Bryan Stevenson, whose work as a social justice lawyer and human rights advocate has won reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 wrongly convicted prisoners on death row—in addition to relief for hundreds of other men, women and children wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced—will deliver the Commencement address at George Washington University’s Commencement on the National Mall on May 21, 2023.
Stevenson will receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
Stevenson is the author and subject of The New York Times bestseller Just Mercy, which was later adapted into the 2019 motion-picture film in which actor Michael B. Jordan portrayed Stevenson on the big screen. The storyline recounted Stevenson’s work exonerating Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx in the movie), who had been unjustly 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 been the 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 death row prisoners, children in the justice system, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective legal representation and others whose trials are marred by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.
He and EJI staff have obtained reversals and reduced sentences in numerous capital cases that have significantly changed the constitutional doctrine governing the criminal justice system. Stevenson has argued and won multiple cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger.
Stevenson has recently initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge inequality in America, including creation of two highly 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 chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation and their connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
His career-long quest for justice and human rights serves as a reminder of the impact GW students can make as they go out in the world.
“As an advocate for human rights, representative for the wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced, and leader of anti-poverty and antidiscrimination efforts, Bryan Stevenson will serve as an inspiration to our graduates,” said President Mark S. Wrighton. “We are honored that Mr. Stevenson will provide the keynote address at our Commencement ceremony on the National Mall.”
Stevenson began his career representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in 1985, when he was a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. A member of New York University School of Law’s clinical faculty since 1998 and currently the Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice, Stevenson was appointed NYU University Professor last March.
He has worked with graduates and students throughout his time in higher education to help them become directly involved in racial justice, anti-poverty and health equity work. He looks forward to addressing and encouraging GW graduates to be global citizens who advocate for others.
"George Washington University has a long history of producing outstanding graduates who have made a profound difference in the world,” said Stevenson. “I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to them on such an extraordinary day in the life of every university student."
His work has been widely recognized and celebrated, including with the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize; the ABA Medal, the American Bar Association’s highest honor; the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by United States Supreme Court Justice John Stevens; the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers; and the Olaf Palme Prize for international human rights. In 2003, the Society of American Law Teachers presented Stevenson the SALT Human Rights Award. In 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and also the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild.
Stevenson was named in Fortune’s 2016 and 2017 World’s Greatest Leaders list. He received a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Award from New York University in 2014 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize from the King Center in Atlanta in 2018.
He graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He continued his education at Harvard, where he graduated in 1985 with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a J.D. from the School of Law. He also holds honorary degrees from more than 40 universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University.
Stevenson joins the ranks of previous GW Commencement speakers, 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, B.A. ’98. He succeeds history-making Olympian alumna Elana Meyers Taylor, B.S. ’06, M.T.A. ’11, the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympics history and the oldest woman to medal for the United States at the Winter Olympics in any sport, who delivered the Commencement address last May. These speakers have added to a long line of GW Commencement guests stretching back to the first ceremony in 1824, which honored the Marquis de Lafayette and Henry Clay.
Visit GW’s Commencement website for additional information about the week’s schedule and events.