Bryan Stevenson Preaches Justice
Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson’s voice seems to be everywhere these days, and on Tuesday, January 28, thousands packed Davidson College’s Belk Arena to hear it for themselves and welcome the 2020 Reynolds Lecturer with a standing ovation.
Stevenson spoke without notes for more than an hour, frequently interrupted by applause. He began with white America’s history of violence against natives and enslaved people and ongoing domestic terrorism against people of color, not only in the south but across the nation.
Reminding us of Martin Luther King’s quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he posed a central question: who bends it?
Stevenson believes that all of us should be bending it, and taught us how, using—and repeating—four basic lessons.
- Get proximate. Get and stay close to people who need hope.
- Change the narrative of crime, on drug addition, alcoholism, and most of all, that black and brown people are inferior.
- Hopelessness is the enemy of justice: stay hopeful.
- Finally, do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.
For those who have read Just Mercy or seen the movie or both, these lessons reflect Stevenson’s experience working with Alabama prisoners on death row. He told stories that underscore his four steps toward justice. He shared terrifying facts on incarceration in America, with 2.2 million citizens now behind bars and a 624 percent increase in jailed women since 1980. Speaking of children who are charged, tried, sentenced, and incarcerated as adults, he was emphatic that “all children are children.” He talked about his own difficulty of living in Alabama as a black man, mistaken by judges and others as the accused rather than the advocate, and forced to undergo an illegal strip search before seeing a prisoner. He experienced the desolation of failing to stay a client’s execution.
He was honest about the exhaustion that comes with this kind of work.
Despite the seemingly impossible task he and his colleagues face, Stevenson’s optimism shines through the exhaustion. As he came to the close of his remarks, he returned to a personal mantra, one that fuels his determination to help death row convicts: We are all more than the worst thing we’ve done.
The audience thanked him with cheers and another standing ovation, a warm and hopeful one.
NOTE: See our photo gallery of images from Bryan Stevenson’s presentation.
A professional communicator with a long career in higher education, Meg now consults and volunteers in areas where words and images work together to tell a story. She's a proud member of Davidson's Class of 1977 and lives nearby with her husband, Don, Davidson professor emeritus of biology, with whom she shares a family grown by kinship and choice.