Bryan Stevenson is a leading US civil rights lawyer striving to reform the country’s criminal justice system to ensure equal rights for all. As systemic injustice disproportionately affects people of colour, Stevenson has dedicated his life to the pursuit of racial equality and challenging the historical legacy of institutional racism in the United States. Stevenson’s decades-long struggle to stand up for the marginalised, including people on death row, has paved the way for a more just society.
Stevenson’s work is rooted in the realisation that society and the justice system are plagued by systemic racism due to the unresolved history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. This is also manifested by the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, disproportionately affecting people of colour and the poor.
In 1989, Stevenson founded the organisation that is today called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which has for decades advocated for people on death row. They represent hundreds of individuals in the criminal justice system yearly and have won the release, relief or reversal for over 140 wrongfully condemned individuals on death row. He is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Stevenson has also argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court that have advanced the rights of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system and those of minors prosecuted as adults. Campaigning to end excessive sentencing practices, which often disproportionately affect the poor and people of colour, has been another important aspect of Stevenson’s work.
Stevenson and EJI have also been deeply engaged in documenting the history of slavery, lynchings and segregation in the US, opening both a museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. By advocating for a society-wide process to face the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the US, Stevenson is paving the way for the structural changes needed for societal healing from the country’s long and violent history of racial injustice.
Working with the condemned and marginalised, Stevenson’s compassion has shined a light on the innate worth of each human being. As he put it in his 2014 bestseller memoir, Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Place of Birth: Milton, Delaware, US
Date of Birth: November 14, 1959
Education: Eastern University, Harvard Law School (JD) and Harvard School
of Government (Masters Degree in Public Policy)
Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer, who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of criminal justice reform, racial equality, and opposing the historical legacy of institutional racism in the United States.
At the helm of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the organisation he founded, Stevenson has fought for the rights of death row inmates, children sentenced as adults and people with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system.
The World’s Largest Prison
As a young lawyer, Stevenson began his career with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, representing death row inmates and impoverished prisoners. This experience shaped his understanding of the inequalities of the US criminal justice system and led him to Alabama, a US state without a government-funded programme to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.
In 1989, he established the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center in Montgomery, Alabama, which would later be known by its current name, the Equal Justice Initiative. At the time, Alabama was experiencing a wave of death sentences and a rapidly growing prison population, with defendants often receiving no adequate public defence to argue their case. When Stevenson began his work in 1989, Alabama, along with Texas, had the highest number of executions in the country. To this day, the state has one of the highest rates of death sentences per capita in the US.
The problems in the US justice and prison systems are not limited to individual states, they are acute and nationwide. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1972, there were only 200,000 people incarcerated in the country, while that number has exploded to 2.2 million today. This rise has been driven by the use of excessive punishments in what Stevenson has described as the “politicisation of punishment.” The prevalence of mandatory sentencing laws, with no space for considering wider circumstances, the privatisation of the prison system, and the so-called “war on drugs,” which uses the criminal justice system to treat what is fundamentally a healthcare problem, have all contributed to a system that Stevenson argues “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”
Because of the unresolved legacy of slavery, segregation and white supremacy in the US, racial inequality has remained inherent in the criminal justice system. As a result of racial prejudice, people of colour are often stripped of their right to a fair trial and face harsher sentences when found guilty. Additionally, when it comes to the death penalty, the US justice system has a shockingly high rate of error: for every nine people executed, one person on death row is exonerated.
On the Way to Justice for All
As the Founder and Director of EJI, Stevenson has concentrated on ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the US. This work has seen him provide free legal assistance to people on death row, people who have been wrongfully convicted or unfairly sentenced, children sentenced to die in adult prisons, people with disabilities and others who have been marginalised and disenfranchised.
Initially, Stevenson and EJI received severe pushback, including death threats, for advocating for the rights of the condemned. Today, Stevenson and EJI’s team represent hundreds of individuals in the criminal justice system annually and have to date fought for and won the release, relief, or reversals for more than 140 people wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced to death.
In addition to representing death row inmates, Stevenson’s work has evolved to also focus on what he describes as “dynamic litigation,” in which a positive result of a case will not only benefit that particular defendant but have much farther-reaching consequences and can serve as a precedent. This approach is based upon the notion of not just changing unjust laws, but developing rights for disfavoured and marginalised people, and subsequently enforcing these rights in the courts.
This approach has seen Stevenson argue and win five US Supreme Court cases, including a landmark decision in 2012 banning mandatory life without parole sentences for children. As a result of Stevenson’s advocacy, thousands of people across the US who were sentenced as children to die in prison are entitled to greater protection of their fundamental rights, while hundreds have been released. Most recently, Stevenson argued and won a 2019 US Supreme Court ruling extending Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment to people with dementia and other mental conditions.
While many focus on the victories and number of cases won, Stevenson places an equal emphasis on the human element of his work, namely, standing in solidarity with his clients. As he said, “To be in relationship and fellowship and advocate for their worth and dignity, that for me is the most meaningful measure of what we do.”
Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Repair
Besides his successes in the courtroom, Stevenson’s most recent work has sought to delve deeper into the enduring impact of slavery and institutional racism in the US, seeking to create an understanding and discourse in order to reconcile with this legacy. Despite slavery being legally abolished in 1865, lynchings remained a tool to keep Black people terrorised and subjugated. Between the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 and 1950, 6 million Black people fled the US South due to lynchings. The history of racial terror, including the slaughter of indigenous people at the hands of settlers, has shaped the experience of people of colour ever since. Stevenson argues that the US is a post-genocidal society that needs to face the horrors of its past in order to ensure a peaceful future. Stevenson said, “It just became clear to me that if we don’t commit to an era of truth and justice, to reckoning with this history, we will never be free.”
In 2010, EJI began investigating racial terror lynchings, documenting more than 6,500 cases between 1865 and 1950. At least 800 of those lynchings had been previously unreported and thousands of victims remain unknown.
To highlight and memorialise these historical persecutions, EJI has launched the Community Remembrance Project. It is part of the organisation’s campaign to recognise the victims of lynching by erecting historical markers, collecting soil from lynching sites and creating a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.
To elevate this work, Stevenson and EJI created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Opened in 2018 and situated in Montgomery – a city that had been the heart of the Confederacy – EJI describes it as “the country’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people.” The memorial also focuses on people terrorised by lynching and racial segregation, which endures until today with presumptions of guilt and police violence. Set on six acres, the memorial contextualises racial terror and commemorates its victims.
Accompanying the memorial, in 2018 EJI also created The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, also in Montgomery. An 11,000-square-foot museum, built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved Black people were imprisoned, it is located midway between a historic slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked at the height of the domestic slave trade.
These ground-breaking projects follow models developed by countries that have overcome genocide, apartheid and human rights abuses. They are not designed to be comfortable, instead, they seek to create a narrative that motivates people to say “Never again!” and develop a more hopeful commitment to racial equality and the just treatment of all people.
With his compassion, moral clarity and unshakeable dedication to justice, Stevenson has given hope that societal and personal wrongs can be redeemed through a reckoning with the past and a commitment to mercy.