Bryan Stevenson

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Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson at TED 2012.jpg
Stevenson in 2012
Born (1959-11-14) November 14, 1959 (age 63)
EducationEastern University (BA)
Harvard University (JD, MPP)
Occupation(s)Director of Equal Justice Initiative
Professor at New York University School of Law
Known forFounding Equal Justice Initiative
AwardsNational Humanities Medal (2021)

Bryan Stevenson (born November 14, 1959) is an American lawyer, social justice activist, law professor at New York University School of Law, and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, he 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.[1] He 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.

He was depicted in the 2019 legal drama film Just Mercy, based on his 2014 memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In the memoir, Stevenson recounted his work with Walter McMillian, who had been unjustly convicted and sentenced to death.

Stevenson 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 twelve 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 incarceration and executions 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."[2] In 2020, he shared the Right Livelihood Award with Nasrin Sotoudeh, Ales Bialiatski and Lottie Cunningham Wren.

Early life[edit]

Born on November 14, 1959, Stevenson grew up in Milton, Delaware, a small rural town located in southern Delaware.[3] 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.[3] Her family had moved to the city from Virginia in the Great Migration of the early 20th century.[4] Stevenson has two siblings: an older brother, Howard Jr. and a sister, Christy.[5]

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[3] and Alice as an equal opportunity officer at Dover Air Force Base.[3][4] She particularly emphasized the importance of education to her children.[4]

Stevenson's family attended the Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church, where as a child, Stevenson played piano and sang in the choir.[3] 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".[3] These experiences informed his belief that "each person in our society is more than the worst thing they've ever done."[3]

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."[5]

As a child, Stevenson dealt with segregation and its legacy. He spent his first classroom years at a "colored" elementary school.[3] 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.[3] Pools and other community facilities were informally segregated.[4] Stevenson's father, having grown up in the area, took the ingrained racism in his stride, but his mother openly opposed the de facto segregation.[3] 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.[6]


Stevenson attended Cape Henlopen High School and graduated in 1978. He played on the soccer and baseball teams.[3] He also served as president of the student body and won American Legion public speaking contests.[3] 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."[3]

Stevenson earned straight As and won a scholarship to Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.[5] On campus, he directed the campus gospel choir.[3] Stevenson graduated with a B.A. degree in philosophy from Eastern in 1981.[5] In 1985, Stevenson earned both a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School and an M.A. degree in Public Policy (MPP) from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, also at Harvard University.[7] 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.[5] During this work, Stevenson found his career calling.[5]

On May 7, 2023, he received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from Ohio State University.[8]


Southern Center for Human Rights[edit]

After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta, and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights full-time.[5] 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.[4] He had a center in Montgomery, the state capital.

Equal Justice Initiative[edit]

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.[4] 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.[9] It also has the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.

One of EJI's first cases was the post-conviction appeal of Walter McMillian, who had been confined to death row before being convicted of murder and sentenced to death.[10] 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.[11]

Stevenson has been particularly concerned about overly harsh sentencing of persons convicted of crimes committed as children, under the age of 18.[1] 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 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.[12]

As of 2022, the EJI has saved over 130 people from the death penalty.[13] In addition, it has represented poor people, defended people on appeal, overturned wrongful convictions, and worked to alleviate bias in the criminal justice system.[4]

Acknowledging slavery[edit]

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."[4] 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.[4] 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."[4] Stevenson worked with an African-American history group to gain sponsorship for this project; the group gained state approval for the three markers in 2013, and these have been installed in Montgomery.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice[edit]

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. Numerous lynchings were conducted openly in front of mobs and crowds in county courthouse squares. Stevenson has argued that 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.[4] The memorial opened in April 2018.[14]

Associated with the Memorial is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which also opened on April 26, 2018.[15] 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.[16]


