When the Supreme Court denied the motion to overturn a mentally disabled man’s death sentence, Bryan Stevenson had the difficult responsibility of telling him he had not been saved.
Stevenson called the man who he had defended, broke the news and waited in agony as his speech impediment nearly debilitated his ability to respond. Finally, right before his execution, the man was able to talk and began to thank Stevenson.
“The last thing this condemned man said to me was ‘Mr. Stevenson, I love you for trying to save my life,’” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, author of the freshmen’s first year book Just Mercy, recounted this moment and other experiences from his career in law and upbringing, in a lecture about how to fight for justice Tuesday afternoon. The event drew a crowd of over 700 to Stamp Student Union’s Colony Ballroom.
Injustice is perpetuated by narratives of fear and anger, he said. To change those narratives, we must get close to the scenes of injustice, put ourselves in uncomfortable situations, maintain a strong sense of identity and retain hope.
Stevenson’s lecture weaved sentiments both dark and hopeful. He began and concluded by confirming every student’s ability to create important change, but he also planted difficult truths about injustices ranging from the U.S. genocide of Native Americans to how people of color in the room would continue to be negatively perceived for the rest of their lives.
“I’m in my fifties and I have to tell you that the older you get the more exhausting it is to have to navigate people’s presumptions of dangerousness and guilt,” he said. “I want to be free, but I can’t get there until we change the narrative.”
The university selects a different book every year for the First Year Book program and encourages all incoming students to read and discuss it. Just Mercy is about racism and incarceration in America and tells the story of an innocent black man convicted of murdering a white woman and given the death sentence.
“The book signals to incoming students the importance we place on intellectual engagement across the curriculum,” said Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies Lisa Kiely. “Our hope is to select books that provide an opportunity for all of us to look at a topic, an issue or an experiences from different perspectives, from the sciences to the humanities.”
Students, staff and faculty lined the length of the room after a brief question and answer session, waiting to meet Stevenson and have their books signed.
Senior biology major Sydney Deems, a teaching assistant for UNIV100, read the book so she could discuss it in class with her students. In line to meet him, she spoke about how she appreciated his point about the importance of getting proximate to injustice.
“I think that’s definitely something as college students we could … look into doing to try to make a better impact,” she said.
Through his career in law and his organization the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson defends people disadvantaged by the justice system, including minors tried as adults and individuals on death row. He received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award in 1995.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.
Teri West is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.