2019-03-01 / Shorts

Necessary Conversations

Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder and New York Times bestselling author, brings his perspective on human rights to Penn State.
By Lauren Fox

Photo by Nina SubinPhoto by Nina SubinIn 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to death in Alabama for two murders he did not commit. He spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement on death row before finally being exonerated and set free in 2015, thanks to Bryan Stevenson and the staff at the Equal Justice Initiative.

Stevenson, founder and executive director of EJI and a public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to fighting injustices like Hinton’s, is bringing his message of racial justice and human rights to town this month. He’s slated to deliver the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute’s 2019 Richard B. Lippin Lecture in Ethics at 7 p.m. March 20 at Eisenhower Auditorium.

“I think what’s really powerful about Stevenson is in addition to confronting these immediate injustices that are with us today, he frames them in a larger context,” says Ben Jones, assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “He emphasizes that the way the criminal justice system functions today, that’s not a fluke. Instead, that’s connected to the longer history in the United States of racial injustice.”

EJI focuses on tackling issues like children prosecuted as adults; unfair and excessive sentencing; abuse of inmates and people who are mentally ill; and the exoneration of innocent people who’ve been incarcerated, like Hinton, whose story is told in Stevenson’s New York Times bestseller Just Mercy.

“The difficult issues that Stevenson asks us to confront — about race, poverty, criminal justice and equality — are visible throughout American society,” says Bradford Vivian, director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation in Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. “They arguably matter, in a nonpartisan way, to members of communities both large and small across the country, including in places like State College.”

Stevenson’s lecture will highlight flaws in the criminal justice system and explore how it relates to the history of racial injustice in the United States. He also will speak about the latest efforts of EJI, including the creation of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice — the first national memorial to victims of lynching and racial terror across the United States. EJI also established The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, on land that was once the site of a slave warehouse.

“You go down South and there are all these Confederate memorials everywhere, but there’s not the same effort to remember the victims of slavery and Jim Crow,” Jones says. “His organization is really at the cutting edge of bringing light to those issues.”
Vivian says the lecture fits perfectly with the McCourtney Institute’s mission.

“Stevenson is a leading figure in difficult but necessary conversations over race, poverty, criminal justice and equality,” Vivian says. “He shows how people can work effectively in many different communities and across differences to enhance our democratic experiment.”

Jones says he thinks students and community members alike can find insight and relevancy about the topics that will be brought up in the lecture, especially with criminal justice being such a timely issue.

Tickets — free to students and the public — are required to attend the lecture. A book signing will follow the event.

Stevenson’s lecture is sponsored by several Penn State entities, including the Rock Ethics Institute; Student Programming Association; World Campus; McCourtney Institute for Democracy; Center for Character, Conscience & Public Purpose; and Educational Equity. •SCM

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