Bryan Stevenson was in the second grade in 1955, when the school in his small, rural town in Delaware was desegregated. 

But even though he was now technically allowed to go the same school as the white kids he grew up around, he still had to play separately from them and use a different entrance. He couldn’t even go to the same public pool as the white kids.

Growing up like this left a deep mark on Stevenson, one he carried with him to Harvard Law School, where he received a full-ride scholarship and found his life calling. 

He wanted to bring justice to the people who needed it most and in Stevenson’s experience, the people who needed it most were on death row.

Bryan Stevenson portrait
Bryan Stevenson / Original photo courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative

In 1995, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that seeks fair sentences for minorities, the poor, and, especially, children who find themselves in the justice system.

Stevenson was deeply concerned about people who were convicted for crimes they committed before they turned 18, and worked hard to convince the country that it was immoral and unconstitutional to pursue life sentences without parole for minors who were convicted of crimes. 

As he wrote in his book Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” 

Stevenson believes that we as a people have a duty to offer mercy to everyone, especially those who may not deserve it. That, after all, is what mercy is all about.

Stevenson’s hard work was rewarded in 2012, when the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for people 17 years old and under were unconstitutional, a landmark decision that affected 29 different states. 

As of August of 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative had rescued 125 men from the death penalty.

A version of this article was originally published in Issue 01 of the Goodnewspaper in July 2017.