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'Being proximate' key to impacting others, Bryan Stevenson tells BYU audience

PROVO — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said the arc of history bends toward justice. For those who have spent decades fighting for equality and social justice reform, keeping that thought in mind as they press forward in their work to seek a more equal and just world, that thought can be a belief that drives one to do transformative things.

In addressing an audience of hundreds of students, faculty and community members at BYU Tuesday, Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said "being proximate" to others in need can lead to opportunities for life-changing action by individuals inspired to touch the lives of their fellow man.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, greets an audience member after delivering the forum address at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, greets an audience member after delivering the forum address at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU

During his remarks, Stevenson recalled a time when as a young Harvard Law School student he visited a man on death row. He thought his inexperience would render him unable to help the inmate in any meaningful way. Yet, after explaining to the inmate that he was there to tell him that he would not be executed for at least one year, the man responded in an unforgettable way.

"He grabbed my hands and said, 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!'" Stevenson recalled. "'Now because of you, I'm going to see my wife and I'm going to see my kids. Thank you! Thank you!'"

Before their encounter, the inmate had refused to see his family because he didn't want them to come knowing that he was going to be put to death on a specific date. Recognizing there was still time, he would now ask them to visit, Stevenson noted.

"I couldn't believe how even in my ignorance that being proximate allowed me to have an impact on someone's life," Stevenson said. "It allowed me to make a difference."

He explained how later during their encounter, the inmate was being led back to his cell when he began singing the hymn, "I'm Pressing on the Upward Way."

He sang, "I’m pressing on the upward way; New heights I’m gaining every day; Still praying as I onward bound; Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Stevenson said those words resonated and launched his life on a new path to help those who are incarcerated find justice.

"That was the moment that I knew that I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground," he said. "More than that, I knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey."

Stevenson went on to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization that seeks to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in America, as well as challenging "racial and economic injustice and to protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society."

A best-selling author and renown litigator, his organization has represented numerous death row inmates and won reversals for more than 100 who were wrongly convicted. He has successfully argued several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and recently won a historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional, according to the Equal Justice Initiative website.

During this speech, Stevenson told the audience that over the years he has realized that people can be agents for the improvement they seek in society if they can recognize it in themselves.

An audience of students, faculty, dignitaries and community members listen as Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, delivers the forum address at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.
An audience of students, faculty, dignitaries and community members listen as Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, delivers the forum address at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU

"I believe our power, our instruments, our wisdom, our capacity to change the world is waiting for us if we get proximate to the poor and excluded," he said. "It's not just here on campus and in classrooms, it's in places where people are suffering. It's in places where people don't have a place to live. It's in places where people are incarcerated and hopeless without a clear way to go."

Stevenson added, "We have to get closer to those places if we are going to (effect) change."

For Robert Borden, 22, the message from Stevenson was that students can truly make a difference if they are willing to approach race and social justice from an unbiased point of view.

"As we open up our minds and our hearts to listen to (all) sides of the story, it allows us to more fully understand what the truth (justice) really is," he said. "We can move forward and build our community and build relationships with one another that lead to positive interactions and ultimately help lift those who are in difficult situations — the poor, the hungry or those who are incarcerated."

Byron Williams, 27, said he appreciated Stevenson's message of helping each other from a place of love and peace rather than conflict or resentment.

"I don't think that hate will ever change people for good, you have to come from a place of love," he said. "With (Stevenson's) delivery of his message and how we go about changing the narrative in the country, love is the answer."