Why This Man Is Being Called ‘America’s Nelson Mandela’

Bryan Stevenson’s legal organization aims to level the playing field when it comes to representation for poor or minority defendants.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. (Photo: Skoll Foundation)
Apr 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

This profile is part of TakePart’s series highlighting the six winners of the Skoll Foundation’s Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, announced ahead of the Skoll World Forum, which takes place April 13–15. The award distinguishes leaders who are committed to driving large-scale change; each of the awardees’ organizations receives a $1.25 million investment to scale its work and increase its impact. Jeff Skoll is the founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation and the founder of Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

Bryan Stevenson has been called a few things over the years. As the founder and executive director of the legal organization Equal Justice Initiative, he’s been described as “America’s Nelson Mandela” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and as “Atticus Finch meets Martin Luther King Jr.,” and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1995. The titles are apt, as his career has been centered on equality after he witnessed the desegregation of his hometown’s schools as a child.

“I started my education in a segregated school, and lawyers came into our community to open up the public schools, which changed my life,” Stevenson, a native of Milton, Delaware, tells TakePart. “I always had in the back of my mind this narrative about how lawyers can change things.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Stevenson, now 56, worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public-interest law firm that advocates for criminal justice and death penalty reform in the South. There, he realized the justice system was anything but a level playing field.

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“It became clear that even in the Deep South there were differences between states that had no public defenders and no institutional services and the states that did,” he says of his time with SCHR. “I came to Alabama because it was one of those states where there were public defenders and no institutionalized services, so we needed to start a project to help condemned people face this massive institution.”

In 1989, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The organization seeks to fill the gaps within the legal system that leave many poor defendants without proper representation. An additional 7,000 public defenders are needed to deal with the current caseload of overworked attorneys across the nation, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. This shortage not only affects lawyers but also leads to about 90 percent of defendants pleading guilty even if they’re innocent.

EJI works to remedy this by providing counsel to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment. To date, the organization has helped dozens of people who were wrongly convicted or illegally sentenced to die. Earlier this year, Stevenson won a historic Supreme Court decision that ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children under the age of 17 are unconstitutional.

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Today, he wins something else: a $1.25 million investment in his organization as one of six recipients of the Skoll Foundation’s 2016 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Stevenson has been instrumental in exposing the blatant effects that structural racism and classism have had on the justice system, which incarcerates people of color at much higher rates than it does their white counterparts, even when they commit the same types of crimes.

“I didn’t appreciate just how much everything was influenced by our history of racial inequality,” Stevenson says. “The bigger the problem emerged to be, the more it became clear we had to spend more of our time talking about race and poverty. We realized that there was going to be a limit to what we could do in the litigation until we changed the conversation about race more broadly.”

(Photo: Skoll Foundation)

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Last year, EJI unveiled A History of Racial Injustice, an interactive exhibit that chronicles America’s dark past of slavery, segregation, and racism. The group also released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, a report that details 3,959 race-based terror attacks on African Americans occurring between 1877 and 1950. Later this year, EJI will roll out a follow-up report on the segregation era and how the legal infrastructure of that time continues to haunt America. Additionally, the organization is building a museum, called From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, that deals with the history of racial injustice, as well as a national memorial to victims of lynching in Montgomery.

EJI plans to use the $1.25 million grant from the Skoll Foundation to create materials and content on the history of racial injustice in America and to build its institutional infrastructure and improve communication operations. While the grant will be helpful, Stevenson says one of the most important aspects of the honor is joining the Skoll World Forum’s vibrant community.

“It’s a great privilege and honor to be invited into this great community of activists, advocates, and entrepreneurs,” he says. “We believe very strongly in truth and reconciliation, and we want to facilitate that truth with our advocacy.”

Visit the Equal Justice Initiative website to learn more about the organization and support its work.