Bryan Stevenson: A Real American Hero

It’s time to Break It Down!

A couple of weekends ago, my wife and I went to see a movie. Nothing unusual about that. It’s a treat we give ourselves on a fairly regular basis. So much so that we’ve actually seen another one since then.

But two weeks ago, we saw “Just Mercy,” based on the book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson’s memoir. The book and the movie regale us with the hardscrabble, heart wrenching, real live story of Walter McMillian. In the movie, McMillian’s character was played by Jamie Foxx, while the role of Bryan Stevenson was played by Michael B. Jordan. In my humble opinion (admittedly, I’m no movie critic…but like in art, I know what I like), both actors did their characters justice. No pun intended. But I digress. This is a short post, and critiquing the movie is not my objective. So, while I will say the movie is about a man, wrongfully imprisoned, and the lawyer who fought against, and beat the odds (and they were many and substantial) to secure his freedom.

Perhaps you know Mr. Stevenson’s story. If you do not, you would be well served to read the book (I have not) and to see the movie (as previously noted, I did).

Seeing the movie was just the onset of the genesis of the post. Three days after seeing the movie, I had the opportunity and privilege to see Mr. Stevenson in person when he came to Davidson College, as the school’s 2020 Reynolds Lecturer, sponsored by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Gwen and I were the guests of our friend and occasional benefactor, Davis Liles, a proud Davidson College alum, and his wife Kay. Thanks again; it was a great way to spend an evening.

Mr. Stevenson, ever humble, spoke about his rural Delaware roots, his compelling and interesting career, a number of his person experiences, several of which dovetailed/intersected with some of the book/movie highlights, but most important, I believe, he delved into the experiences that helped shape his passion and lifelong commitment to social justice activism.

He earned both a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School, and Master’s Degree in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, while at Harvard. He founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and also serves as a clinical professor at New York University School of Law.

Stevenson is based in Montgomery, Alabama, home of the EJI, where he has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. He has worked cases that have saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty, advocated for the poor, and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of justice.

He initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors the names of more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. According to Stevenson’s argument, the history of slavery and lynchings has influenced the subsequent high rate of death sentences in the South, where the practice has been disproportionately applied to minorities.

In 2018, Stevenson received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the American Philosophical Society as a Drum Major for justice and mercy. This is the most prestigious award the society gives for distinguished public service.

In summary, Stevenson had devoted his life, and frankly, more times than I’m sure he’d like to admit, put his life on the line, to be a warrior for justice for men, women, and children to whom the justice system frequently, if not routinely, has given short shrift. It’s fair to say, he is the reason why dozens of people are alive today, or at least the reason why they were not killed at a result of the death penalty. He cared so deeply and fought so passionately to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were in every case, deserving of redemption, and frankly, and cases such as that of Mr. McMillian, plainly and simply NOT GUILTY!

Ladies and gentlemen, “Bryan Stevenson: A Real American Hero!”

I’m done; holla back!

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