Civil Rights Advocate, Author Bryan Stevenson selected to start UNC 2023

The opening speaker for the graduating class of the UNC of 2023 is now fixed.

Prominent civil rights attorney and founder of the nonprofit Equal Justice human rights initiative, Bryan Stevenson, will deliver the opening address for the spring, UNC announced Wednesday.

“I’m always excited to speak with graduate students, especially now that we face so many challenges in our country and around the world,” Stevenson said in the university’s publication. “This generation will have to deal with critically important issues, and while the beginning is an end, it is also a beginning of what graduates will create for the world.”

Stevenson is known for his legal charges of excessive and unfair sentencing of death row inmates, children prosecuted as adults, and molestation of mentally ill incarcerated Americans. He has argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court and later founded the Equal Justice Initiative to combat mass incarceration, excessive punishment in the criminal justice system and racial injustice. In 2018, the organization and Stevenson opened the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to “create new spaces, markers and memorials that address the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation. ”

“I want graduates to be hopeful about how they can change the world and deepen our commitment to human rights and justice for all,” Stevenson said. “I would like to emphasize the importance of living a healthy, whole and purposeful life.”

“Carolina’s mission calls us to improve society and help solve the world’s greatest challenges,” said UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, “and Bryan Stevenson has done just that in his work on social justice, equality and reform. It is uniquely suited to speak to our graduates at this critical time in their lives.”

Stevenson has not attended UNC, but his trip to Chapel Hill this spring will not be the first time he has visited the campus. His bestseller Just Mercy, which details his efforts to vacate a wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian and examines systemic racism in the US justice system, was part of the university reading list in 2015, and Stevenson held a panel discussion with the UNC community. “Just Mercy” was also accepted into the Tar Heel Family Reading Program in 2020.

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In Wednesday’s publication, Stevenson also shared one of his earliest memories of adoring Carolina: the men’s basketball teams growing up.

“It started for me as a child when we watched ACC basketball games,” says the civil rights activist. “I admired Dean Smith and a lot of UNC players. But working with legends like Julius Chambers, Jack Boger, and Ted Shaw also made me think of UNC as a place where great teaching happened. North Carolina has a rich history that is key to America’s future, and I think UNC plays a central role.”

Other recent speakers for UNC graduating classes include writer and English professor Daniel Wallace for the Winter 2022 Ceremony, New York Times columnist and author Frank Bruni for the Spring 2022 Ceremony, former UNC basketball head coach Roy Williams for a special Class of 2020 ceremony, and Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett for the Class of 2021.

UNC said the Class of 2023 Spring Commencement will be on Sunday, May 14, 2023.

Photo via the Equal Justice Initiative.


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