Honorary Degree Recipient Bryan Stevenson Delivers 2016 Commencement Speech (with video)

Bryan Stevenson speaks to the Class of 2016 during the 184th Commencement Ceremony on May 22. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

Bryan Stevenson speaks to the Class of 2016 during the 184th Commencement Ceremony on May 22. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

Bryan Stevenson delivered the following remarks during Wesleyan’s 184th Commencement ceremony May 22: 

It’s a great honor to be a part of this celebration with you today. I hate to ask one more thing of you graduates but I can’t resist. I’m going to ask you to do something when you leave this college, and it’s kind of a big thing. I’m going to ask you to change the world.

And I hate doing this, I actually feel guilty doing this—I really do—but we need the world to change. We are living in a country where we need more mercy, where we need more hope, where we need more justice. In my work in the criminal justice space, I’ve seen some radical changes in this country over the last 40 years. In 1972, we had 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today we have 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have 6 million people on probation or parole. There are 70 million Americans with criminal arrests, which mean when they apply to get a job or to get a loan, they are disfavored. The percentage of women going to prison has increased dramatically, 640 percent increase in the number of women being sent to prison, 70 percent of whom are single parents with minor children. And when they go to jails or prisons, their children get displaced.

We’re doing some terrible things in poor communities where there’s hopelessness and despair. I sit down with 12 or 13 year old children who sometimes tell me that they don’t expect to be free by the time they’re 21. They’re not making that up. The Bureau of Justice now predicts that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime. One in three. That was not true in the 20th century, it wasn’t true in the 19th century, it has become true in the 21st. The statistic for Latino boys is one in six. There is this distance between people who have the capacity to change things and the people who are suffering because of the lack of change, and I want to talk to you very briefly about what I think we need to close that distance.

There are four things I think you can do to change the world. And if you do them, I absolutely believe that whether the issue is criminal justice, whether the issue is food security, whether the issue is the environment, whether the issue is income equality or international human rights, I believe you can change the world.

The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts of the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. And I am persuaded that there is actually power in proximity. When you get close, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance. You have been on this beautiful campus, and many of you have found ways to get proximate to issues and problems around you, but all of us have to continue to do that. There is power in proximity.

I’m the product of someone’s choice to get proximate. I grew up in a community where black children couldn’t go to the public schools. I had to start my education in a colored school. And I remember when lawyers came into our community and made them open up the public schools so I could go to high school, and I graduated from high school. I got to go to college. Being with you today reminds me of my time in college. Nobody in my family had gone to college. And I went to a beautiful campus in Pennsylvania and I enjoyed my time there. I actually really liked college. I was involved in music; I was involved in sports. And after my second year in college, I made a radical decision. I woke up one morning and I said to myself, “You know what? I love college. I’ve decided I’m going to spend the rest of my life in college.” And I called my mom and said, “Mom, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in college.” And my mom said, “Well, I didn’t go to college, but I don’t think they’re going to let you do this.” I said, “No mom, no.”


And I became a senior. I was a philosophy major, and I became a senior. I would think, as a philosophy major, I was supposed to go out on the hillside and think deep thoughts. And I was out there one day, and somebody came up to me and said, “You’re a senior and you’re a philosophy major. What are you going to do when you graduate?” And I heard that as a very hostile question because I realized that nobody was going to pay me to philosophize. And so I frantically tried to figure out how to stay in school. And I didn’t know what all of you already know. I didn’t know at the time that if you want to do graduate work in this country, and you want to study history or English or political science, you actually have to know something about history, English or political science to get into graduate school. I didn’t realize that, so I kept looking around. And to be honest, that’s how I found law school. It was really clear to me you don’t need to know anything to go to law school. So I signed up for that, and a few months later found myself in Harvard Law School, disillusioned, because they weren’t talking about racial equality, they weren’t talking about poverty, they weren’t talking about social injustice. And it’s only when I went to Death Row and found people literally dying for legal assistance that I found purpose. And I believe there is purpose for each of us when we get proximate to the things we care about.

