Over the span of two days, public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson shared his knowledge to the Duke community about having faith and hope amidst injustice.
Stevenson engaged in a public discussion with Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel, for the Chapel’s inaugural William Preston Few Lecture on Sept. 21. He delivered the fall 2022 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture on Sept. 22, discussing what it means to fight for justice.
Stevenson is the author of “Just Mercy,” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He also led the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which chronicle the legacy of slavery and racial segregation.
Sept. 21: Seeking Justice and Redemption in the Public Square
In an hour-long discussion with Powery, Stevenson reflected on his journey to finding mercy amid injustice and his own values of truth, faith and the power of a single person.
“Every time I have had to deal with a wave of injustice, there has always been a moment when mercy disrupted the weight of the injustice,” Stevenson said.
Attending law school without knowing a single Black lawyer from his community, Stevenson relied on his faith for hope he could become what he believed he could be.
“You don’t have to pretend like it’s going to be easy, you just act on it,” Stevenson said.
When asked about justice system reform, Stevenson said his beliefs about redemption were critical to his thoughts. He recalled feeling despair when unable to save a man on death row suffering from an intellectual disability from being executed.
“It was just something about the tragedy of it all,” Stevenson said. “Somehow, in that moment, it just felt like too much.”
However, he continued to fight despite wanting to give up after realizing he “do[es] what [he] do[es] because [he’s] broken too.”
“You can be broken and still be worthy of justice,” Stevenson said.
Powery then asked about Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to representing illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or victims of abuse in state jails and prisons. Stevenson said the initiative also addresses injustice outside of the legal world.
“We can’t succeed in the legal field if we can’t succeed in the narrative project,” Stevenson said.
He further emphasized the importance of “making yourself available in places of suffering” and hope.
“Being hopeful isn’t optional,” Stevenson said.
Powery left the audience with his takeaways of the evening.
“People aren’t crimes,” Powery said. “Go in peace.”
The audience immediately broke into conversation as people reflected on the event. Claire Shelnutt, a second-year master’s student at the Divinity School said she was “hopeful that [the event] will empower [her] towards courage.”
Sept. 22: Standing for Equal Justice
In the second part of the lecture series in Page Auditorium, Stevenson discussed themes of identity, proximity and hope. Reflecting on personal and professional stories throughout his life, Stevenson described key steps to take when working towards justice.
“Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice and oppression,” Stevenson said.
He explained how easy it is for many Americans to isolate themselves away from the problems of the oppressed, but being in their proximity is beneficial. He says all one needed to do was be close enough to “wrap your arms around someone and affirm their humanity and dignity.”
Stevenson also highlighted the critical importance of identity, which can be attributed to communities, institutions or even nations.
“We became a nation that has an identity that is rooted in punishment,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson ended by emphasizing the importance of hope.
“You have within you, a legacy of hope that you have to hold on to. It can empower you to do the things that sometimes seem difficult and overwhelming,” Stevenson said.
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