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Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization, will deliver the keynote address at the 2023 Spring Commencement on May 14.
The initiative has helped exonerate innocent death-row inmates, confronted abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill, aided children who were prosecuted as adults and won major legal challenges dealing with excessive and unfair sentencing.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said selecting Stevenson to deliver the commencement address aligns with the University’s goals. “Carolina’s mission calls for us to improve society and to help solve the world’s greatest challenges, and Bryan Stevenson has done just that in his work in the areas of social justice, equality and reform,” he said. “He is uniquely suited to address our graduates at this critical time in their lives.”
In 2018, Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which is in Montgomery, Alabama, and according to its website, “provides a comprehensive history of the United States with a focus on the legacy of slavery,” and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also in Montgomery, which publicizes through sculpture past lynchings and racial terrorism in the South, while advocating for social justice.
In 2014, Stevenson published Just Mercy, about his efforts to exonerate a wrongfully accused man. The book is a New York Times bestseller and won the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. In 2019 it was adapted into a movie by the same name. Michael B. Jordan starred as Stevenson, and Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx played Walter McMillian, an African American man unjustly convicted of murdering a teenage white girl in Monroeville, Alabama.
Stevenson is no stranger to UNC. He visited campus in 2015 to speak about his work and Just Mercy, which the Carolina campus community was invited to read as part of The Tar Heel Family Reading Program in 2020.
Stevenson said he is always excited to speak to college graduates, according to The Well, the University’s newsletter. He noted he has long appreciated Carolina’s achievements, though his admiration for the University’s success originated on the hardwood and grew to include its academic mission.
“It started as a child for me when we watched ACC basketball games. I admired Dean Smith and many UNC players,” Stevenson told The Well. “But working with legends like Julius Chambers, Jack Boger and Ted Shaw also made me think of UNC as a place where great teaching was taking place. North Carolina has a rich history that is key to the future of America, and I think UNC has a central role to play.”
Chambers ’62 (JD), graduated first in his class at UNC and was the first African American to serve as editor-in-chief of the Carolina Law Review. Boger ’74 (JD) joined the UNC Law faculty in 1990 and taught for 27 years until retiring in 2017 as the Wade Edwards Distinguished Professor of Law. Shaw is the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of law and the director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
— Laurie D. Willis ’86