Acclaimed Civil Rights Lawyer and Advocate Bryan Stevenson to Deliver Tufts Commencement Address

Attorney, social justice advocate, and author to address Class of 2021 in a virtual ceremony
Watch a video of Bryan Stevenson talking about his life’s work. Video: Jandro Cisneros and Alonso Nichols
March 18, 2021

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Lawyer, civil rights advocate, and author Bryan Stevenson, whose work fighting bias in the criminal justice system has saved and changed the lives of countless children, poor people, and people of color, will deliver the commencement address to the Tufts Class of 2021. Stevenson will receive an honorary doctorate at the virtual ceremony to be broadcast the morning of May 23.

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a civil rights advocacy group based in Montgomery, Ala., whose work has saved more than 135 wrongly condemned people from the death penalty, impacted the sentences of thousands nationwide, and led to changes in laws in dozens of states.

Through his career as an attorney and activist and his work with EJI, Stevenson has challenged bias against the poor and people of color in the criminal justice system, with a special emphasis on the rights of children. He has developed community-based anti-poverty and anti-discrimination litigation aimed at improving the criminal justice system, and pushed for the rights of low-income residents.

“Bryan Stevenson works tirelessly towards the cause of social justice and equity, defending people against systemic racism and inequality in America,” said Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco. “We commend and share his commitment to these causes and to the spirit of civic engagement. We look forward to hearing his address to the Tufts Class of 2021 and their families and friends celebrating safely across the globe.”

Stevenson found his career calling while a student at Harvard Law School when he worked for Stephen Bright’s South Center for Human Rights, which provides representation for death row inmates throughout the American south. He joined the Atlanta-based center full time upon his Harvard graduation in 1985.

In 1989, he moved to Alabama to run a branch of the center in Montgomery, which would become EJI.

At the time of EJI’s founding, Alabama was the only state that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row, and still has no statewide public defender program. The cause of people sentenced to the death penalty became more dire in 1995 after Congress eliminated funding for death-penalty defense for lower-income people. Through EJI, Stevenson guaranteed a defense to anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty.

An EJI campaign to gain review of cases in which children under the age of 17 were sentenced to life without parole led to a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, that such mandatory sentencing laws for children were unconstitutional. The ruling affected statutes in 29 states. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that the decision applied retroactively, impacting the sentences of 2,300 people nationwide.

Seeing a correlation between the history of lynching in the South and the region’s current high rates of death penalty sentencing—especially among defendants of color—Stevenson developed the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018 in Montgomery, Ala.

The memorial and museum use design, art, and sculpture to lead visitors on a journey through the horror of slavery and lynchings to the civil rights era. It is the nation’s only public memorial to the more than 4,400 lynchings that terrorized Black Americans in the South from 1877 to 1950. During the research process to create the memorial, EJI discovered over 800 more lynchings than had previously been documented.

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. Stevenson and EJI’s work is also the subject of the 2019 HBO documentary True Justice.

Stevenson is a professor of law at New York University School of Law. He is a 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Grant. A native of Delaware, Stevenson earned his undergraduate degree at Eastern University.

Additional honorary degree recipients for the Tufts University Class of 2021 will be announced at a later date.

In addition, Yvonne T. Maddox, president and CEO of the TA Thornton Foundation and former acting deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, will address graduates of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy as part of the commencement festivities on May 23.

As part of the School of Engineering's commencement program, Tufts alumna Jeannie Diefenderfera distinguished leader in the telecommunications industry and Tufts trustee—will address bachelor's degree graduates on May 23. David Rosowsky—a professor of civil and environmental engineering and former provost at the University of Vermont who is also a “double Jumbo” Tufts alumnus and member of the School of Engineering Board of Advisors—will address graduates of the School of Engineering's graduate programs, on May 23.

Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, will deliver The Fletcher School’s keynote remarks as part of their virtual commencement celebration on May 23.

Updated on May 5 to include the speaker information for the School of Engineering and The Fletcher School, and a link to a story about honorary degree recipients.

Robin Smyton can be reached at robin.smyton@tufts.edu