Bryan A. Stevenson, Johns Hopkins University’s 2018 Commencement Speaker

Bryan A. Stevenson, Johns Hopkins University’s 2018 Commencement Speaker

October 24, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


(ALSTON) Now on to the main event, the address for
Bryan Stevenson. This is a man who has had an exceptional impact on the world
as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Mr. Stevenson has dedicated
his life to fighting poverty and challenging the legacy of poverty and
racial discrimination in the American criminal justice system. His best-selling
book, “Just mercy” tells the stories of some of his cases. They include children
who have been persecuted as adults and innocent death row prisoners who have
been wrongly condemned. Recently his organization opened a museum built on
the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s called the
Legacy Museum, from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Nearby is the Equal
Justice Initiative’s National Memorial to victims of lynching called the
National Memorial of Peace and Justice. It is my honor and my privilege to
introduce Mr Bryan Stevenson. (APPLAUSE) (STEVENSON) Thank you so much, it is such a great
honor to be here with you today. I have so much respect for this institution,
Johns Hopkins is an amazing university, it’s an amazing institution, and to you
graduates I just want to say congratulations to you for what you have
achieved. Today you will get a degree that confirms and legitimates and
affirms the hard work that you have done over the last four years. But I also
believe that today your degree will do something else I think your degree now
authorizes you to change the world, and I say that with all sincerity. I believe
that you’ve done something really remarkable by achieving what you’ve
achieved, I believe you’ve done something extraordinary by completing your course
of study, but there is something greater yet for you to do. We need you to leave
this university with high expectations about what you can do to create a more
just world. And I’m really serious, I hope you will help find ways to change things.
I work in the criminal justice space and I’ve seen what happens when graduates
become indifferent to the problems that they see around them. In 1972 we had
300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today we have 2.3 million people in jails and
prisons. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the
world. We’ve got six million people on probation or parole. There are 70 million
Americans with criminal arrests, which means that when they try to get jobs or
try to get loans they’re often disfavored. We’ve done terrible things to
women over the last quarter century, of the last 25 years the percentage of
women going to prison has increased 646 percent, 70 percent of the women we send
to jails and prisons are single moms with minor children, which means that
when these moms go to jails and prisons the lives of these children get
disrupted. We do terrible things to people when they come out of jails and
prisons. We disenfranchise them, we exclude them, we won’t employ them. The
statistic that keeps me up latest at night is the one from the Bureau of
Justice. The Bureau of Justice now predicts that one in three black male babies born
in this country is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime. The
statistic for Latino boys is one in six. And there is this stunning silence and
indifference. There aren’t enough people trying to change the world to disrupt
this despair. I go into poor communities with 13 year-old children tell me they expect
to go to jail or prison, and so for me there is this need to change things and
whether we’re talking about the criminal justice system or the environment or
whether we’re talking about how we deal with the status of women or we deal with
immigration that we deal with international security, I need you, we
need you, to become graduates who are committed to changing the world, and
there are four things I believe you have to do if you want to change the world.
The first thing is that you have to find ways no matter what your field of study,
doesn’t matter whether you’re an engineer or a teacher or a nurse or
practitioner or whatever you do, you have to find ways in whatever community you
live to get proximate to people who are suffering, to get closer to people who
are excluded, to go into the parts of the community that other people say you
shouldn’t go to. Many of us grew up in communities where people would say to
us “oh that’s the bad part of town, “stay as far away from that part of town as
possible.” Today I’m going to urge you to do the opposite. We need a class of
graduates from this institution that looks for ways to get closer to the poor,
the marginalized, the excluded, the incarcerated, those who are dealing with
inequality and injustice and in proximity to the poor and the disfavored
I believe whatever you studied whatever you’re trying to do, your commitment to
doing it will be deep and there is power in proximity. And no matter where you go
if you find ways to get past the barriers that exclude those who are
disfavored and you get proximate, you’ll discover something transformative. I
learned about proximity not from my time as a lawyer, not from my graduate study.
I’d learned about it from my grandmother. I told the group last night I had a
remarkable extraordinary grandmother. My grandmother was the classic
african-american matriarch, she was tough, she was strong, she could be intimidating.
