Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

And justice for all

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Renowned equal justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson is awarded an honorary degree for his work as "a true champion of human rights."

Handcuffed at the wrists and shackled from his waist to his ankles, the condemned man started to sing a hymn as prison guards led him back to his cell in the death house of a Georgia state penitentiary.

“I’m pressing on the upward way,” the man sang, the clank of his chains filling the hallway. “New heights I’m gaining every day. Still praying as I’m onward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” 

Bryan Stevenson couldn’t help but be moved by the lyrics. A then-Harvard law student, he had been sent to the prison to counsel with the man by a group of lawyers representing death row inmates. 

Secretly, Stevenson was fighting his own personal battle. During his two years in law school, he had become disheartened by the fact that no one seemed to be concerned about racial inequality and social injustice—issues for which he cared deeply. But when the inmate began to sing, Stevenson’s disillusionment waned. 

“That was the moment I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground. But more than that, I knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey,” said Stevenson, now one of the nation's most renowned litigators. “If I’ve had any impact on anybody’s life, if I’ve helped anybody, it’s not because I’m great. It’s because I got proximate to a condemned prisoner who sang to me and gave me this hope that I could make a difference.” 

Finding ways to get closer to the poor, the neglected, the abused, and the incarcerated is one way to “position ourselves to be change engines,” Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, said Monday on the University of Miami campus, where, during a ceremony typically reserved for graduation exercises, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws.

“A true champion of human rights who dedicates his life to the pursuit of justice for our nation’s most vulnerable people” is how UM Trustee Hilarie Bass, vice chair and member of the executive committee of the UM Board of Trustees, and a School of Law alumna described Stevenson. 

He was only 29 when he founded EJI, which provides legal representation to people who have been wrongly convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in jails and prisons. During his remarks Monday evening, Stevenson talked of instituting changes to help the marginalized. 

“We cannot change the world by staying on campus,” he said on stage inside the Shalala Student Center, with President Julio Frenk; Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost; and Patricia White, dean of the School of Law, looking on. “It’s important that we learn the things that we need to learn in the classroom. It’s important that we be good, active participants in the social and cultural life of this campus. But to change the world, we’re going to have to leave campus. We’re going to have to get closer to people in communities not far from here who are dealing with poverty and despair.” 

Many of those communities and the people who live there are fighting intractable problems, he noted. 

“In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the United States,” he said. “Today, there are 2.3 million.” 

America, he said, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, six million people are on probation or parole, and there are 70 million Americans with criminal arrests, many of whom are disfavored by their arrest history, finding it difficult to get jobs or loans and being denied the right to vote. 

“We’ve done terrible things to women,” said Stevenson. “Over the last 25 years, the percentage of women going to jail or prison has increased 646 percent.” 

He described himself as a product of someone’s choice to get proximate, recalling how lawyers came to his community when he was a little boy and fought for poor black kids like him to go to public schools in his community that only whites could attend. 

Stevenson, who grew up in Milton, Delaware, learned about the power of proximity from his grandmother, an African-American matriarch who was the daughter of slaves. She would often hug him, asking him hours later if he still felt her embrace. 

His grandmother lived into her 90s. Stevenson was in college as she neared death. “She was still the center of the universe for me,” he recalled. On her deathbed, he said to her, “I’m always going to be hugging you.” 

Today, at times in his life when he’s felt challenged and overwhelmed, Stevenson has felt his grandmother’s embrace. The gesture of an embrace can be empowering and life changing, he said. 

“If nothing else, when we get close to the poor, the excluded, and the marginalized, and the incarcerated, and those who are disfavored, and those who were told that they’re not really belonging in this space, at a minimum we can wrap our arms around them and bear witness to their humanity.” 

But proximity alone is not the only key to changing the world. Narratives underneath hotly debated policies and issues need to be changed, he said. 

“We have mass incarceration in this country because we declared a misguided war on drugs,” said Stevenson. “We said people who are drug addicted and drug dependent are criminals, and we’re going to use the criminal justice system to punish them. We didn’t have to do that. We could have said people with addiction and dependency have a health problem, and we need our health care system to respond to that problem.” 

The term “super predators,” he said, has been used as a label to dehumanize a generation of kids, mostly black and brown kids who have been put in jail for life without parole. 

“We’ve allowed this narrative to emerge that some children aren’t children,” Stevenson said, noting that he’s represented 9-year-olds facing 40- and 50-year prison sentences. “In America, there are 10,000 children on any given day under the age of 16 or 17 housed with adults and facing risk of sexual violence. I believe that all children are children. Our commitment to children has to be expressed in how we treat poor, abused, incarcerated,and neglected kids.” 

He challenged the audience to help change the narrative about race in America. 

“We are burdened by a history of racial inequality that’s created a kind of smog in the air,” he said. “Wherever you go in this country there is this pollution created by our history of racial inequality. Our parents and our grandparents should have done something to clean the air, but they didn’t do it. So it’s now up to us.” 

It means talking about things we’re not comfortable about talking about, he said, noting the slaughter of Native Americans, two and a half centuries of slavery, and lynchings that were pervasive in the South after the end of Reconstruction. Last April, Stevenson’s nonprofit organization opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which remembers the thousands of victims of lynchings. 

He warned black students that even today they will go to places where “you’re going to have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt, and your Miami degree won’t shield you from that.” 

Changing the world, he said, will also require the quality of maintaining hopefulness. “Your hope is actually your superpower,” he said. “Hope will make you stand up when other people say sit down. Hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet. We have to recognize that hopelessness is the enemy of injustice. We have to fight against the things that make us hopeless.” 

He noted the victories in his legal career, of being able to free innocent clients. But there were also difficult days—a death row inmate he was not able to save. When that inmate was executed, Stevenson realized the magnitude to which he represented broken clients—those broken by addiction, violence, dependency, and racism. 

“I realized I worked in a broken system because the people with power were unwilling to get proximate,” he said. 

He described himself as being broken as well and said that it is because of that trait that he does what he does as a lawyer. “When you get proximate, when you change narratives, when you stay hopeful, when you do uncomfortable things, there will be moments when you are overwhelmed,” he said. “But it’s the broken among us that have the power to teach us the way true mercy is supposed to work.” 

Calvin Chappell, a UM junior majoring in anthropology and political science, who along with Miami Law adjunct professor, The Honorable Ellen Sue Venzer, was instrumental in Stevenson being honored at the University, said Stevenson has had a “profound impact” on him. 

Said Chappell, “He’s changed the way I think about justice.”