Bryan Stevenson

Born in 1959, Bryan Stevenson grew up in rural southern Delaware and spent his early classroom years at a “colored” elementary school. By second grade, his school was formally desegregated, but Black kids still played separately from white kids and often continued to use the back door to enter the doctor’s office. Stevenson’s father took the ingrained racism in stride, but Bryan took after his mother, who was outspoken in protest.

In 1985, Stevenson earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a Master of Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During a law school class on race and poverty litigation, he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization that represents death-row inmates throughout the South. In that work, Stevenson found his career calling.

He is a professor of law at New York University School of Law and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal battles—eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and helping children who have been prosecuted as adults. Stevenson has also argued, and won, U.S. Supreme Court cases, including a 2019 ruling protecting prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger. And with his staff, he has won reversals, relief, or release for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and relief for hundreds of others who have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

For his extraordinary efforts, he has won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant, the American Bar Association Medal, the National Medal of Liberty from the ACLU, the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, the Distinguished Teaching Award from New York University, and dozens of honorary degrees. He is the author of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller “Just Mercy.”

As protesters across the nation call for an end to racial violence caused by policing, the need for a deeper investigation into our criminal justice system, which incarcerates Black people at approximately five times the rate of white people, is more critical than ever. Because of people like Bryan Stevenson, there is hope that progress will be made.