My grandmother was the end of every argument and our family. My grandmother
was also the start of a lot of arguments in our family. And she had these tactics
and things that she would do and when I was a little boy,
my grandmother would come up to me and she’d give me these hugs and she’d
squeeze me so tightly I thought she was trying to hurt me, and then she’d see me
an hour later and and she’d look at me she’d say “Bryan do you still feel me
hugging you?” and if I said no she would jump on me again. And by the time I was
10 my grandmother had taught me every time I would see her the first thing I
would say is mama I always feel you hugging me and she’d
smile this smile I didn’t appreciate what she was doing until I got much
older, she lived to be in her 90’s, she worked as a domestic her whole life, and
one day she fell down and she broke her hip, she developed cancer and she was
dying. And I was a college student when she was on her deathbed and I went to
see my grandmother and I was just pouring my heart out because she meant
the world to me, she was so important to me and I was holding her hand saying
everything I could think to say it was finally time for me to leave and I stood
up to leave I didn’t even think my grandmother could hear me her eyes were
closed but as I was about to leave my grandmother opened her eyes and she
squeezed my hand and the last thing she said to me she said “Bryan do you still
feel me hugging you?” and then she said “I’m always going to be hugging you.” And I
tell you that because if we get proximate to people who are suffering,
people who are excluded, people who are neglected, people are abused, we don’t
have to know all of the answers, we don’t have to understand all of the
complexities, we don’t have to have all of the solutions. Sometimes we just have
to be close enough to those who are struggling and wrap our arms around them
and let them know that their humanity is recognized by us.That their life has
meaning and purpose. In proximity we can embrace people who need to be embraced.
There’s such power that comes to us. I’m the product of someone’s choice to get
proximate. I grew up a community where black children couldn’t go to the public
schools. In my county there were no high schools for black children when my dad
was a teenager, he couldn’t go to high school in our county. And I remember when
lawyers came into the community and made them open up the public schools so black
kids like me could go to high school. I got to go to high school. I got to go to
college. When I got to college, I come to Johns Hopkins, I see so many of you, and
even sitting here I can tell all of you are so much more cool than I was when I was in college. I was a really uncool college student. I would do
these things in college that you’re not supposed to do. When I got to college I
was so excited, I was very involved in music, I was very involved in sports, and
I would go up to people because I was so excited even if I didn’t know them and
I’d say “hi my name is Bryan Stevenson and I love college!” And people would look
at me like I’m crazy. I went into the cafeteria one time I sat down and I
looked at these kids I said, “guess what, “I love college, I’m gonna spend the rest of
my life in college!” and what I remember these kids doing is getting up and
walking away from me, and I called my mom said, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m gonna spend the
rest of my life in college.” My mom said, “you know Bryan I didn’t go to college
but I don’t think they’re gonna let you do that.” I said no mom they will and I was a philosophy major in college so by the
time I became a senior I started thinking I better have some deep
thoughts I started working on my deep thoughts and then I realized nobody was
gonna pay me to philosophize when I graduated from college. And so I tried to
figure out how to stay in school and because nobody in my family had gone to
college I didn’t know what all of you know, I didn’t know that in this country
if you want to do graduate work in history or English or political science,
to get admitted to graduate school you have to know something about history
English or political science. (LAUGHTER) I was very intimidated by that so I kept looking
and kept looking and to be honest that’s how I found my way to law school. (LAUGHTER) It was
very clear to me you don’t need to know anything to go to law school. You don’t. (CROWD LAUGHTER) So I signed up for that, and a few months later found myself sitting in a
classroom at Harvard Law School deeply disillusioned because I went there
because it was concerned about racism and poverty and social injustice and
nobody was talking about poverty or race and I got disillusioned. I decided to
leave I went over to the School of Government to get a degree in public
policy and I remember the day two months into that program when I woke up and I
looked in the mirror and I thought, “wow, I’m even more miserable here than I was
at the law school.” They were teaching us to maximize benefits and minimize cost
but it didn’t seem to matter whose benefits got maximized and whose costs
got minimized and I went back to the law school and I was about to do this thing
I’m gonna urge all of you not to do, I began to believe that the privilege of
education was not that you get to make choices with your life.
