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Bryan Stevenson

Lawyer and nonprofit executive Bryan Stevenson was born on November 14, 1959 in Milton, Delaware to Alice Gertrude Golden Stevenson and Howard Carlton Stevenson, Sr. In 1977, Stevenson graduated from Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Delaware. He went on to earn his B.A. degree in philosophy from Easter University in St. David, Pennsylvania in 1981. In 1985, Stevenson received both his M.A. degree in public policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School and his J.D. degree from Harvard Law School, and worked as an intern at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.

Stevenson returned to the Southern Center for Human Rights as an attorney upon graduating in 1985. He worked on the infamous McClesky v. Kemp (1987) case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Warren McClesky’s death penalty sentence. In 1989, the Southern Center for Human Rights appointed Stevenson as its director. When government funding for the Southern Center for Human Rights was reduced in 1994, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law center in Montgomery, Alabama funded by Stevenson’s MacArthur Fellowship. Stevenson’s work focused on eliminating the death penalty and life-without-parole sentencing for minors. He became a clinical professor at New York University School of Law in 1998, achieving full-time status in 2002. Stevenson’s 2012 TED talk, and eventual memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), catapulted him to fame. In 2013, he placed markers commemorating slave trading sites in Montgomery, despite resistance from the state government. Stevenson expanded the Equal Justice Initiative to erect memorials to lynchings in Alabama, and founded the From Slavery to Mass Incarceration museum that opened in Montgomery in 2017.

Stevenson successfully argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and received many honors for his work in prison reform. In 2000, he won the Olof Palme Prize, and in 2009, Stevenson received the Gruber Justice Prize from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation. Stevenson was a recipient of the Four Freedoms Award from the Roosevelt Institute in 2011 and in 2014, he won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction from the American Library Association, for his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson was a recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction in 2015.

Bryan Stevenson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 30, 2016.

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Cape Henlopen High School

Eastern University

Harvard Law School

Harvard Kennedy School

H.O. Brittingham Elementary School

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Favorite Quote

The Opposite Of Poverty Is Not Wealth, The Opposite Of Poverty Is Justice.

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Favorite Food

Hot And Sour Soup

Short Description

Lawyer and nonprofit executive Bryan Stevenson (1959 - ) devoted his life to criminal justice reform at the Southern Center for Human Rights, and then founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law center in Montgomery, Alabama.


Southern Center for Human Rights

Equal Justice Initiative

New York University Law School

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Bryan Stevenson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Bryan Stevenson lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Bryan Stevenson describes his maternal great-grandfather

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Bryan Stevenson describes the history of racial violence in rural Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Bryan Stevenson describes the origin of his family names

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Bryan Stevenson describes his mother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Bryan Stevenson describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Bryan Stevenson describes his parents' courtship

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Bryan Stevenson describes the culture of southern Delaware

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Bryan Stevenson describes his parents' personalities and his likeness to them

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Bryan Stevenson lists his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Bryan Stevenson describes his maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Bryan Stevenson remembers the Prospect A.M.E. Church in Georgetown, Delaware

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Bryan Stevenson recalls lessons from his maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Bryan Stevenson talks about segregation in rural Delaware

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Bryan Stevenson remembers the H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in Milton, Delaware

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Bryan Stevenson describes his interest in music

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Bryan Stevenson talks about the war on drugs

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Bryan Stevenson remembers Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Delaware

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Bryan Stevenson describes his early aspirations

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Bryan Stevenson recalls the murder of his maternal grandfather

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Bryan Stevenson describes the Main Line neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Bryan Stevenson recalls attending Eastern College

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Bryan Stevenson recalls the influence of progressive theology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Bryan Stevenson talks about his musical aspirations

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Bryan Stevenson recalls his admission to Harvard Law School

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Bryan Stevenson describes his transition to Harvard Law School

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Bryan Stevenson remembers his disinterest in corporate law

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Bryan Stevenson recalls his introduction to the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Bryan Stevenson remembers his first meeting with a prisoner on death row

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Bryan Stevenson describes his work for Southern Prisoners Defense Committee

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Bryan Stevenson talks about the history of capital punishment law, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Bryan Stevenson talks about the history of capital punishment law, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Bryan Stevenson describes his experiences of police brutality

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Bryan Stevenson talks about policing in the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Bryan Stevenson talks about the history of mass incarceration

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Bryan Stevenson describes the U.S. Supreme Court decision of McCleskey v. Kemp

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Bryan Stevenson describes the case of Walter McMillian







