Origins of Change in Action: Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson grew up in Milton, Delaware, in the 1960s and spent his early years at a “colored” elementary school. Though desegregation was enacted shortly after his first grade year, the old rules of segregation were hard to shake. Black and white kids played separately. Backdoors were used by black people when entering certain establishments, and community facilities were still informally segregated.
When Stevenson was 16 years old, his grandfather was killed during a home robbery. Though he thought the murderer’s life sentence seemed just, he felt that because his grandfather was older, it seemed exceptionally cruel, even though his fundamental belief is that redemption should be valued over revenge. Stevenson found solace and direction from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he attended as a child, where he played piano, and where he sang in the choir. It was within his church that he developed a strong faith and belief that each person in society is more than the worst thing he’s ever done.
Stevenson was active in high school. He played sports, served as student body president, and refined his arguing skills in his home growing up with his brother and went on to win American Legion speaking contests. Earning straight A’s won him a scholarship to Eastern University, and he went on to earn a master’s degree in Public Policy and a law degree from Harvard Law School. During law school, he worked for Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization that represents death-row inmates throughout the South, and during his work there, he found his calling. He graduated and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he joined the Southern Center for Human Rights and was assigned to run the Alabama resource center and death-penalty defense organization, funded by Congress.
When Congress funding was eliminated for death-penalty defense, Stevenson founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. With Alabama representing the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing and being the only state that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row, his venture was able to earn grant funding. Based on Stevenson’s origins of valuing redemption over revenge, he focused on representing those who committed crimes as children and who were subject to excessively harsh sentencing.
By 2016, Stevenson had saved 125 men from the death penalty and represented defendants living in poverty and those on appeal for wrongful convictions.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the death penalty was unconstitutional for persons convicted of crimes under the age of 18 in the case Roper v. Simmons. Stevenson relied on his innate sense for fighting for those he felt were in need, and set about a litigation campaign to gain a review of all cases where children were sentenced to life without parole. In a landmark decision, Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 and under were unconstitutional, impacting 29 states and 2,300 children nationwide.
Stevenson has devoted his life and career to this cause, and though unpopular and controversial among some groups of people, his strong origins generated change in individual lives, overall communities, and even within the criminal justice system. By 2016, Stevenson had saved 125 men from the death penalty and represented defendants living in poverty and those on appeal for wrongful convictions. His deep belief in redemption and an institution that fairly represents all has helped to alleviate prejudice within the criminal justice system.