But we cannot achieve changing the world with proximity alone. The second thing I think we have to do is that we’ve got to change the narrative. There are narratives behind the problems we deal with. Mass incarceration was created by some policy choices. We decided to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue. We could have said drug dependency is a health problem and used the health system, but we chose to call it a crime problem. We didn’t do that for alcoholism. In this country, we said alcoholism is a disease. And if you know someone who suffers from alcoholism and you see them going in to a bar, you don’t think, let me call the police. But we didn’t do that for drug addiction, and now we put hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons. But underneath that decision was a narrative, and that narrative was shaped by what I call the politics of fear and anger. We’ve had politicians preaching to us, “Be afraid, be angry.” And I will warn you that when you make decisions rooted in fear and anger, you will tolerate abuse, you will tolerate inequality, you will tolerate injustice, and we’ve got to change that narrative.

I think we have to change the narrative about race in this country. As wonderful as things are today, it pains me to have to acknowledge that we are still not free in this country. We are burdened with our history of racial inequality. It hangs over us like a kind of smog, and this pollution created by this history of racial inequality. We haven’t dealt with it. We’ve got to change this narrative of racial difference that we have created in America.

We live in a post-genocidal society. We’re living on land where there was a genocide. Before white settlers came, there were indigenous people on this continent and we slaughtered them by the millions through famine and disease and war. And we haven’t done the things you’re suppose to do to recover as a post-genocidal society. That history of genocide made us tolerant of slavery. And the great evil of American slavery for me was not involuntary servitude, it was not forced labor. The great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we crafted. It is the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to legitimate this treatment of people of color. We said black people are different. We said, they’re not this, they’re not that. We got comfortable with this idea that we could enslave them, and we never dealt with this narrative of racial difference. We never dealt with that ideology of white supremacy. And we didn’t end it in the middle of the 19th century.

If you read the 13th Amendment, it talks about involuntary servitude, it talks about forced labor, but it doesn’t talk about this narrative of racial difference, and because of that, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865; I think it just evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence, and that era of lynching so has undermined our ability to be free, and we can’t move on until we change this narrative. Older people of color come up to me sometimes and say, “Mr. Stevenson, I get angry when I hear somebody on TV talking about how we’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.” They say, “We grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed and lynched and menaced, and this era of terror shaped our lives.”

The demographic geography of this nation was shaped by racial terrorism. The people of color in New England, the people of color in Boston, in Cleveland, in Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn’t go to these communities as immigrants looking for economic opportunity; they came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terrorism in the American south. And we’ve got to change that narrative.

Even when we talk about civil rights, I worry that we’re too celebratory. I hear people talking about the Civil Rights Movement sometimes, and it sounds like a three-day carnival. On day one, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus. On day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington. And on day three, we just changed all the laws and racism was over. And it would be great if that was our history. But that’s not our history. Our history is that for decades we beat and battered and excluded people of color. We told black people, “You’re not good enough to vote just because you’re black.” We said to people of color, “You’re not good enough to go to school with the rest of us.” My parents were humiliated every day of their lives. Those signs that said “white” and “colored” weren’t directions, they were assault. We’ve got to change the narrative.

In South Africa, there was a recognition that they couldn’t recover from apartheid without choosing reconciliation. In Rwanda, there was a recognition that they can’t get past the genocide without choosing reconciliation. If you go to Germany today, in Berlin, you can’t go 100 meters without seeing the markers or the stones that they place next to the families’ homes of Jewish people who were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to Auschwitz and reflect soberly on their history. In this country, we do the opposite. We don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation. And now, we are burdened with this presumption of dangerousness and guilt that follows you. To the graduates of color, I hate to tell you this, but you will go places in this country where you will be presumed dangerous and guilty because of your color, and we will not make progress until we change the narrative.

You can’t change the world by just getting proximate and changing narratives. The third thing I think we have to do is that we have to stay hopeful. This is a really hopeful day, but you’re going to have days in front of you that are will make you hopeless. And I want to urge you to find ways to stay hopeful. If your activism is not rooted in a hope of something, if your work is not rooted in a hope of something, then you’ve got to reorient. Hope is essential. Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope is what gets you to speak when other people want you to be quiet. Your hope is vital.

