2015 Honorary Degree Citation

Extraordinary champion of justice. Commanding voice for human rights.  Acclaimed writer helping us see the powers that truth can activate.

Bryan Stevenson, you have powerfully demonstrated, plainly documented and publicly fought systemic bias along the fault lines of race and poverty; a bias which defines disadvantage in the nation’s criminal courts.  As a public interest lawyer for more than three decades, you have channeled outrage into action. You have transformed bitterness into hard-won freedom for the wrongly convicted. You have leveraged your legal skills into saving the lives of those condemned on death row.

With your Harvard law degree in hand, you jump-started your legal activism in 1985 as a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Four years later, you founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit legal powerhouse. As executive director, you keep EJI’s focus on social justice and human rights issues under the umbrella of criminal justice.

In the past 25 years, EJI action has saved the lives of 115 men on death row. You have advocated for women and mothers who have been wrongly convicted, those imprisoned and separated from their children for shockingly minor crimes.  You have successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to end the legal incarceration of children for life without parole in adult prisons. You invested 16 years in the case of a 30-year death row inmate, and recently won his exoneration and release. You have demanded justice for those whose truth was not uncovered, whose race outweighed the evidence and whose youth was disregarded within our courtrooms. As a professor at New York University School of Law you have enlightened your students about the red flags of bias within the criminal justice system.

Your lifelong commitment to fighting injustice has brought you admiration, recognition, and supporters. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate, has described you as “America’s young Mandela,” and as “a brilliant lawyer who represents America’s conscience.” In a recent profile, the archbishop wrote, ”Leaders like Bryan Stevenson shape the arc of the moral universe.” In praise of your compelling memoir, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, he wrote, “… What hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation.” 

President Obama has invited you to join a national task force to examine issues in law enforcement. The Lannan Foundation awarded you its 2014 Prize for Cultural Freedom, with a $350,000 dollar award, which you donated to the EJI. You did the same with the prize attached to your 1994 MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant.”  Also, you received the inaugural George Barrett Award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation, an ACLU National Medal of Liberty, a Public Interest Lawyer of the Year award, Sweden’s 2000 Olof Palme Prize for international human rights and New York University’s Distinguished Teaching Award, among many other honors.

Bottom ofIn your celebrated 2012 TED talk, you shared the story of your grandmother’s influence on your life—a life that has been heroic in efforts to expose and redress bias in the criminal justice system. You have “held on” with a tenacity that would have made your beloved grandmother proud. In the best Jesuit tradition you have put into action what you hold as gospel.

That all may know of our esteem for you and our support for the essential work you do on behalf of society’s most vulnerable, the College of the Holy Cross confers upon you this day the degree, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.