of our justice system.
Growing up in a small town in Delaware during the 1960s, Bryan experienced segregation in nearly every aspect of his life. Instead of watching injustice go away after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed formal segregation, Bryan saw it take on different avenues, particularly in the criminal justice system.
Bryan earned a scholarship to Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. He then attended Harvard University, where he earned a JD from the law school as well as a master’s degree in public policy from the school of government.
While he was in law school, Bryan worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, a non-profit that represents death row inmates across the South. This is where Bryan found his passion for advocating for victims of the criminal justice system, including poor individuals, minorities, and children. After graduating, Bryan was offered a full-time position to run the Alabama branch of the non-profit, bringing him to Montgomery.
Bryan went on to found his own non-profit organization, called the Equal Justice Initiative, which has far-reaching goals: "We're trying to challenge injustice. We're trying to help people who have been wrongly convicted. We're trying to confront bias and discrimination in the administration of criminal justice. We're trying to end life without parole sentences for children. We're trying to do something about the death penalty. We're trying to reduce the prison population. We're trying to end mass incarceration."
The Equal Justice Initiative has lived up to its promises. Through the non-profit, Bryan and others have assisted in cases that have saved dozens of wrongly convicted prisoners from the death penalty. They have also helped achieve Supreme Court decisions that prohibit children under 18 from being sentenced to death or life without parole.
In 2019, a critically acclaimed movie, Just Mercy, was released. The movie was based on a true story from Bryan’s memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice of Redemption, which shows Bryan as a young defense attorney helping Walter McMillian, who had been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
But, Bryan believes that even those who have committed crimes should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially if they are already facing other systemic challenges.
“I've come to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer,” Bryan says.
“And because of that, there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. I also believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I don't believe that. I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
AMY XIANG is the writer for African Community Learning Program and a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also writes for The Daily Pennsylvanian and 34th Street Magazine. To support African Community Learning Program’s work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org