“Fear and Anger Are the Essential Ingredients of Injustice”

At Harvard Law School, Bryan Stevenson on getting proximate to the powerless

Bryan Stevenson
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

Civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A.’85, LL.D. ‘15, went straight to the point at the start of his remote Harvard Law School (HLS) Class Day speech today. “We’re living at a time when we are seeing profound, unjust inequality,” he said in the pre-recorded address from his Montgomery, Alabama, office at the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization he founded to help end mass incarceration and racism in criminal justice. “The need to confront inequality and injustice is as great today as it was when I finished at Harvard Law School.” 

Stevenson, also a law professor at New York University and a past recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, is well known for his racial-justice work and for leading the founding of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the memorial to victims of lynching that was dedicated in Montgomery in 2018. “If you read [Stevenson’s] amazing book, Just Mercy, you will see how much resistance and heartbreak he and his colleagues at EJI have had to endure for the greater good they pursue,” said HLS dean John Manning, who was Stevenson’s law school classmate, as he addressed the graduates earlier this afternoon. “He has found the heart and sinew to carry on, to take on the next case or cause, knowing that he might not prevail, and yet willing to press ahead because his clients need him, and because he can help. That is a high calling.” 

Stevenson’s address to the HLS class of 2020 echoed the themes of his career and his biography, as someone who grew up poor in a segregated community. “This pandemic has exposed the issues that we have in our society,” he said. “Too many people are sick, too many people are dying, so many people can’t get the health care they should be getting. “It’s the same with legal services and access to justice,” he continued. “Too many people can’t get the legal help they need. And no matter what area of the law that you are pursuing, I hope you will find a way to contend with this justice deficit that we are struggling with. We have to find ways to create more equality, more opportunity, more justice. There’s a difference between law and justice.” 

Justice, Stevenson urged the graduates, requires them to become proximate to the disempowered. “You have proven that you are masters of the law,” he said. “But doing justice requires more than mastering the law…I believe to do justice, we’re going to have to find ways to get proximate to the poor, to those who suffer, to those who are marginalized, to those who are excluded, to those who won’t find their way into court, won’t get the legal help they need if we don’t respond. Doing justice means doing things, sometimes, not for money, but because it is what we are called to do. 

“Our policymakers often make the mistake of creating policies from a distance,” he continued. “And because they don’t understand the things they need to understand, they don’t come up with effective solutions. When you’re proximate to the poor and the excluded, you hear things you wouldn’t otherwise hear. You see things you wouldn’t otherwise see. 

“I’m a product of someone’s choice to get proximate,” Stevenson added, pivoting his remarks toward his own life and confrontations with racism. “I grew up in a poor community, a racially segregated community. I started my education at a colored school. When I was a little boy, they didn’t let black kids attend the public schools. When my dad was a teenager, he couldn’t go to high school. There were no high schools for black kids in our community…Well, lawyers came into our community. And they made them open up the public schools. They enforced the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And because those lawyers got proximate to poor kids like me, I got to go to high school, I got to go to college, I got to go to law school.” 

After college, Stevenson said, he realized that “if you want to get a graduate degree in history or English or political science, to get admitted to graduate school, you have to know something about history, English, or political science…And to be honest, that’s how I found my way to law school. It became very clear to me you don’t need to know anything to go to law school,” he teased, repeating a familiar joke he often tells in speeches. 

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. If someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar; someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. I think even when you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And justice requires that we understand the other things you are before we execute you. 

At HLS, he began working with inmates on death row. “I got proximate to condemned prisoners. I met people who were literally dying for legal assistance,” he remembered. “I learned that we have a criminal-justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. I learned about the challenge we have in this country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And it was that proximity to inequality and injustice that changed my life, that created this path for me…It’s being proximate to condemned people that I learned that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. It’s there that I discovered that if someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar; someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. I think even when you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And justice requires that we understand the other things you are before we execute you. It was in proximity to the condemned that I began to understand what justice might require.” 

“You don’t have to go to death row,” Stevenson continued, but “I hope you will find a way to take seriously this challenge of doing justice by getting proximate. Proximity won’t be enough by itself…We’re also going to have to change narratives.” He talked about the dramatic rise of mass incarceration in the United States—”Our prison population has gone from 300,000 in the 1970s to 2.2 million people in our jails and prisons today”—and the failed war on drugs. “I think we adopted these policies in the ‘70s and ‘80s because we were being governed by people who were preaching the politics of fear and anger. And I actually think doing justice means that we have to fight against narratives of fear and anger. Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice, of oppression, of inequality. Go anywhere in the world where people are being abused or mistreated, where their rights are not protected, and you’ll find people justifying those violations of rights with these narratives of fear and anger…My work has caused me to believe we have to change the narrative about race in America, because I don’t believe we’re free in this country. I think we are burdened by a long history of racial injustice.” 

One of the most powerful moments of the address came when Stevenson told the story of a client he was representing, a 14-year-old boy who was being tried as an adult. “We put young children in adult jails and prisons. And it bothers me because when I go see my clients in jail, and they’re 14 years of age, they are a child. And I don’t understand this law that has allowed judges to turn young children into adults. I don’t think that’s justice. And sometimes I get frustrated. And there was a night some years back when I was just overwhelmed by this. And I started thinking about the power we’ve given to some of our judges, to turn children into adults. And to me, it didn’t make any sense. It almost seemed like we were giving the judge the power to do magic. 

“I was up too late, a little sleepy, wasn’t thinking clearly,” he continued. “And I just started thinking, well, you know, if you’re an advocate, you should advocate that the judge use that magic to help your client rather than hurt your client. I started thinking about that and I got carried away and I wrote this motion—a motion you should never write”: “Motion to Try My Poor 14-Year-Old Black Male Client Like a Rich 75-Year-Old Privileged Corporate Executive.” 

Months later, when he arrived at the court to argue the motion he’d so regretted submitting, an older black man, a janitor for the courthouse, greeted him outside and gave him a hug. “I’m so proud of you,” the man said. In the courtroom, the judge demanded of Stevenson, “Did you write this crazy motion?” As he argued for the motion, “The court was filling up with people angry that I was talking about race and poverty and abuse of power. Before I knew it, the courtroom was filled with people, prosecutors and clerk workers and others in the courthouse who were angry that I was having this argument.” 

The janitor paced outside the room and looked in through the window. Eventually he came in and sat down behind Stevenson. During a break, “the deputy sheriff saw the older black man, the janitor, in the courtroom, and he got offended. This deputy jumped up and he ran over to this old black man. And he said, ‘Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?’ And that’s when this older man stood up, and he looked at me, and he looked at that deputy, and he said: ‘I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, you keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.’”  

“My message to you is that I hope you’ll keep your eyes on the prize of doing justice, and hold on in these strange times,” Stevenson told the graduates. “I have the privilege of working in Montgomery...in a community where I am constantly reminded by the generation that came before me. And they did so much more with so much less. They fought, they died, they bled to end segregation to create opportunities for people like me. I’m standing on their shoulders. And when they were overwhelmed and challenged, they had this powerful anthem they would sing. They would say, ‘We shall overcome.’ This is a strange time. It’s a difficult time. We can’t all be together. But I am persuaded that we shall overcome.”

Read more articles by Marina N. Bolotnikova

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