Civil Rights Lawyer Bryan Stevenson smiles while receiving a standing ovation.
Civil Rights Lawyer Bryan Stevenson smiles while receiving a standing ovation ahead of his talk.
Photo provided by Shannon O'Brien

“Just Mercy” Author Bryan Stevenson Tells Wellesley Audience Hopelessness Is the Enemy of Justice

Josh Idaszak
May 3, 2022

“There’s a kind of anger and fear, a disconnect and aggression and violence all around us, and people aren’t hearing one another, and this problem creates inequality and injustice at levels that are really difficult to understand,” lawyer and criminal justice activist Bryan Stevenson said when addressing members of the Wellesley College community during a lecture on April 28. “What I’ve seen happen over the last half-century is devastating.” 

Stevenson’s lecture served as both the Betsy Wood Knapp ’64 Lecture in the Social Sciences and the Wilson Lecture. Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and a MacArthur fellow, is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., that 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. He is also the creative force behind two highly acclaimed cultural sites in Montgomery: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation in the U.S. and the connnection to mass incerceration and contemporary issues of racial bias. 

At the start of the event, Olga Shurchkov, director of the Knapp Social Science Center, talked about the history and background of these prestigious academic lectures. Kellie Carter Jackson, associate professor of Africana studies, then described the importance of Stevenson’s work and presence at Wellesley amid the ongoing national crisis of mass incarceration and its outsized impact on communities of color and poor communities. 

President Paula A. Johnson introduced Stevenson. “As state legislatures across the country seek to control what can or cannot be said in the classroom, or what can or cannot be read in libraries, Mr. Stevenson offers us a different path,” she said. “An open, inclusive path toward our shared history. A path back to each other. A path toward mutual understanding, and, ultimately, mercy.”

I do believe there are things we can do individually, and things we can do collectively, that will have an impact on the justice deficit. I do believe we can increase justice.

Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson began by highlighting the number of Americans affected by mass incarceration. “We had a prison population in America that was largely stable throughout the 20th century,” Stevenson said, with around a quarter-million individuals in jails and prisons throughout the United States. In the 1970s, he said, the rate of change began to increase significantly. “We committed to these policies that in my judgment were very misguided, and we went from 300,000 people in jails and prisons to 2.3 million people,” he said, adding that 110 million Americans have family members who are currently incarcerated, and more than 5 million Americans are on probation or parole. In addition, the number of incarcerated women in the United States has shot up by 800% in the last 25 years. 

“We’ve become the most carceral, punitive society on the planet,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be bothering many people.”

While Stevenson painted a dire picture of the ongoing carceral epidemic, he quickly pivoted toward solutions and the kind of moral approach that is necessary to alleviate injustice. “I do believe there are things we can do individually, and things we can do collectively, that will have an impact on the justice deficit,” he said. “I do believe we can increase justice.” 

Stevenson said people need to get close to those who are suffering, marginalized, and excluded to begin to alleviate the impact of mass incarceration. “Without proximity, we will not understand what is required to create justice,” he said. That kind of attention, he said, is critical to academic, scientific, and business success but is sometimes missing from criminal justice policy formation. As a student at Harvard Law School, he said, he personally experienced this proximity during a life-changing trip to Georgia to provide legal services to people on death row. “When I stepped into that space, everything changed, and I began to realize it was essential that I find a way to be with the condemned,” he said. “When we get proximate, we see and understand things that are essential to our capacity to provide justice.” 

Stevenson said it’s important to examine what underpins many of the narratives in the United States surrounding incarceration, particularly relating to addiction and dependency. “If we orient toward health, rather than give in to the narratives of fear and anger, we could make so much progress,” Stevenson said, adding that fear and anger are often at the root of much suffering and inequality, and some of history’s worst atrocities. “When you allow yourself to be governed by fear and anger, you just tolerate things you should never tolerate, you accept things you should never accept,” he said. “The true evil of American enslavement was the narrative we created to justify enslavement.”   

Stevenson also brought up the need to commit to truth and reconciliation, and to reparation, and he talked about his efforts to create spaces in Montgomery that allow for more honest conversations about American history. “I believe these things are sequential,” Stevenson said. “You cannot skip the truth part, and just jump to the reconciliation, because until you have a diagnosis, you don’t know what the treatment should be. You have to understand what it is that you are trying to fix.”

Toward the end of his address, Stevenson said it’s important to stay hopeful through trying times: “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Stevenson traced his own hopefulness back through his family, to his great-grandfather, an enslaved man who taught himself to read as a child in Virginia in the 1850s, in the face of harsh antiliteracy laws. 

“I don’t think I would be standing here if my great-grandfather hadn’t created that reality for us,” he said. “You can make decisions that are hopeful about what you are going to do, where you are going to go, how you are going to serve, what you are going to make a difference around, and it may seem silly to other people, but it is essential that you make that choice, if we are going to change the world, and do the things necessary to create the kind of justice and equality that we seek. Your hope is key.”