I began to rationalize accepting a career as a lawyer that I knew was not
going to be fulfilling. I want to urge you to understand that the privilege of
this degree is that you get to make choices with what you do with your life,
you don’t have to accept careers that don’t animate your heart, you don’t have
to accept things that don’t make you feel good about what you do each and
every day, and in that moment of crisis I couldn’t figure out what to do and I got
proximate. I took a course that required me to spend a month representing people
on death row and it was in proximity to the condemned that I heard voices that I
hadn’t heard before. I saw things that I hadn’t seen before. I learned that we had
a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty
than if you’re poor and innocent. I saw poor people being crushed by
inequality and in proximity to it I found my calling, I knew that I wanted to
help condemned people get to a better place, and because I got proximate when I
got back to Harvard Law School you couldn’t get me out of the Law School
Library. I needed to know everything and I tell you that because proximity will
empower you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor or an engineer, doesn’t
matter whether you’re a teacher or a nurse, if you get proximate you stay
close to people who are suffering, if you learn things that reveal inequality you
will be empowered. We change the world when we choose not to isolate ourselves,
but proximity won’t be enough. The second thing you’re going to have to do to
change the world, you’re gonna have to change some of the narratives that are
out there. We talk about the policies, we talk about the issues but there are
narratives underneath those policies and issues. We have mass incarceration in
this country because we declared this misguided war on drugs. We said people
who are drug dependent and people who are drug addicted we said those people
are criminals, and we didn’t have to say that. We could have said that people with
addiction and dependency have a health problem, we could have used our health
care system to respond to that problem but instead we said no those are
criminals and now we’ve sent hundreds of thousands of people to jails in prisons.
The reason why we did that though has to do with a narrative. We had politicians
that were preaching to us what I call “the politics of fear and anger.” They
wanted us to be afraid and they wanted us to be angry, and if we allow ourselves
to be governed by fear and anger we’ll tolerate inequality, we’ll tolerate
injustice and so I believe we’re going to have to
change the narrative, we cannot be a community of people who are willing to
be governed by fear and anger, fear and anger are the essential ingredients of
injustice and oppression and inequality. (APPLAUSE) Go anywhere, go anywhere in the world
where there’s oppression, if you ask the people why they do what they do they’ll
give you a narrative of fear and anger, and we’re gonna have to change some of
these narratives, we’re gonna have to change the narratives that are out there,
we’re gonna have to create a new kind of world, and in this new world we create
we’re gonna have to be adamant that people with disabilities should not be
disfavored or excluded or pushed to the margins, in this new world we’re gonna
have to create a narrative that no woman should have to worry about harassment or
sexual violence in the workplace we’re gonna have to create a narrative… (APPLAUSE) … that affirms the value of every human being,
no person who’s a religious minority, no person who is gay or lesbian, no person
who is dismissed or excluded because of who they are can be tolerated.We’re
going to have to create a narrative that changes our relationship to the history
of racial inequality that we’ve inherited in this country. You know we’re
not free in this country. We’re not. (APPLAUSE) We’re burdened by this history and it’s in the
air it’s like smog it’s everywhere and we all breathe it in and our parents
and our grandparents and our great-grandparents should have changed
the narrative, but they didn’t, so that means we have to change the narrative.
We’re gonna have to talk about some things that we haven’t talked about
before. I think we have to talk about the fact that we live in a post-genocide
society. Before Europeans were on this continent, there were native people here
and when and the Europeans that came to this continent slaughtered millions of
native people that killed them through famine and war and disease it was a
genocide, but we didn’t call it that, We said those native people are savages, we
use this narrative of racial difference to justify the violence that we
subjected native populations to, we forced them off their land, and that
narrative of racial difference that became this part of who we are, that
we just accepted that narrative was crafted and I believe it was that
narrative that made American slavery so insidious. I don’t think the great evil
of American slavery was forced labor or involuntary servitude, I think
the real evil of American slavery was this ideology that we created that black
people aren’t the same as white people, they’re not fully evolved, they’re not
human they can’t do this, they can’t do that, it was this ideology of white
supremacy that was the true evil of American slavery. (APPLAUSE) (STEVENSON) And if, if you read the
Thirteenth Amendment, it talks about ending involuntary servitude, it talks
about ending forced labor, but it doesn’t say anything about ending this narrative