Bryan Stevenson describes the history of racial violence in rural Virginia
Bryan Stevenson describes his experiences of police brutality
They lived in a part of Virginia where there had been a history of racial violence. There were lynchings; there was terror; and so when my [maternal] grandmother [Victoria Baylor Golden] got old enough she joined the mass migration, the great migration north and went to Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] with a young man that also had come from that area whose name was Clarence Golden and they got married, and they had ten children, and my mom [Alice Golden Stevenson] was the youngest of her ten kids, but my grandmother was an enormously influential force for me, because she, she connected to me to this history of slavery and talked me through this era of terrorism and--.$$Was there a story, a specific story about lynching in Virginia?$$Well, you know there were, there were lynchings all the time and we've actually done research on lynchings and so we've documented dozens of these and she would talk about how it wasn't avoiding a crime that was hard. I mean because she said, you know, "We weren't going to rob anybody, we weren't gonna shoot anybody, we weren't going to commit a criminal act against anyone." It was the lynchings for these social transgressions that were harder to avoid, and when you heard about lynchings because somebody bumped into someone as they were trying to get onto the train, or you heard about lynchings because they didn't get off the sidewalk quick enough or they called someone by their first name or laughed when they weren't allowed to laugh, or they gave somebody a look because they did something. She said that those were the kind of lynchings that made everybody feel terrified all the time, because you didn't know what you had to do to be completely safe from that kind of violence.$$It's a--even this, even resonates now with the Freddie Gray case (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Absolutely.$$He actually--$$That's right.$$--looked at a police officer--that was the--$$That's right.$$--initial reason why he was stopped. He looked at a--$$You know this idea that you have to make yourself invisible when you're around people who are white in the South, you have to make yourself into something that is insignificant, not threatening, not important, marginal, even as you're standing in the middle of something. That was the real challenge of surviving this era of racial terror, because if you're human you sometimes react humanly. You, you may frown when somebody says something offensive; you may scowl when somebody mistreats you. You may look frustrated or angry when someone does something disrespectful and, and it was that kind of control that was so impossible, and, and she talked about that being most of the motivation for fleeing, because it became just inconsistent with being a full human being to live in a space where you had to submit yourself to racial insubordination, to, to white supremacy and she didn't want that, and neither did my grandfather, and so they fled. And they got to Philadelphia where things were not great, but they were certainly less oppressive than they were in rural Virginia.$When you arrive in Atlanta [Georgia], you had two bad encounters with the police?$$Yes, yes, yes. I mean, I, you know I grew up in a community that had always learned to fear the police, because the police were the people who enforced segregation. You know if you drank out of the wrong water fountain or went into the wrong bathroom, or went into the part of the beach where you weren't allowed, the police would be called and they would make you comply with this racial hierarchy, and so they (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Now, this was in Delaware, right (laughter)?$$That was in southern Delaware (laughter), that's right and in my life, they, you know I tried to stay as far away and when I lived in Atlanta, I was living in an urban city for the first time, and you know I wasn't, I wasn't--you know I had this Harvard Law [Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts] degree, but I was, I was not making a lot of money I think my starting salary was fourteen thousand dollars a year.$$This is nineteen eighty-f-$$Nineteen eighty-five [1985].$$Yeah, that's.$$(Laughter) And you can explain a lot of things by inflation, but even in 1985 that was not a lot of money and I had debts, I had law school loans and other loans.$$Now put that in perspective, that's a middle management CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] employee's salary--$$Yeah.$$--from 1975.$$That's right, that's exactly right. No, I mean it, it was not a lot of money and then when you took out the thousands you owed for your law school loans you'd, you'd--so I drove a really ratty car. I didn't have, you know I had to live with other--I slept on Steve Wright's couch for a year and a half, 'cause I couldn't afford an apartment, and, and you know I was working hard, deeply committed to the work and one night I came home and, and was sitting in my car just listening to the radio and Atlanta police pulled up and shined the light on me in my car. It was a SWAT [Special Weapons And Tactics] team, not a regular team and I got out of the car just to explain to them this is where I live and the police officer drew his weapon and said, "Move, and I'll blow your head off." And I put my hands, I will never forget watching that young man because his hands were shaking and I was like, "No, it's okay, it's all right, it's okay, it's all right." And the other officer ran behind me and threw me against the car and--they worked themselves up into this state of anger, 'cause they were acting so violently. I think they needed to believe that I was much more of a threat that I'd given 'em any reason to think that I was, just to justify this anger and violence and you know the neighbors were gathering and they were convinced that they had caught some mass murderer and it was just humiliating and I couldn't get them to let me show them my ID, which would be the thing you'd think they'd first want to see just to prove where I lived, and the thing that bothered me about that experience is I was twenty-seven, twenty-eight and I was a Harvard lawyer, I'd done civil rights work, I'd done police misconduct work. I knew to say, "It's all right, it's okay." But the same thing had happened to me when I was sixteen or seventeen and just started driving. When that officer dressed in all black pointed his gun at me, and said, "Move and I'll blow your brains out." I probably would've run, would've been a foolish thing to do, but nobody had ever pointed a gun at me before. In those days, I just felt like you run, you get away from anything dangerous, and I think that's what I would've done and it, and it burdened me because I was worried that all these young black boys and men that I saw walking around my neighborhood might now know, not to run. And so, I was just walking down the street grabbing kids, said, "Here, let me tell you what you do when you get stopped by the police." Just--and the kids would sometimes be looking at me like I'm crazy, but it's really important to me that I tell them what to do because I was afraid they'd be killed if they thought like I did. And it was that weight that bothered me more than anything. You know I was antagonized by what they did to me, but I didn't get arrested, nothing you know I got, I was terrified but I survived, but I was worried about the survival of others and I think when people see people protesting, see folks protesting today about police violence and they think that communities are overreacting, they don't understand the anger. They don't know what it's like to live with this presumption of dangerousness and guilt, to constantly be at risk of being threatened and menaced. To be doing nothing wrong and then have someone point a gun at you who is supposed to be keeping you safe, not threatening to kill you. That disconnect is so enraging that it really becomes impossible to continue to absorb all of this.