By Jana Wilbricht, Ph.D. Candidate, Communication Studies; Graduate Student Staff Assistant
On the evening of March 7th, 2017, the 25th Wallenberg Medal, the most distinguished award given by the University of Michigan, was presented to civil rights lawyer and social rights activist Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization working to guarantee a legal defense to every inmate on death row in Alabama, in 1989.
The Wallenberg Medal is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, U-M class of 1935, who spent six months on a diplomatic mission in Hungary on behalf of the U.S. War Refugee Board and the Swedish Foreign Ministry ten years after graduating from U-M, saving the lives of Hungarian Jews trapped in Budapest during World War II. Wallenberg authorized and distributed thousands of protective Swedish passports and confronted German and Hungarian officials to secure the release of Jews who were being deported to death camps before he was arrested by Soviet authorities occupying Budapest. He is believed to have been murdered by the Soviets in 1947.
Past recipients of the distinguished Wallenberg Medal include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, His Holiness the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank and her family during WWII and saved Anne’s famous diary, and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, among many other highly distinguished awardees. The Raoul Wallenberg Endowment was established at the University of Michigan in 1985 to commemorate and celebrate Wallenberg’s values, commitment to justice, and courageous actions to save lives.
Bryan Stevenson grew up in rural Delaware, graduated from Eastern University, and Harvard Law School. In 1989, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, of which he is now the Executive Director. Since the State of Alabama does not have a public defender system, his organization is committed to representing anyone facing execution who does not have a lawyer, because as Stevenson points out, people are “dying for need of representation.” He has since challenged institutional biases in the criminal justice system against minorities, handled hundreds of death row appeals, and argued the 2012 Miller v. Alabama U.S. Supreme Court case, which ruled mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for minors 17 and under. Stevenson is also a Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, and has received 26 honorary degrees. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
As Dean John Godfrey, Chair of the Wallenberg Executive Committee, addressed the audience, only standing room was left in Rackham Auditorium. He introduced the Wallenberg Medal and shared Professor Irene Butter’s remarks, who regretted being unable to attend in person due to illness. She highlighted Stevenson’s commitment to making societal contributions without expectation of reward or recognition. In presenting the 25th Wallenberg Medal to Bryan Stevenson, Dean Susan M. Collins noted his outstanding professional accomplishments and the similarity between Wallenberg and Stevenson, both in their tireless work toward greater social equity, and their use of legal tools to fight for social justice on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves.
Bryan Stevenson opened his talk invoking “great spirits” like Raoul Wallenberg, “doing difficult but important work” and encouraged the audience to “rely on those spirits to lead us and to show us that there is always a better way when we are confronted with fear and anger, intolerance and bigotry.” He shared a number of personal stories from his work, many of which can also be found in Just Mercy. The first time he met a condemned prisoner, enchained and shackled, while he was still a law student, he was able to tell the prisoner that he wasn’t at risk of execution anytime in the next year. This not only changed the prisoner’s life in that he was finally able to have his family visit, knowing that there wouldn’t be an execution date for at least this amount of time, but the encounter changed Stevenson’s life, when the prisoner began to sing “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground” as he was taken back to his cell. Stevenson said “because I got proximate to a condemned prisoner who sang to me about higher ground, everything changed for me. In that instant, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground, but more than that, I knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey.” According to Stevenson, this seeking of open-minded proximity is the first step to changing the world.
The second step is changing “the narratives that sustain inequality and oppression,” because, as Stevenson says, “behind these policy issues there are narratives.” In particular, this means resisting narratives of fear and anger directed at those who are different, because “fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression, inequality, and injustice.”
The third thing Stevenson said we need to do in order to change the world is staying hopeful. In his view, “you either have hope or you are part of the problem. […] You have to protect yourself from hopelessness. […] You are going to need your hope to change the world.”
Finally, Stevenson emphasized that we have to be willing to be uncomfortable if we hope to be conduits of change. This means positioning ourselves in uncomfortable spaces, bearing witness, and speaking out. He shared that he, too, encountered many difficult times and even considered changing his career at one point, but learned that “you better think about why you are doing what you are doing before you stop.” Stevenson said “I realized that I do what I do because I am broken, too. […] But I also realized that it is the broken who have the answer. […] It is in brokenness that we recognize the power of what it means to be human.”
Bryan Stevenson’s work addresses key issues the United States are facing in the 21st century. He shared that with 2.3 million Americans in jails and prisons, the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. He further noted that “the percentage of women who went to jails and prisons has increased 646% in the last 20 years; 70% of the women we send to jails and prisons are single parents with minor children.”
Even more directly addressed by Stevenson’s work is the startling statistic that, as he said, “for every 9 people [on death row in the U.S.] we’ve executed, we’ve identified one innocent person.” However, he said “the statistic that keeps me up latest at night is that of the Bureau of Justice. The Bureau of Justice now predicts that 1 in 3 Black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime. […] The statistic for Latino boys is one is six. So I think we need to change the world.” Speaking of justice and the need to change the world, Stevenson also called for the U.S. to deal with its history of genocide and slavery much more directly and openly. He said: “I believe that when we acknowledge wrongdoing, that on the other side of that acknowledgement there is something called redemption.”
In closing, he addressed the students of the University of Michigan, and students everywhere: “Each and every one of you students, I don’t ever want you to think that your grades are a measure of your capacity to change the world – it doesn’t work like that.” Stevenson encourages all of us to seek proximity to those most affected by inequality, to change dominant narratives justifying unjust oppression, remain hopeful, and dare to be uncomfortable. He also challenges the way we think about poverty. He said: “I am persuaded that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; I believe that the opposite of poverty is justice. […] Your character and commitment to justice will be measured by how you treat the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
Bryan Stevenson received standing ovations and left his audience inspired, encouraged, and thoughtful. Nicole Khamis, a U-M Undergraduate, was deeply impressed with Stevenson’s “full understanding of the history of this nation and how to rectify it, especially in such a critical time for the Unites States where people don’t really understand the way forward, I think he provides a really great path forward.” Linda Larin, Associate Hospital Director for Michigan Medicine’s Cardiovascular and Neurosciences Programs and the Chief Administrative Officer of the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center said she “loved the idea he shared; that we can change the world because we’re broken. That was very inspiring.”
One Ann Arbor community member in the audience cautioned that the principles we learned about this evening need to translate into action. She said: “I wonder if people come to this and feel ‘now I’ve done my part to save the world,’ you know? And go home and everything remains the same. […] Now the question is, what can I do?” A sentiment that was central to Bryan Stevenson’s talk. U-M Undergraduate Mariah Silverstein shared “I found it incredibly inspirational and what I loved was there wasn’t partisanship involved – it could apply to all sides and it created a sense of unity that I found really resonated,” which was echoed by a U-M alum and actor who said that Stevenson’s remarks are “something that will stay with you, help you grow, and inspire you for the rest of your life. […] A lot of the things he said remind us of what we’re supposed to be doing, how it’s supposed to be.”
Bryan Stevenson is a man who has committed his life to fighting for justice and reminds us all of the things each one of us can do to change the world. He truly belongs in the highly distinguished community of Wallenberg Medal recipients, and the University of Michigan is honored to have presented him with this special award, commemorating Raoul Wallenberg’s values and actions.