As the university celebrates commencement, the civil rights lawyer and advocate urges the graduates to change the world and increase justice
Calling fear and anger the “essential ingredients of injustice,” Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed civil rights advocate and lawyer, called on Tufts graduates to be the generation that creates “a new era of truth and justice.”
Delivering the keynote address at the 165th all-university commencement on May 23, a virtual event this year, Stevenson said the time has come to change the narrative of racial difference that has sustained and fueled indifference to inequality and injustice in the United States.
“I think the reason why the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world is that we’ve been governed by too many people who preach what I call the politics of fear and anger,” he said in a recorded video.
“Too many have asked you to be afraid and to be angry and to be governed by fear and anger,” he said. “All over the world you see people abusing others, oppressing others, mistreating others. If you ask them why they engage in that kind of abuse and oppression, they can give you a narrative of fear and anger.”
He urged the graduates to “change these narratives with your Tufts degree. Let that be a shield against all who would make you afraid and angry, all who would allow you to accept things that you should never accept, make you indifferent to things you should be responsive to.”
Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
Stevenson recounted his career in his bestselling 2014 memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. It was adapted into an acclaimed film, released in December 2019. He is a professor of law at New York University School of Law, and a 1995 MacArthur Fellow.
One of five honorary degree recipients at the virtual ceremony, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. The morning event was followed by virtual convocations for the individual schools (see below for details). During commencement, the university officially awarded 3,602 degrees to graduates and bestowed emeritus status on 26 long-time Tufts faculty.
Don’t Underestimate Your Power
Stevenson’s clarity of vision, directness and passion came together in a talk that sought nothing less than to inspire newly minted graduates to open their hearts and minds to changing the world, starting by believing they can make change.
“Commencement is a hopeful time, but it’s important that you guard your hope,” he said. “Don’t let the challenges of this pandemic, don’t let the uncertainty of our economy, don’t let the division, don’t let climate change, don’t let any issue make you believe that you cannot change the world. Your hope is your superpower.”
He also asked graduates “to do uncomfortable things, inconvenient things, because we cannot change the world, we cannot increase justice, we cannot make a difference across the planet if we only do the things that are comfortable and convenient.”
The times we live in, Stevenson said, particularly given the fear and division generated by the pandemic, more than ever need a broad, humanistic perspective. That means getting “proximate to the poor, to the excluded, the neglected the marginalized,” he said. “I want you to understand the consequences and challenges when we marginalize and when we disfavor. And I want you to be willing to embrace those who are suffering, those who have fallen down.”
Stevenson urged graduates to “not underestimate your power, through your embrace of others, to affirm their humanity, to affirm their dignity. I believe the way we change the world, the way we create more justice, is affirming the basic humanity and dignity of every human being.”
Stevenson made a compelling case for that change, drawing on his work at the forefront of changing the American legal system. Today, he said, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million people in jails and prisons, 5 million people on probation and parole and 70 million Americans who have criminal arrest histories.
“We’ve done terrible things to women,” he added, citing how over last quarter century the percentage of women going to jails and prisons has increased 800 percent; most are single parents with minor children.
“The Bureau of Justice in 2001 predicted that one in three Black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime,” he said. “And we didn’t treat it like the emergency it was; we accepted it. . . . We’re going to have to change this narrative. We’re going to have to change narratives about race.”
Reckoning with the Past
The notion of freedom that defines America, he said, has yet to be fully realized, he said, because the nation has not fully reckoned with its past.
“I don’t believe we’re free in this country, I don’t. I believe we are burdened by our long history of racial inequality. We live in a nation where our long history of racial injustice has created toxins in the air. They’re small, they’re contaminants—wherever you go,” he said.
“Too many have argued for too long that at some point these toxins will just dissipate,” he added. “I don’t believe that. I believe we have to change this environment. We’re going to have to talk about some things we haven’t talked about before.”
Envisioning a new social order, one built on hope, Stevenson said he believes “there is something better waiting for us. There is a more free America. There is a more just America. There is a better globe, a better planet, waiting for us. But to get there, we’re going to have to get proximate to the poor. We’re going to have to change narratives.”
In addition to Stevenson, other honorary degree recipients were Maria B. Barrett, J88, major general in the U.S. Army; William Bazeyo, Ugandan physician, innovative medical researcher, and academic; Stacey B. Gabriel, senior director of the Genomics Platform at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Hamdi Ulukaya, food entrepreneur and philanthropist; and Ofelia Zepeda, Native American linguist, scholar, and poet.
See these individual school commencement pages for photos, videos of their ceremonies, stories about graduates, and more:
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.