Only one Alabamian made Time.com’s list of the 31 people who are “changing the south.” And while you might not know his name, you definitely know his work.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala. is a public interest attorney who has dedicated his career to helping “the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Since the 1980’s, when Stevenson founded EJI, the group has won several major legal challenges including: 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.
Stevenson and his staff are responsible for reversing, releasing, and relieving over 125 wrongly convicted prisoners on death row, and successfully won a historic ruling in the supreme court in 2012 – stating that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional.
On top of his already impressive legal career, Stevenson is a professor at the New York University School of Law, has received 29 honorary doctoral degrees including degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford University, and is a New York Times bestseller’s list author for his book Just Mercy.
But none of these things are listed as the reason Time.com chose to honor him.
“He came to the South to advocate for prisoners facing execution, almost all of whom were black,” TIME reported. “Legal executions of African Americans had surged, but not out of the blue; they climbed just when lynchings were deemed unseemly. What had taken place on the courthouse lawn moved indoors, black robes replacing white.”
“If you’re in a country where we have just refused to acknowledge the history of slavery, I think that creates a certain kind of comfort with that history—a certain indifference to the victimization and the anguish and the trauma that that history created, which we can only address by talking more directly about that history,” Stevenson told TIME. “I am a proponent of truth and reconciliation. I just think those things are sequential.”
With that in mind, Stevenson began a new project in Montgomery: the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial in the nation devoted solely to victims of lynching.
Over 10,000 people visited the memorial and museum within the first week of its opening in April, and tourism officials estimate they could attract 100,000 more visitors in the next year. “One young man, Dimitri Digbeu Jr., who drove 13 hours from Baltimore to see the memorial, said he thought it had singlehandedly ‘rebranded’ Montgomery,” the Associated Press reported
“There is still so much to be done in this country to recover from our history of racial inequality,” Stevenson told the Associated Press. “I’m hopeful that sites like the ones we’re building and conversations like the ones we’re organizing will empower and inspire people to have the courage to create a more just and healthy future. We can achieve more in America when we commit to truth-telling about our past.”
“We are not just slave states in the American South. We are not just lynching states. We are not just segregation states. We are more than that. The people are more than that. The region is more than that,” Stevenson told TIME. “But we can’t ignore this part of our history that we have been so reluctant to address if we want to be seen as we truly are.”