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The civil rights lawyer and leader of the Equal Justice Initiative will address the Class of 2023 on May 14.

Bryan Stevenson wears a suit and speaks into a microphone at a podium.
(Photo courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill)

Bryan Stevenson, renowned public interest lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, will deliver the keynote address at Carolina’s Class of 2023 Spring Commencement on May 14.

Founded by Stevenson, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative is a human rights organization that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row inmates, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children who were prosecuted as adults. Stevenson himself has argued and won multiple cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, including a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for children 17 and younger.

“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,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz says. “He is uniquely suited to address our graduates at this critical time in their lives.”

Stevenson has also started anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge inequality in the United States. In 2018, he and the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Both are part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s effort to create new spaces, markers and memorials to address the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation.

Stevenson’s award-winning memoir, “Just Mercy,” is a New York Times bestseller that won the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and was adapted into a 2019 movie of the same name. The book examines injustices in the United States judicial system, with a focus on Stevenson’s efforts to overturn the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian. Stevenson’s work is also captured in the HBO documentary “True Justice,” which is told primarily in Stevenson’s words and has won several awards, including an Emmy for outstanding social issue documentary.

Stevenson visited Carolina in 2015 to speak to about his work and “Just Mercy,” and the campus community was invited to read the book as part of The Tar Heel Family Reading Program in 2020.

“I’m always excited to speak to college graduates, especially now when there are so many challenges we face in our nation and globally,” Stevenson says. “This generation will have to address critically important issues, and while Commencement is an end, it’s also a beginning of what kind of world graduates will create.”

Stevenson says he has always appreciated Carolina’s achievements, although his admiration for the University’s success began on the basketball court and grew to include its academics and mission.

“It started as a child for me when we watched ACC basketball games. I admired Dean Smith and many UNC players,” Stevenson says. “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.”

Stevenson says he’s looking forward to addressing the graduating Tar Heels and the new generation of leaders at Spring Commencement in May.

“I’d like graduates to be hopeful about the ways they can change the world, deepen our commitment to human rights and justice for all,” Stevenson says. “I’d love to reinforce the importance of creating lives that are healthy, whole and purposeful.”

By Madeline Pace, University Communications

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