Stevenson wrote the critically acclaimed memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau.[17] 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[18] and the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.[19] A film based on the book, called Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson with Stevenson himself executive-producing, premiered on September 6, 2019, at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released in theatres on December 25, 2019.[20]


Stevenson maintains 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.[21] 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.[22] His talk is available on the TED website; by April 2020, it had been viewed more than 6.5 million times.[23]

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;[24][25] Williams College, 2016, honorary doctorate;[26] Loyola University Chicago, Stritch School of Medicine, 2011, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa;[27] College of the Holy Cross, 2015;[28] Wesleyan University, 2016, honorary degree;[29] University of Mississippi, 2017s fall convocation;[30] Northeastern University, fall 2017 convocation;[31] Emory University, spring 2020 commencement and honorary doctor of laws degree.[32]

In June 2017, Stevenson delivered the 93rd Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in New Orleans, Louisiana.[33]

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 death row, and about his take on the deserving of mercy.[34]

On May 24, 2018, Stevenson delivered the Commencement address for The Johns Hopkins University Class of 2018.[35]

On May 20, 2019, Stevenson delivered the Commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania.[36]

On May 21, 2021, Freedom, Justice, and Hope with Bryan Stevenson premiered on Jazz at Lincoln Center where he provided reflections on the American narrative of racism and performed pieces on the piano such as "Honeysuckle Rose".[37]

On May 8, 2022, Stevenson delivered the Commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He became the second person to receive an honorary doctorate from the university, the other being Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.[38]

On May 7, 2023, Stevenson delivered the Commencement address for The Ohio State University Class of 2023.[8]

Awards and honors[edit]

Personal life[edit]

Stevenson is a lifelong bachelor and has stated that his career is incompatible with married life.[57][58] He has resided in Montgomery, Alabama since 1985.[59]


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.



