Bryan Stevenson had four things he wanted ABA lawyers to take away from his talk. The founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., received the ABA Medal, the association’s highest honor, on Saturday at the General Assembly of the Annual Meeting in Chicago. The Harvard Law School graduate, who recently won a historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 and younger are unconstitutional, advised the association’s attorneys to:
Find new ways to create justice. It is now projected that 1 in 3 black male babies is expected to go to prison in his lifetime, Stevenson said, so we’ve got to find ways to get closer to people and “get proximate to problems.”
“Proximity is the solution to what you do not know,” something he said scientists understand but most of society does not. Saying that lawyers “have an opportunity to do things that matter,” he urged them not to avoid the bad parts of town but to go there and become part of the solution.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” said the author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Change the narrative. The national narrative regarding racial difference has to change, he said, referring to the ongoing legacies of slavery as “smog in the air” that keeps us from being free.
Slavery didn’t end in 1865, he said, but simply evolved into a form of racial terrorism. He pointed to how Germany is doing the difficult work to confront its Nazi past and encouraged Americans to have the conversations we don’t have but need to have. “I want to liberate us [because] there’s something better on the other side,” Stevenson said.
Stay hopeful. Even when he had setbacks in his work as a public interest lawyer dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned, Stevenson realized that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice” and that “hope is our superpower.”
Be willing to do things that are uncomfortable. Recounting the excruciating experience of telling one of his death row clients that his last appeal was denied and he would be put to death that day, Stevenson said, “All of my clients are broken,” and too often the system is broken, too. In his work to win reversals, relief or release for more than 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row, he realized that “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
ABA President Hilarie Bass presented the award to Stevenson, lauding his work that challenges “America’s legacy of racial inequality, initiating anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts, as well as educational projects about slavery and segregation.”
During the assembly, Bass reviewed her year as ABA president. Saying that “our system of justice and the very health of our profession depends on a diverse legal profession,” she discussed the research results coming out of her Long-term Careers for Women in Law Initiative.
In addition to its work this year on legal services for homeless youth, Legal Fact Check, lawyer wellness and funding for Legal Services Corporation, she said, “The ABA has also taken a leading role in other issues affecting our nation and its people, from assisting asylum seekers who have had their children ripped from their arms, to standing up for an independent and impartial judiciary, to giving legal aid to victims of natural disasters.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan welcomed the ABA to Chicago and took note of the “energy in the air.” She said, “now is the time for us--the leading lawyers--to remember why we strove to become members of the profession.” She urged the assembled to “take all this good energy… home with you and put it to good use. Assist the people and the organizations you care deeply about. You will be more fulfilled as a lawyer, and the future will be better for all of us.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke also delivered welcoming remarks.