Stay hopeful and do ‘uncomfortable things,’ advises justice advocate Bryan Stevenson

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Bryan Stevenson told the Divinity School audience, "It takes courage to be hopefuly." (Photo by Moriah Felder DIV '19)

Public interest lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson laid out four ways to fight for justice as he delivered the annual Parks-King Lecture at Yale Divinity School the evening of Feb. 1. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

Under Stevenson’s leadership, EJI has won 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. EJI recently won a ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. He is also the author of the New York Times-bestselling “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson spoke to a standing-room-only audience in the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, with another 100 participants watching from Niebuhr Hall.

Considering the legacy of racial injustice in the United States, he said, “I don’t think we’re going to be free in this country until we challenge all the damage that has been done by our history of racial inequality.”

Stevenson cited several statistics about incarceration in the United States:

  • In 1972, 300,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons. In 2017, the number is 2.3 million.
  • 6 million Americans are on probation or parole.
  • 70% of women in prison are single parents of minor children.
  • 30% of the black male population in Alabama has permanently lost voting rights.

Stevenson offered four solutions to this legacy of injustice and inequality. First, he said, to be change agents we need to “get proximate” — that is, get closer to the issues we are trying to address and the people we are trying to empower. Most of us are taught to stay away from such problems, Stevenson said, but “there is power in proximity.” Stevenson noted he would not have followed the career path he did if he had not taken a summer internship in law school that brought him face-to-face with death-row inmates.

Second, Stevenson said, we need to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies, noting that one such narrative is that some minors are not children, but rather “super-predators” — a position that has led to the detention of 10,000 minors in adult jails and prisons. He also cited the false narratives of racial difference that justified genocide against Native Americans and slavery in the American South. “I think the great evil of American slavery was the narratives we created to justify it,” Stevenson said. “It’s the ideology of white supremacy that we made up.”

Stevenson’s third solution is to stay hopeful. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he said. “You can’t be a change agent without hope.” He recalled a conversation with Johnnie Carr, architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Rosa Parks when both women were in their 80s. Instead of recalling past civil rights triumphs, both women were talking about what they planned to do in the future. Like Parks and Carr, “it takes courage to be hopeful,” he said.

Finally, Stevenson called on the audience to make a conscious decision to be willing to do uncomfortable things. While acknowledging he has achieved important legal successes, Stevenson also told the painful story of losing a case, resulting in the execution of his client, who had an intellectual disability. “What is it about us that we want to kill all the broken people?” he asked, recalling that case. “I do what I do because I’m broken too — but there’s a power in brokenness.”

Established in 1983 in honor of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Parks-King Lecture is dedicated to bringing the contributions of African American scholars, social theorists, pastors, and social activists to the Divinity School, Yale, and wider New Haven communities. Past lecturers include Ambassador Andrew Young, poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84, and Vanderbilt Divinity School dean Emilie Townes. Read more about Bryan Stevenson and his work.

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