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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Harvard Law School Names Bryan Stevenson 2020 Commencement Speaker

Law school graduates acknowledge their dean by raising their gavels during Morning Exercises in 2017.
Law school graduates acknowledge their dean by raising their gavels during Morning Exercises in 2017. By Lauren A. Sierra
By Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Law School announced Wednesday that public interest lawyer Bryan A. Stevenson will be the speaker for the Class of 2020’s virtual commencement ceremonies.

The Law School will host the celebration online Thursday, May 28, and plans to hold an on-campus ceremony on a later date.

Stevenson graduated from the Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School in 1985. He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization focusing on human rights within the criminal justice system.

After attending the Law School, Stevenson worked as a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, where he defended individuals on death row throughout the South.

In 1989, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. The Equal Justice Initiative aims to address issues such as mass incarceration and racial bias in the criminal justice system by defending individuals facing capital punishment, as well as juveniles prosecuted as adults. The initiative’s work has led to the release of more than 135 wrongly condemned individuals on death row.

Stevenson has won several cases before the United States Supreme Court, including a 2012 ruling that declared life sentences without parole for children under 17 years old to be unconstitutional.

He published his award-winning memoir, “Just Mercy," in 2014. The book demonstrates the racial bias in the criminal justice system through the stories of Stevenson’s clients and was adapted into a 2019 movie starring Michael B. Jordan.

Stevenson also helped create the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018, which recount the story of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation in the United States and its legacy today.

Stevenson’s work has earned widespread recognition for improving the criminal justice system. He has received more than 40 honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford University, among others. His work has also earned many awards, such as the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Olof Palme Prize for international human rights.

Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 wrote that Stevenson has had a profound impact on vulnerable individuals in need of legal aid.

“Bryan Stevenson is a superb lawyer and a courageous and impactful advocate whose selfless work has changed the lives of countless people,” he wrote. “We are delighted to have him share his story and his perspective as we honor the Class of 2020.”

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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