Changemakers: Bryan Stevenson
Usually when we hear lawyers say they’ll “fight for you,” they’re referring to personal injury, but when Public Interest Attorney Bryan Stevenson says he’ll fight for you, it’s about protecting a client’s basic human rights.
For more than 30 years, he and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative which is based in Montgomery, have helped those who’ve been dealt a bad hand by this country’s criminal justice system.
“There was no indigent defense system here, people couldn’t get the legal help they need and I really just wanted to respond to that and hoped I could make a difference, hoped I could help people, hoped we could shine a light on some of these really egregious injustices I had started seeing by looking at some of these cases,” said Stevenson
EJI has made a difference, working to get innocent death row inmates exonerated, challenging excessive punishment for adults and children, and winning protections for the mentally ill. Stevenson has argued and won several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and EJI’s reversal and release cases number into the hundreds. “That’s all progress,” Stevenson says “now we still have a lot of challenges, there’s a lot of work to be done, but I do think people are starting to understand we cannot continue throwing people away, locking people up and throwing away the key and giving up on people when there’s still an urgent need for rehabilitation and restoration and redemption.”
One of Stevenson’s most famous cases is the subject of his book and the movie adaptation: Just Mercy. It’s the story of Walter McMillian, a black man, wrongfully sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. Thanks to Stevenson and the EJI, the case was overturned in 1993 and McMillian was released from prison.
“About 10 years ago I realized if we don’t start talking about what’s happening in our system; what’s going on with mass incarceration, we’re not going to achieve the kind of change I want to see, and that’s when we started talking more publicly.”
Steveson and the EJI are taking bold steps to get other people talking. about the challenges facing the criminal justice system and about America’s past. His organization established the EJI museum on the site of former slave warehouse, which documents the country’s history of racial inequality. The EJI erected the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018 in memory of the 4400 black people lynched in this country between 1877 and 1950. And it recently opened the new Legacy Pavillion in January 2020 in memory of the 2000 people lynched in America, just after the civil war between 1865 and 1876.
Stevenson says the positive response he and the EJI has received for the organization’s efforts has been encouraging.
“We’re still compromised and contaminated by this long history of racial injustice and I want to keep pushing us to acknowledge that history and be more courageous about recognizing it. We have to do some things to repair the damage that all of this bigotry and bias and racism has created. “
Stevenson says people’s reaction to the monuments shows there’s a “hunger to try and get to a better place, “and he’s willing to strive for that better place, starting first, in Montgomery.
“It’s been really affirming to see people get past the fear and like they have in South Africa, Rwanda and in Germany, we should have the courage to tell the truth about our history so that we can have healthier future.”