Although he has an array of honors to his credit, Bryan Stevenson isn’t your typical public interest lawyer; he’s a “genius.” No, seriously. In 1995, the southern Delaware native was awarded the coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, a no-strings-attached grant recognizing individuals for their exceptional “originality, insight and potential.” The hefty financial award is also known as “the genius grant.” The then-36-year-old Stevenson was chosen for his work combating poverty and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system in underserved communities.
“[Winning] was deeply affirming,” the Harvard University alumnus reflects. “I started my career in jails and prisons with the condemned. I didn’t think anybody was paying much attention to what I was doing. MacArthur was one of those early awards from a prestigious institution that said, ‘Hey, we think what you’re doing is important and valuable.’”
The honor also represented a turnaround for the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), after a setback for the organization. “At the time, we had recently lost all of the federal funding and had to reorganize as a completely private nonprofit,” the 57-year-old tells EBONY. The support that I got through that MacArthur grant was critical in helping us stay afloat and keeping the work of EJI alive.”
Based in Montgomery, Ala., EJI began as a passion project for Stevenson in 1989. He was already practicing law in Atlanta when he realized there was a dearth of legal resources for Black people in the region. “At the time, Alabama had one of the highest execution rates in the nation,” he shares. “There was no public defender system here. We just thought it was important to create some institutional presence that would be available to the poor and the incarcerated.”
EJI has triumphed over legal challenges such as unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners—Stevenson and his team have won cases for more than 115 wrongly condemned individuals on death row—and abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill. A major victory was the historic 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 and under are unconstitutional.
“I mean, my clients were getting younger and younger,” he says. “Meeting 13- and 14-year-old kids who were told they were only fit to die in prison was incredibly challenging. It was really gratifying to win the Supreme Court ruling.” Stevenson, who holds 16 honorary degrees and moonlights as a professor at New York University School of Law, is the author of the New York Times best-selling book Just Mercy, which chronicles EJI’s work. He also brings some of his “genius” to music.
“I am grateful that I grew up in a very musical family. I bought a house about 20 years ago so I could have a piano, which is a great comfort to me as I do this work,” he explains. “I grew up playing in the church, then continued playing in college and in law school with some jazz groups. [It’s] been a really meaningful part of my personal coping strategy.”
The downtime is much needed; EJI has major feats afoot in 2017. Stevenson plans to erect a national memorial for victims of lynching, and the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum is now under construction in the organizaton’s complex, the site of a former slave warehouse. “[It’s] to create a space for people in this country to gather and reflect soberly on that legacy and that underacknowledged history and part of America’s experience.”