Activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Born in 1959, Stevenson grew up in rural Milton, Delaware, where his first exposure to education was segregated. A bright student, he excelled in high school and served as president of the student body before attending Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy. Stevenson went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government. During law school, as part of a class on race and poverty litigation, he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to promoting equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system throughout the South. It was there that Stevenson found his calling. After graduating Harvard Law in 1985, he moved to Atlanta and joined the SCHR full time. In 1989, he was appointed director of the federally funded capital defense organization, the Alabama Operation, and went on to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States with a focus on challenging racial and economic injustice while protecting society’s most vulnerable individuals.
Today, EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by inequality. As founder and executive director, Stevenson has led the organization to win major legal challenges resulting in the elimination of excessive and unfair sentencing and the exoneration of more than 135 innocent death row prisoners. Under his leadership, EJI has also confronted abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, while aiding children who have been prosecuted as adults. Stevenson has argued and won several cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that resulted in the landmark 2012 ruling banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 and younger. In 2018, EJI opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, two groundbreaking institutions that chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and their connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
In addition to his role at EJI, Stevenson is the Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice at New York University School of Law, having joined the school’s clinical faculty in 1998. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the ABA Medal, the American Bar Association’s highest honor, and a spot on Fortune’s 2016 “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. Stevenson is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, which was adapted as a major motion picture starring Jaime Foxx in 2019.