How Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative Is Changing False Narratives Around Racism in America

Adweek's 2020 Brand Save honoree on education, the need for 'regime change' and his wishes for the ad industry

Led by Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative is challenging systemic racism in America. Rog and Bee Walker for EJI
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All throughout the United States, prisoners on death row are afforded the right to state-funded legal assistance—everywhere but in Alabama, that is. Enter Bryan Stevenson, who in 1989 established the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit whose stated mission is to provide “legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons.”    

Based in Montgomery, Ala., the EJI explores and addresses the effects of poverty and unequal treatment on marginalized communities via a multifaceted approach. In addition to working toward criminal justice reform and helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society, EJI also maintains a robust educational initiative that includes online learning experiences, short films and the creation of spaces and memorials that illuminate the legacy of slavery, segregation and lynching. 

Stevenson has received an ACLU Medal of Liberty, a MacArthur Genius Grant, the Olof Palme Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Award for Distinguished Public Service and the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, among other honors.Getty Images

Stevenson, a Harvard-educated attorney who previously practiced law in Atlanta with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (now called the Southern Center for Human Rights), has himself won conviction reversals, relief or release for more than 100 death-row inmates—a remarkable battle that he chronicled in his bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Published in 2014, the book was later made into a feature film starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, who was one of Stevenson’s first wrongful-conviction cases in Alabama.

Harnessing the power of storytelling in effecting change through the EJI, Stevenson uses what he calls “narrative tools.” Those include media like Just Mercy, a powerful 2012 TED talk on injustice and last year’s HBO documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. EJI also produces a calendar that details historical incidents of racist violence, built a museum on the site of a former slaveholder’s warehouse (the Legacy Museum) and established a national memorial to the victims of lynching (the National Memorial for Peace and Justice). The latter two are located in Montgomery, the city where Rosa Parks helped spark a bus boycott, where the Freedom Riders gathered and where Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders led marches for voting rights despite facing horrific violence.

Inspired in part by Holocaust memorials overseas, Stevenson established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, often referred to as the National Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, Ala.Getty Images

Contemplating 2020’s racial justice uprising, Stevenson believes you first have to understand the lasting impact of slavery and what he calls the “racial terror” of the South. “Black people in Cleveland, in Chicago, in Detroit aren’t there as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities; they’re there as refugees and exiles from terrorism in the American South,” says Stevenson. “Without an understanding of these things, you’re not going to be equipped to respond appropriately.”

One of the most powerful ways EJI works to transform social sentiment is by placing events in context. Its daily calendar of racial injustice includes contemporary incidents like the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally of 2017 and the Trump administration’s 2018 policy of separating the children of migrants from their parents at the nation’s border.

Opened in 2018, EJI’s Legacy Museum works with digital and creative partners like Google and HBO to tell a comprehensive story of slavery, including how it evolved into mass incarceration. Stevenson wanted the United States to face its history the way that Germany has through Holocaust memorials and the way that South Africa has with recognition of apartheid. But there’s one major difference between America and those nations, says Stevenson: “We haven’t had a regime change.” Whereas South Africa’s dismantling of apartheid involved removing a white supremacist government and handing power back to the Black majority, America still has most of the same political and legal systems in place that it did prior to the civil rights movement. In the American South, Confederate flags and statues of racist leaders have largely remained until just this year. “The North won the Civil War,” says Stevenson, “but the South won the narrative war.” 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.