How Bryan Stevenson Used His Harvard Law Degree To Effect Change for Equal Justice

08 JUN 2020

When Delaware native, Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985, he chose a different path to many of his talented peers.

While the young lawyer may have entered law school with no clear idea of what kind of law he wanted to practice, an internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, exposed him to people desperately needing legal assistance and whose cases revealed a stark bias against the poor and people of colour.

Armed with both his J.D degree from Harvard Law School, and a M.A in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Stevenson returned to Atlanta where he began his professional career at the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights (becoming it’s director in 1989), before founding the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law center in Montgomery, Alabama in 1994.

In the years that followed Stevenson took on case after case representing the underprivileged and unfairly sentenced, winning major legal challenges, eliminating excessive sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

He and his staff have argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia, and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. He has won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

Notably, Stevenson is also the subject of the recently released film “Just Mercy” — based on his critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling novel of the same name. “Just Mercy” specifically tells the true story of Stevenson’s defense of Walter McMillian, an young African-American man who was wrongly accused and convicted of the 1986 murder of white teenage girl in Alabama. Despite endless setbacks, Stevenson fought relentlessly for McMillian’s innocence and right to freedom, finally winning him a dismissal in 1993.

In light of recent events, Stevenson’s words resonate, the now Professor of Law at New York University School of Law commenting in a recent interview with The New Yorker that the events of today are steeped in a history of racial injustice.

“I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people,” Stevenson told The New Yorker.

The widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned is an example of a humanitarian who used his education to help others. His Harvard degrees along with his further 40 honorary doctoral degrees from universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford, symbolic of one man’s ability to effect change against all odds.

On what action we can take at this time Stevenson explains to The New Yorker: “We need people to vote, we need people to engage in policy reform and political reform, we need people to not tolerate the rhetoric of fear and anger that so many of our elected officials use to sustain power. We need the cultural environments in the workplace to shift.”

For further reading beyond Stevenson’s Just Mercy (Or you may choose to watch the highly acclaimed 2020 film starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson) Crimson also recommends An Anti-Racism Reading List by Ibram X. Kendi, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo.

See Crimson's Statement on Anti-Racism