Activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his life to promoting justice and truth-telling.
The 2019 film Just Mercy, an adaptation of Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, portrayed one of his most high-profile cases. The legal drama starring Michael B. Jordan tells the story of how Stevenson represented Walter McMillian, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman and put on death row in 1986.
With the help of Stevenson, who proved that he was innocent and that his case was mishandled, McMillian was released in 1993.
Stevenson launched the Alabama-based organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) during McMillan’s case in 1989, and it has continued advocating for wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced people ever since.
Throughout the years Stevenson, who is also a law professor at New York University, has received highly esteemed awards from the MacArthur Fellowship Award to the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Medal of Liberty. His 2012 Ted Talk has had over 7 million views, and he served on a task force on policing and relationships between police and their communities appointed by former President Barack Obama.
Now Stevenson is adding another accolade to his long list of achievements — the 2020 Global Citizen Prize: Global Citizen of the Year.
The Global Citizen of the Year award honors an individual who has proven exceptional and sustained impact toward the end of extreme poverty and its systemic causes, with the winner chosen by a committee of judges, based on criteria-based evaluations created by an independent group of researchers.
“We will never prevail in changing the world if we only do things that are comfortable & convenient.” Introduced by @Oprah, Bryan Stevenson, the 2020 Global Citizen of the Year, spoke with @Usher about what it will take to transform the US criminal justice system. #GCPrizepic.twitter.com/chu1sV7TTM— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) December 20, 2020
During the Global Citizen Prize award ceremony — which is available to watch around the world from Dec. 19 — Oprah Winfrey herself introduced Bryan Stevenson and his work.
“Seeing a desperate need for criminal justice reform, lawyer Bryan Stevenson founded the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative to address a deep racial inequality, and represent those forgotten in the system,” Winfrey said, highlighting that the US has the highest prison population rate in the world, with Black Americans incarcerated at an average rate of 5.1 times that of white Americans in state prisons."
“His impact on the vulnerable communities is profound and critical,” she continued. “He has changed lives, he has saved lives, and continues to give a voice to those silenced around our country.”
Stevenson then joined Usher in conversation about his work and winning the Global Citizen of the Year award — with Stevenson saying how honored he is by the award and the recognition on behalf of everybody at the EJI, “who’ve been fighting this fight for a long time.”
“Until l got involved in this work, I didn’t really appreciate all the damage that was being done,” Stevenson told Usher. “We had politicians that were debating crime policy in this country and they were debating as if they could put crimes in jails and prisons. And we created these very harsh sentences and harsh punishments.
“But the truth is we can’t put crimes in jails or prisons, we put people in jails or prisons, and so I wanted to create a space that could focus on providing services to the most vulnerable because there was a great need for that,” he said.
In terms of the global effort to tackle injustice and inequality, Stevenson added: “You have to get proximate; you cannot stay isolated from where the problems are. All of us have to find ways to get closer to people who are experiencing inequality and injustice. We will never prevail in changing the world if we only do the things that are comfortable and convenient.”
The Global Citizen Prize award ceremony, with appearances from the inspiring winners — as well as performances and appearances from an amazing lineup of musicians, TV stars, and more — is being broadcast and streamed globally from Dec. 19. and you can find out here how you can watch, or re-watch, from wherever you are.
Stevenson’s criminal justice reform work supports both the United Nations Global Goal 16, to achieve peace justice, and strong institutions, and Global Goal 10 to reduce inequalities. The EJI represents individuals on death row and children in adult prisons, challenges wrongful convictions, exposes police misconduct, and documents poor prison conditions.
“I'm not persuaded that the opposite of poverty is wealth — I've come to believe ... that the opposite of poverty is justice,” Stevenson said on the NPR radio show “Fresh Air” in 2015.
Black people in the US, who are more likely to live in poverty than white people, are disproportionately impacted by the death penalty, more likely to face wrongful convictions, and more likely to be sentenced to prison. Children who are incarcerated in adult prisons also face a higher risk of sexual and physical violence, increased trauma, and suicide.
The EJI has helped release 140 people sentenced to death, and reduced sentences for more than 40 Alabama juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole, over the past three decades. In 2018, the organization won its first US Supreme Court case to ban life-without-parole sentences for children convicted of non-homicide offenses.
In recent years, the EJI has branched out into public education with an emphasis on exposing the US’s deep history of racial discrimination. The organization opened The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama to exhibit the country’s history of slavery, lynching, and segregation.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the US in 2020, the EJI centered the virus’s disproportionate impact on Black people.
Stevenson has also continued to call for law enforcement to be held more accountable in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and teamed up with the National Basketball Association coaches to stand up against racial inequality.
Stevenson envisions a truth-telling commission and reconciliation process in the US that addresses the country’s oppression of Black and Indigenous people in the past and present.
With increased support and major policy changes, Stevenson hopes to extend the EJI’s reach and drive institutional change on both the local and national levels.
As he highlighted during Global Citizen Prize: “Dr. King and Mrs. Parks and the civil rights advocates in the 1950s in this community didn’t sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ just so they’d have a song to sing. They sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ because they believed that.
“And I feel similarly empowered and encouraged,” he continued, “because I’m surrounded by a community of people ... and we’re all still singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because we believe that there has to be something better than what we’ve experienced. And our hope is that if we keep fighting, we will get it.”
The Global Citizen Prize award ceremony, with appearances from the inspiring winners — as well as performances and appearances from an amazing lineup of musicians, TV stars, and more — is being broadcast and streamed globally from Dec. 19, and you can find out here how you can watch from wherever you are.
Join Global Citizen on December 19, 2020, to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize and how you can watch here.