Criminal justice lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson to deliver Class of 2021 Commencement address

Stevenson successfully argued that sentencing children 17 and under to life without parole was unconstitutional in the US Supreme Court

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama and American lawyer renowned for his work in combating bias in the U.S. criminal justice system against the poor and people of color, will be MIT’s Class of 2021 Commencement speaker June 4.

Stevenson has argued and won multiple landmark cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Miller v. Alabama (2012), which broadened the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons (2005) to deem mandatory life-without-parole sentencing of children 17 and under unconstitutional.

Stevenson also successfully argued in the 2019 Supreme Court case Madison v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of a prisoner who cannot rationalize the reasons for their execution, whether it be due to psychosis or dementia.

Additionally, Stevenson and his staff “have won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced,” the EJI webpage on Stevenson writes.

“As we face a future filled with uncertainty, now is the time for a renewed commitment to the idea that our own humanity depends on the humanity of everyone,” Stevenson told MIT News. “I look forward to speaking to the Class of 2021 as they prepare to share with the world their own signature blends of the innovation, creativity, and compassion that are celebrated at MIT.”

Stevenson earned his B.A. from Eastern University in 1981 and subsequently earned a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a J.D. from the Harvard School of Law in 1985.

“As a trailblazer at the intersection of racial reckoning and criminal justice reform, Stevenson is one of the most compelling and relevant choices for commencement speaker for this year,” Undergraduate Association President Danielle Geathers ’22 told MIT News.

As MIT “confront[s] our own role in perpetuating systemic racism, I expect Bryan Stevenson’s words will inspire many at the Institute to dedicate their talents to fighting injustice,” Geathers said.

MIT Class of 2021 President Kofi Blake ’21 told MIT News that as the U.S. “continues to recognize and confront its systemic racial disparities, I believe Mr. Stevenson will provide a much needed perspective on tackling these issues.” 

Madeleine Sutherland G, Graduate Student Council president, told MIT News that she was “excited to learn” that Stevenson would speak at Commencement “because graduate students expressed a desire to hear from someone who has faced oppression and made a real difference in the world.” Sutherland added that the MIT community “will learn a lot” from Stevenson’s address.

Previous MIT commencement speakers include retired Navy four-star admiral William McRaven (2020), politician and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg (2019), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (2018), Apple CEO Tim Cook (2017), and actor and director Matt Damon (2016).

The Class of 2020 Commencement was held through a live, virtual webcast. It has not yet been announced whether Commencement for the Class of 2021 will be in person or virtual.