‘Ideas in our minds are not enough to create justice,’ Stevenson tells public service grads

Bryan Stevenson '85

Bryan Stevenson ’85

In his keynote address Friday at Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Celebration, prominent death row attorney Bryan Stevenson ’85 praised alumni who use the power of a Harvard Law education to speak out against injustice.

“Being a lawyer with a Harvard Law degree creates a particular identity. That identity creates an opportunity to say things to the broader world about the needs of people who don’t always get heard,” he said. He later added, “We understand that ideas in our minds are not enough to create justice … we cannot make a difference simply because we had a great education … Ideas are meaningless unless fueled by some conviction in our hearts.”

Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, shared anecdotes from his childhood and his 20-year career representing indigent defendants and condemned prisoners to illustrate how identity is shaped by the way one is treated—or mistreated—in society.

Doing public interest work can be tiring and overwhelming, he admitted, but he said public interest lawyers are enriched by something greater than monetary gain. “Everybody says, ‘Well gosh, you could be richer. You could be doing something that could earn you so much more money.’ They don’t understand that the wealth of creating justice … is priceless.”

Introducing Stevenson, Dean Elena Kagan ’86 said: “I can’t imagine a better role model for our students—a person who more shows, really by his very being, what it means to serve the public good.” Kagan praised Stevenson’s advocacy on behalf of imprisoned juveniles and death-row prisoners: “Bryan has dedicated himself to making the criminal justice system live up to its name—worthy of that word ‘justice.’”

Stevenson’s speech was part of a three-day Celebration of Public Interest at HLS this past weekend.

Watch a webcast of Bryan Stevenson’s speech. (RealPlayer required.)