Alum—Then & Now
Public Advocates is honored to have among its alumni Bryan Stevenson, the internationally recognized public interest lawyer, civil rights and racial justice champion, and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which tells the story of Walter McMillian. The book was turned into a 2019 film, Just Mercy, starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. The film is available for purchase or rental on Amazon Prime.
In 2011, at Public Advocates 40th Anniversary celebration, Mr. Stevenson was awarded the Voices of Conscience Award, and featured as our keynote speaker. He spoke movingly about his life’s work, the people who mentored and taught him, the challenges of facing up to racism and injustice, inspiring his audience with his eloquence and his experiences of struggle. He opened his speech by speaking briefly about his time at Public Advocates when he was still a law student.
I am a really proud alumnus of Public Advocates, a Pillar. I went there as a law student, 27, 28 years ago and met these amazing lawyers that many of you saw on stage tonight; Angela [Glover Blackwell, now with PolicyLink], Bob [Gnaizda], Sid [Wolinsky], and all of the folks at PA were real models and actually made me believe that you can do important stuff, the right stuff to make our world better, in the right way. It was a place where there were a lot of tremendous challenges.
When I was a young student there, I would get these research assignments from Sid and at lunchtime he would take me and one of the other students he’d say, “We’ll go running since you guys like to run”—and we would start running at this insanely fast pace. He would run about six miles and he’d be talking the whole time asking me questions, and I always feared that he thought I was clueless because after the third or fourth mile, I just didn’t have the wind to actually answer the question so I would oversimplify things. It was just the kind of place where you were always being challenged and pushed.
But it was always this place that recognized the importance of identity, and it’s wonderful that this community gets together in a venue like this to talk about the importance, not just of the work that we do, but also the struggle, the challenges, and the opportunities. If we create the right kind of identity, I believe we have the capacity to make our words much more meaningful. I believe we can say things that can change the world in ways we can’t without that identity, so I do believe in institutions like PA and people who are building an identity to change the world.”
Thank you, Bryan Stevenson, for continuing to inspire us to make rights real every day.
More on Mr. Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative website:
Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama as well as two highly acclaimed cultural sites which opened in 2018: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. These national landmark institutions chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
Under his leadership, Equal Justice Initiative has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
Mr. Stevenson has 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.
Mr. Stevenson is also a professor of law at the New York University School of Law.
Photo: Bryan Stevenson at TED 2012. wikimedia / James Duncan Davidson (cc)