of racial difference, and because of that I don’t think slavery ended in America
in 1865. I think it just evolved. It turned into decades where we had
terrorism and lynchings and people were pulled out of their homes and they were
drowned and they were beaten, not far from where we were sitting
black people were lynched, sometimes literally on the courthouse lawn and we
haven’t talked about what that era of terrorism did to our demographic
geography. The black people in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles
and Oakland didn’t go to those communities as immigrants looking for
new economic opportunities, they went to those communities as refugees and
exiles from terror in the American South. Because we never dealt with that
narrative it continued and even when we had this heroic Civil Rights Movement, it
was insufficient to change the narrative because we’ve accepted a narrative about
the Civil Rights Movement. I’m going to tell you that I think has gotten a
little too celebratory. I hear people talking about the Civil Rights Movement
and it’s starting to sound like a three-day carnival. On day one, Rosa Parks
didn’t give up her seat on a bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington,
on day three we changed all the laws and racism was over, and I wish that was our
history but that’s not our history. (APPLAUSE) We did difficult things, terrible things, and
because of that today that narrative of racial difference is still out there and
it breaks my heart to look out at this amazing class of graduates and have to
say to the black and brown graduates sitting in this classroom even though
you have a Johns Hopkins degree, even though you’ve done remarkable work, even
though you’ve been kind and working hard, even though you’ve had these great
accomplishments, if you are black or brown you will go places in this country
where you may be presumed dangerous and guilty just because of your color. And
until that changes we cannot not accept the responsibility to change
the world, we’ve got to change the world by changing these narratives, there’s
something better waiting for us than we’ve experienced in this country. And I
want us to get there, but even changing the narratives is not going to be enough,
we’re gonna have to get proximate, change narratives the third thing you’re gonna
have to do is you’re gonna have to stay hopeful. You cannot change the world if
you allow yourself to become hopeless, I actually believe that hopelessness is
the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists and so
you’ve got to find a way to stay hopeful, you either are hopeful or you’re the
problem. I hate saying it like that but I really do believe it because your hope
is your superpower, hope will allow you sometimes to stand up when other people
say sit down hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet,
when you’re hopeful you can actually believe things and see things that other
people can’t see, when I moved to Montgomery it was a city with 59 markers
and monuments to the Confederacy, we celebrate Jefferson Davis’s birthday as
a state holiday, we celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday, we don’t
have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama we have Martin Luther King / Robert E. Lee
day. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis
High, and when I moved there you could not find the word slave or slavery
anywhere in that city, there was this indifference, this silence and today I
want to invite all of you to come to Montgomery because today in Montgomery
we have this National Memorial to Peace and Justice, we have a Legacy Museum that
lifts up the voices of millions of people who were enslaved in this country,
and when you come with hope you begin to see things and I will tell you that
museum and memorial was built by a lot of hard work, a lot of hard research, it
took donations, but mostly it was the hope of some of us who believed that we
could change the narrative in this country, and when I’m there sometimes I
feel what that hope can give me. I’ll be honest I’ve been in that museum, I’ve
been in the memorial and it could feel like sometimes that I hear the spirits
of enslaved people, spirits of people who were lynched, people who were segregated and
disfavored, the people who are incarcerated, and sometimes what I hear
them saying is “stay hopeful, your work is not yet done.” Hope is critical to your
capacity to change the world, and Havel said, “the kind of hope you need is not pie
in the sky, it’s not in preference for “optimism over pessimism” he said it’s an
“orientation of the spirit, a willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and
be a witness” Fourth and finally if we’re going to change the world we’re gonna
have to be proximate, change narrative, stay hopeful, but the fourth and final
thing you’re going to have to do is be willing to do things that are
inconvenient and uncomfortable, and I hate saying that because it’s difficult
to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable because we’re human, and
humans are biologically and psychologically programmed to do what’s
comfortable, what’s convenient, but to change the world, you’re gonna have to do
inconvenient things, uncomfortable things, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not against
comfort, that’s not what I’m saying. I gave a talk down in Mississippi, the
people met me at the airport they said, “Oh Mr. Stevenson we know all about you.