  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ a b American Philosophical Society (2018). "2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal". Retrieved April 6, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Barrett, Paul (2007). "Bryan Stevenson's Death-Defying Acts". NYU Law Magazine. Retrieved September 27, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Toobin, Jeffrey (August 15, 2016). "The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row". Profiles. The New Yorker. Condé Nast (published August 22, 2019).
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Grant, Meg (November 27, 1995). "A Stubborn Alabama Lawyer Stands Alone Between Death and His Clients". People. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Biography Bryan Stevenson - website of The HistoryMakers
  8. ^ a b "'Just Mercy' author Bryan Stevenson to deliver spring 2023 commencement address". Retrieved June 4, 2023.
  9. ^ Moorer, Regina (November 28, 2018). "Equal Justice Initiative". Encyclopedia of Alabama (published June 14, 2013). Retrieved April 3, 2015.
  10. ^ Alexander, Bryan. "How accurate is 'Just Mercy'? The real case behind Michael B. Jordan's Bryan Stevenson movie". USA TODAY. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "Death in Prison Sentences". Equal Justice Initiative. Archived from the original on October 1, 2012. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
  13. ^ "Death Penalty". Retrieved August 17, 2022.
  14. ^ "The National Memorial for Peace and Justice". Equal Justice Initiative.
  15. ^ Ortiz, Erik (April 28, 2018). "New museum on America's history of lynchings invokes powerful emotions". Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ a b "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.
  19. ^ "Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Nonfiction Winner". Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Archived from the original on March 7, 2017. Retrieved August 24, 2016.
  20. ^ N'Duka, Amanda (April 20, 2018). "Warner Bros Dates Melissa McCarthy Comedy 'Superintelligence' & Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy'". Deadline.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Anderson, Chris (March 5, 2012). "TED's first response to Bryan Stevenson's talk on injustice". TED Blog. TED Conferences. Retrieved March 6, 2012.
  23. ^ We need to talk about an injustice, a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson
  24. ^ Rhodes, Jerry (March 28, 2016). "167th Commencement - UDaily". UDaily. University of Delaware Office of Communications & Marketing. Retrieved August 24, 2016.
  25. ^ "Commencement 2016". Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  26. ^ "Williams College Announces Its 2016 Honorary Degree Recipients" (Press release). Williams College Office of Communications. March 16, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  27. ^ Loyola University Chicago, Office of Registration & Records
  28. ^ Stevenson, Bryan. 2015 Commencement Address (Speech). College of the Holy Cross: College of the Holy Cross. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ "Author Bryan Stevenson Challenges UM Freshmen, First-Year Students - Ole Miss News". Ole Miss News. August 23, 2017. Retrieved August 24, 2017.
  31. ^ "Event Information - First Pages at Northeastern University". First Pages at Northeastern University. Archived from the original on September 4, 2017. Retrieved September 4, 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  32. ^ "Commencement 2020 | Emory University | Atlanta GA". Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  33. ^ "Ware Lecture". Unitarian Universalist Association. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
  34. ^ "Just Mercy". Criminal (Podcast). No. 45. Radiotopia. July 16, 2016. Retrieved June 17, 2017.
  35. ^ Stevenson, Bryan (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
  36. ^ "Criminal-justice reformer Bryan Stevenson to speak at Penn's 263rd Commencement". Penn Today. April 29, 2019. Retrieved July 18, 2022.
  37. ^ "Jazz At Lincoln Center Presents "Freedom, Justice, And Hope" performed by The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis With Special Guest Bryan Stevenson". Retrieved May 27, 2021.
  38. ^ "EMU confers 408 degrees, as Bryan Stevenson is awarded university's second honorary doctorate". EMU News. May 9, 2022. Retrieved May 11, 2022.
  39. ^ "Bryan Stevenson honored with National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Award and ABA's Thurgood Marshall Award", NYU Law News, August 9, 2016.
  40. ^ "2000 – Bryan Stevenson | OLOF PALMES MINNESFOND" (in Swedish). Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  41. ^ "2009 Gruber Justice Prize Press Release | Gruber Foundation". Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  42. ^ Archives Trust Fund Annual Report 2011 (PDF) (Report). 2011. p. 12. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  43. ^ "2012 American Ingenuity Award Winners". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian. Retrieved October 11, 2018.
  44. ^ "2015 – Dayton Literary Peace Prize". Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  45. ^ Williams, Serena (April 16, 2015). "The 100 Most Influential People: Bryan Stevenson". Time Magazine. Retrieved December 23, 2020.
  46. ^ "Princeton awards six honorary degrees". Princeton University. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  47. ^ "Oxford Announces Honorary Degrees For 2017 | Connected Oxford". January 26, 2017. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  48. ^ "2017 Stowe Prize Winner Is..." Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  49. ^ Locker, Melissa (November 15, 2018). "People's Choice Awards 2018: The Wildest, Weirdest Moments". Time. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  50. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  51. ^ "Bryan Stevenson (USA)". The Right Livelihood Foundation. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  52. ^ Tucke, Katheryn (September 22, 2020). "Criminal Defense Lawyers Honor 'Just Mercy' Author". Daily Report. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  53. ^ "NACDL News Release | Bryan Stevenson Receives Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  54. ^ "Honoring global citizens". December 17, 2020. Retrieved February 2, 2021.
  55. ^ Littleton, Cynthia (December 18, 2020). "Global Citizen Keeps Eye on Prize Despite Pandemic Challenges". Variety. Retrieved February 2, 2021.
  56. ^ "EJI Founder Bryan Stevenson Receives Fitzgerald Museum Literary Prize for Excellence in Writing Award". December 21, 2020.
  57. ^ Lartey, Jamiles (June 26, 2019). "Bryan Stevenson: the lawyer devoting his life to fighting injustice". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  58. ^ "Bryan Stevenson". Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  59. ^ Lantz, Brianna (January 9, 2020). "Breaking Bonds of Silence: An Interview with Bryan Stevenson". Nations Media. Retrieved September 27, 2020.

External links[edit]