During Monday’s Chapel, the Belmont College of Law presented the 2014 Champions for Justice Award to Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a private, non-profit organization headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. His work, and that of the team of lawyers he leads, furthers prison and sentencing reform, with a focus on the death penalty and the mass incarceration of people of color.
Stevenson said, “Faith is connected to struggle; that is…we are called to build the Kingdom of God. We can’t celebrate it and then protect our own comfortable environment.”
The Belmont University College of Law Champions for Justice Award is presented to a person whose life’s work exemplifies Belmont’s mission to uphold Jesus as the Christ and the measure for all things, and has lived this out by engaging and transforming the world with disciplined intelligence, compassion, courage and faith. Stevenson graduated from Eastern University (where he led the gospel choir), Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government.
His work has received both national and international attention: he has won the American Bar Association’s Wisdom Award for public service, the ACLU’s National Medal of Liberty, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, the Reebok Human Rights Award, the Thurgood Marshall Medal of Justice, the Olaf Palme Prize, the Gruber Foundation Justice Prize and Stanford Law School’s National Public Service Award. He has received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and Georgetown University Law School. In addition to directing the Equal Justice Initiative, he has been a visiting professor of law at the University of Michigan School of Law and lecturer at Harvard and Yale Law Schools.
Stevenson often quotes Scripture, including the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Stevenson remarks that an elderly African-American woman once called him a “stone catcher,” and he further noted that in his opinion, “There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher.”
Belmont presented the first Champions for Justice Award to Rev. Fred Gray, a minister for six decades who also served as the attorney for Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a lead attorney for the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The second Champions for Justice Award was given to Gary Haugen, who is the founder and president of International Justice Mission (IJM), a faith-based organization which secures justice for victims of slavery and sexual exploitation. IJM lawyers work with local governments to ensure victim rescue, to prosecute perpetrators and promote public justice systems.