We know what kind of lawyer you are, “we know what kind of work you do, we read
your book.” And they said “Mr. Stevenson we’re having our conference at the
luxurious DoubleTree Hotel.” They said “We decided that you would not want to stay
at the luxurious DoubleTree Hotel.” (LAUGHTER) They said, “we’ve asked one of the farmers to
put you up at the barn.” I said “what is wrong with you?!” (LAUGHTER) I said, “of course I want
to stay in the luxurious DoubleTree Hotel. “I like those chocolate chip cookies just like everybody else.” (LAUGHTER) That’s not what I’m tal…. No, what I’m talking about that sometimes you have to position yourself
in uncomfortable places, and I’m here as a witness that when you do it, even
though it may be difficult, even though it may be intimidating, there is something magical, something powerful that
happens on the other side of it. Now this was taught to me by an older man, I was
giving a talk in a church and this older man came into the back of the church he
was in a wheelchair, older black man, and I was giving my talk with this older man
in the back, he was staring at me with this stern angry look on his face, and I couldn’t
figure out why is he looking at me so sternly. He looked angry. And I got
through my talk and people were very nice and appropriate, they came up to me
but that older black man was sitting at the back still staring, and finally when
everybody else left this older black man wheeled himself to the front of the
church and when he got in front of me he put his hand up, he had that stern look
on his face, and he got in front of me and he looked up at me and he said, “do
you know what you’re DOING?” And I just stood there, and then he asked me again
he said, “do you KNOW what you’re doing?” and I stepped back and I mumbled something, I don’t even remember what I said, then he asked me again he said, “do you know, what
you’re doing?” And then this older man looked at me he said, “I’m going to tell
you what you’re doing.” And this man looked at me and he said, “you’re beating
the drum for justice. You keep beating the drum for justice!” And I was so moved.
I was also really really relieved because I just didn’t know what was
about to happen (LAUGHTER). And then this man grabbed me by my jacket and he pulled me
into his wheelchair he said, “come here, c’mere, c’mere, I’m going to show you something”. and this older black man turned his head, he said, “you see this scar I have behind
my right ear?” He says, “I got that scar in “Greene County Alabama in 1963 trying to
register people to vote.” He turned his head, he said, “you see this cut I have
down here at the bottom of my neck?” he said, “I got that cut in Philadelphia,
Mississippi in 1964 trying to register people to vote.” He turned his head, he
said, “you see this dark spot?” He said, “that’s my bruise, got my bruise in
Birmingham, Alabama in 1965 trying to register people to vote.” Then he looked
at me. He said, “I’m going to tell you something, young man.” He said, “people look at me, they think I’m some old man sitting in a wheelchair “covered with cuts and bruises and scars.” He looked at me, he said, “but these,
something, I’m gonna tell you something.” He said, “these are not my cuts.” He said,
“these are not my bruises.” He said, “these are not my scars.” He said, “these are my
medals of honor.” (APPLAUSE) I tell you that, I tell you that… (APPLAUSE CONTINUES) … because I believe that we can
do something transformative, I believe really simple things, I believe that each
of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
I believe if someone tells a lie they’re not just a liar, if they take something
they’re not just a thief, I think even if you kill someone you’re not just a
killer, and justice requires that we know the other things you are before we judge
you. I am persuaded that in this country the opposite of poverty is not wealth. We
talk too much about money sometimes, I am persuaded that in this country and
around the world the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, I believe the opposite of
poverty is justice, and when we do justice we deconstruct the conditions
that give rise to poverty, and finally I believe if we’re going to change the
world, if we’re going to create a new future, if we’re gonna use these degrees
to allow things to change, that must be changed, we have to accept that we cannot
measure how we’re doing by looking at how well we treat privileged people and
powerful people and celebrated people. Our commitment to change in
the world is gonna have to be reflected in how we treat poor people, incarcerated
people, neglected people, disfavored people. It’s in that context that we
changed the world. (APPLAUSE) And so… And so… I just want you to remember that when you leave
here today nothing will determine your ability to change the world more than
your heart. Your grades are not a measure of your capacity to change the world.
Your income will not be a measure of your capacity to change the world. What
will allow you to change the world is if you let the ideas in your mind be
fueled by some conviction in your heart. The degree you receive today is so
wonderful, so meritorious, so appropriate that we applaud you, but if you take that
degree and you find ways to get proximate, if you find ways to change
narratives, if you stay hopeful, and you do uncomfortable things, you can put that
degree on the wall and in a few years that degree won’t just be a degree, it
will be your Medal of Honor as a Hopkins graduate who is changing the world. I
wish you to it and thank you for all you’ve done. Thank you. (APPLAUSE) (APPLAUSE) (APPLAUSE) (APPLAUSE)