The Struggle for Equal Justice

April 22, 2014

Bryan-Stevenson-SmallThis year marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This was but one of many milestones to follow — Rosa Parks on the bus, black students taking a seat at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, Ruby Bridges entering first grade at an all-white school. Many think those things are receding into history, as we also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Dream speech. But how far have we come, really? Why are we still making changes to the Civil Rights Act as recently as 2008? How could we possibly undo the Voting Rights Act after so many hard fought battles for equal voting rights? Why are the courts releasing schools from desegregation mandates? And why does the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with a disproportionate impact on black men?

Bryan Stevenson has been working to address these questions about equality for over 25 years. He has experienced racial injustice firsthand during his own childhood in segregated rural Delaware. At Harvard Law School he encountered a privileged class who had never been forced to wrestle with the full tragedy of America’s racial history. Shortly after graduation, Stevenson founded The Equal Justice Initiative, a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Stevenson notes that the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population and yet we imprison a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of these 2.3 million inmates are people of color.

In his opening keynote at Summit, Stevenson will pursue a discussion of American justice as it relates to America’s racial history. He powerfully argues that mass incarceration is the new slavery. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.” With his work, Stevenson hopes to build a narrative around truth that will allow blacks and whites to move forward together. When he gave a TED talk about his work last March, he received what TED leader Chris Anderson called one of the longest and loudest ovations in the conference’s history—plus pledges of $1.2 million to EJI. If these results are any indication, then you’ll be in for a moving presentation at the opening plenary at NewSchools Summit. We will host a more intimate session following Bryan’s talk for those who would like to continue the conversation.