In mid-September, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson took the stage at the 30th-anniversary gala for the Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery, Alabama–based nonprofit he founded to provide legal representation to individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, unfairly sentenced or subject to prison abuse. The attendees assembled in a hotel ballroom in Midtown Manhattan were a mix of philanthropists, scholars and attorneys. The poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at President Obama’s first inauguration, was there, as was musician Jon Batiste. Most knew what EJI does and who Stevenson is. They’d likely heard him speak many times before. But that was sort of the point.
He has won five of the six cases he has argued before the Supreme Court and delivered a TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views to date. He has written a best-selling memoir, Just Mercy, about his life and work and is also the subject of a recent HBO documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. He’s also a professor at the New York University School of Law.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, first met Stevenson nearly two decades ago when they both were young lawyers. “I heard him speak to a small group of students at Stanford Law School, and he blew my mind,” she says. “He was passionate and dedicated, but he was more than that. He spoke with a moral clarity, a clarity that shone so bright that at first many people in the room seemed restless, uncomfortable.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is another leading civil rights attorney who counts Stevenson as a friend. “He exudes something that is very, very powerful, and that is a deep, deep sincerity and commitment to the principles that he believes in,” she says. “You feel it, you know it, and you hear it not only in the words he says but in the very timbre of his voice.