Bryan Stevenson, whose work as a social justice advocate and human rights defender has won quash, communion or parole for more than 135 wrongly convicted inmates on death row – in addition to relief for hundreds of other men, women and children who have been wrongly convicted or wrongly sentenced convicted – will deliver the commencement address at the opening of George Washington University on the National Mall on May 21, 2023.
Stevenson is awarded an honorary doctorate of law degree.
Stevenson is the author and subject of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy, which was later adapted into the 2019 motion picture in which actor Michael B. Jordan portrayed Stevenson on the big screen. The plot told of Stevenson’s work exonerating Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx in the film), who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. The book won the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Best Nonfiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the NAACP Image Award for Best Nonfiction.
Since 1989, Stevenson has served as Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization he founded that focuses on social justice in the context of criminal justice reform in the United States. EJI litigates on behalf of prisoners sentenced to death, children in the justice system, those wrongly convicted or accused, poor people who have been denied effective legal representation, and others whose trials are marred by racial prejudice or misconduct by prosecutors.
He and EJI staff have obtained annulments and reduced sentences in numerous deaths that have transformed the constitutional doctrine of the criminal justice system. Stevenson has argued and won several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting convicted prisoners suffering from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling removing the mandatory life sentence without parole for all children under 17 years banned.
Stevenson recently launched major new efforts to address poverty and discrimination that challenges America’s inequality, including the creation of two critically acclaimed cultural sites that opened in 2018: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, both in Montgomery, Alabama. These new national landmark institutions document the legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation and their connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
His career-long pursuit of justice and human rights is a reminder of the impact GW students can make as they go out into the world.
“As a human rights advocate, a representative of the wrongfully convicted and wrongly convicted, and a leader in efforts to end poverty and discrimination, Bryan Stevenson will serve as an inspiration to our graduates,” said President Mark S. Wrighton. “We are honored that Mr. Stevenson will deliver the keynote speech at our opening ceremony on the National Mall.”
Stevenson began his career representing death row inmates and prisoners on death row in 1985 when he was a prosecutor with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Stevenson has been a clinical faculty member at New York University School of Law since 1998 and is currently the Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice. Stevenson was named NYU University Professor last March.
Throughout his time in higher education, he has worked with graduate and undergraduate students to help them get directly involved in the work of racial justice, poverty alleviation, and health justice. He looks forward to addressing GW graduates and encouraging them to be global citizens who care about others.
“George Washington University has a long history of outstanding graduates who have transformed the world,” said Stevenson. “I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you on such a special day in the life of every university student.”
His work has been widely recognized and celebrated, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Genius award; the ABA Medal, the highest award from the American Bar Association; the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after being nominated by US Supreme Court Justice John Stevens; the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers’ Public Interest Lawyer of the Year; and the Olaf Palme Prize for International Human Rights. In 2003, the Society of American Law Teachers presented Stevenson with the SALT Human Rights Award. In 2004, he received the American College of Trial Lawyers’ Award for Courageous Advocacy and the National Lawyers Guild’s Lawyer for the People Award.
Stevenson was named to Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list in 2016 and 2017. In 2014 he received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Award from New York University and the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize from the King Center in Atlanta.
He graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He continued his education at Harvard, where he received both a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a JD from the School of Law in 1985. He also holds honorary doctorates from more than 40 universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford University.
Stevenson joins a lineup of previous GW Commencement spokespersons, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, chef, humanitarian and human rights advocate José Andrés, NBC News journalist Savannah Guthrie, and actor, director and producer Kerry Washington, BA ’98. He succeeds Olympian storied Elana Meyers Taylor, BS ’06, MTA ’11, the most decorated black athlete in Winter Olympics history and the oldest woman to win a medal for the United States at the Winter Olympics in any sport , which provided the prelude address last May. These speakers have added to a long line of guests at the GW Commencement, dating back to the first ceremony in 1824 honoring the Marquis de Lafayette and Henry Clay.
Visit the GW Commencement website for more information on the week’s schedule and events.