There has to be a community of people who fight, and I am honoured to be among that community and to receive this recognition today for that fight.

Acceptance Speech – Bryan Stevenson

Thank you. 

This is such an extraordinary honour and a great privilege. I am thrilled to be part of a new fellowship, a new community of award winners. I want to congratulate my new friends, compatriots, in Belarus, in Iran, in Nicaragua. It’s a great honour to be with you. 

It’s a double honour for me to receive this award from my friend, my brother, a man I had the privilege of representing while he was facing execution for 30 years,  Anthony Ray Hinton. 

I work in a country that has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I work against a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. We work to overturn this horrific era of mass incarceration in America that has been brought about by the politics of fear and anger, and in too many places across the world, we’re being governed by people who preach fear and anger. And fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression and abuse, and we need a community of people to stand up against it. That’s what human rights work is about for me. It’s about challenging these conditions that have been so brutal, so toxic, so critically unfair. There are thousands of innocent people in our jails and prisons, and we’re going to continue fighting for them. 

I am the descendant of one of the 12 million Africans who were abducted, kidnapped, trafficked to this continent 400 years ago. My great grandparents were enslaved, they had to deal with the bondage and horrors of slavery in this nation, and yet, they persevered. They had a hope, they had a belief, they had a commitment to freedom and equality. 

I’m standing in front of jars, and behind me, these jars represent the thousands of black people who were lynched in America. These were collected at sites across America. For a century, African Americans were brutalised, pulled out of their homes, beaten, bloodied, drowned, torched, lynched in a nation where lawlessness reigned. 

I am the child of people born into Jim Crow. My parents were humiliated and denigrated by those signs that said, “white” and “coloured,” and they weren’t directions, they were assaults. They created injuries. And our nation has not confronted those injuries. I began my education in a coloured school. And I wouldn’t be here today if lawyers hadn’t come into our community and made it possible for me to go to high school, and college, and law school. And Mr. Hinton and I still live in a nation where there is a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that burdens black and brown people. 

We’ve been in the streets this summer trying to confront this legacy of racial inequality that continues to contaminate our nation. We are not yet free. We have not dealt with this horrific narrative. 

My great-grandparents were enslaved, they had to deal with brutality and bondage, but the greatest victimisation they suffered was this narrative that was created during slavery. That black people aren’t as good as white people, that black people are less human, black people are less evolved, black people are less deserving, black people are less capable. That narrative is the narrative that we are fighting against. 

I’m in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a community where a generation ago people put on their Sunday best to protest, to fight for equality and justice. They knew they would get bloodied and battered and beaten, but they went anyway. I stand on the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less, and because of them, I am determined that we must keep fighting. Because of them, I believe that we must stand up even when people say sit down, we must speak even when people say be quiet – wherever human rights are being violated, wherever injustice can be found, wherever inequality can be seen. 

There has to be a community of people who fight, and I am honoured to be among that community and to receive this recognition today for that fight. Thank you so very much for doing what you’ve done for me, but more than that, for all of the people around the world suffering from inequality and injustice, thank you for recognising the importance of our struggle.