Bryan Stevenson Biography & Facts
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. He has assisted in cases that have saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty, advocated for the poor, as well as developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice.
He was depicted in the legal drama Just Mercy which is based on his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which tells the story of Walter McMillian.
He 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 executions and incarceration 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." In 2020, he shared the Right Livelihood Award with Nasrin Sotoudeh, Ales Bialiatski and Lottie Cunningham Wren.
Born on November 14, 1959, Stevenson grew up in Milton, Delaware, a small rural town located in southern Delaware. 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. Her family had moved to the city from Virginia in the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Stevenson has two siblings: an older brother Howard, Jr. and a sister Christy.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 and Alice as an equal opportunity officer at Dover Air Force Base. She particularly emphasized the importance of education.Stevenson's family attended the Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church, where as a child, Stevenson played piano and sang in the choir. 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". These experiences informed his belief that "each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”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."As a child, Stevenson dealt with segregation and its legacy. He spent his first classroom years at a "colored" elementary school. 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. Pools and other community facilities were informally segregated. Stevenson's father, having grown up in the area, took the ingrained racism in stride, but their mother noted that this was not right. 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.
Stevenson attended Cape Henlopen High School and graduated in 1978. He played on the soccer and baseball teams. He also served as president of the student body and won American Legion public speaking contests. 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.” Stevenson earned straight A's and won a scholarship to Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. On campus, he directed the campus gospel choir. Stevenson graduated with a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Eastern in 1981. 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. 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. During this work, Stevenson found his career calling.
Southern Center for Human Rights
After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta, and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights full-time. 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. He had a center in Montgomery, the state capital.
Equal Justice Initiative
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. 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. 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 spent months on death row before being convicted of murder. 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.Stevenson has been particularly concerned about overly harsh sentencing of persons convicted of crimes committed as children, under the age of 18. 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 co.... Discover the Bryan Stevenson popular books. Find the top 100 most popular Bryan Stevenson books.