I had the great privilege of knowing Rosa Parks. When I moved to Montgomery in the 1980s, Johnnie Carr called me up; she was the architect of the Montgomery bus boycott. Ms. Carr called me up and she said, “Bryan, I understand you’re a young lawyer, just moved to town.” I said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.” And she said, “Well I’m Johnnie Carr and I’m the architect of the Montgomery bus boycott. And because you’re a lawyer, I’m going to call you up sometimes and I’m going to ask you to go some places and listen. And then sometimes I’m going to ask you to go some places and speak. It’s just that when I call you up and ask you to go someplace, what you’re going to do is you’re going to say, ‘Yes, ma’am.'” And so I said, “Yes, ma’am.”

She would call me up and send me places to speak and send me places to listen. One day she called me up and she said, “Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town. We’re going to get together with Virginia Durr, a white woman whose husband Clifford Durr represented Dr. King. We’re going to get together and talk.” She said, “Do you want to come over and listen?” I said, “Oh yes, ma’am I do.” Every now and then she would say, “Now Bryan, what does the word ‘listen’ mean?” And I’d have to explain to her that I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I went over to the house and I was listening to these older women in their 70s and 80s, not talking about what they had done but talking about what they were going to do. There was a hopefulness in their lives, even in their 70s and 80s, that was profound.

After listening for two hours, I was just soaking it all up. And at one point, Ms. Parks turned to me, she said, “Now Bryan, tell me what the Equal Justice Initiative is, tell me what you’re trying to do.” I looked at Ms. Carr to see if I had permission to speak, and she nodded. I gave her my rap – I said, “We’re trying to do something about the death penalty, we’re trying to do something about racial bias, we’re trying to do something to help the poor. We’re trying to do something about conditions of confinement, we’re trying to do help women prospected in the adult system, we’re trying to help children, we’re trying to deal with mental illness.” I gave her my whole rap. And when I finished, she looked at me and she said, “Mm mm mm. That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” And that’s when Ms. Carr leaned forward and she put her finger in my face, she said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

What I’m asking you to do will exhaust you. But if you’re courageous, you will find something on the other side of your hopefulness that is transformative.

Fourth and finally. I don’t think you can change the world by just getting proximate, just changing narratives, just being hopeful. The fourth thing you have to do is that you’ve got to be willing to do uncomfortable things. I wish I didn’t have to say that because it’s so nice if you can only do the things that are comfortable. But the truth is we can’t change the world by doing just what’s convenient and comfortable. I’ve looked for examples where things changed, where oppression was ended, where inequality was overcome, when people did only what was convenient and comfortable, and I can’t find any examples of that. To change the world, you’re going to sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices, to be in uncomfortable places, and be proximate and be hopeful and change narratives. But know that if you do it, there is some great reward, all of that knowledge that you have accumulated will resonate. You will have ideas in your mind that match the conviction in your heart.

I’ll end with this. There is a different metric system for those of you who want to change the world. You’ve all done really well and all of you have got great opportunities in front of you, but I want to tell you that your grades are not a measure of your capacity to change the world. The income you make is not a measure of your capacity to change the world. There’s a different metric system for changing the world.

I was giving a talk in a church and this older black man was in the back of the church in a wheelchair. And he was staring at me the whole time I was talking with this very stern, almost angry look on his face. I couldn’t tell, I couldn’t understand why he was looking at me so sternly. I got through my talk, people came up, they were very nice, but that older black man kept staring at me. When everybody else left, he got a young kid to wheel him to the front of the church and when he got in front of me with this stern, angry look on his face, he put his hand up and he said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” And I just stood there.  He asked me again, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I stepped back and I mumbled something. And then he asked me one more time, he said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” Then he said to me, he said, “I’m going to tell you what you’re doing.” And this older black man looked at me, he said, “You’re beating the drum for justice. You keep beating the drum for justice.” And I was so moved. I was also really relieved because I just didn’t know… Then this man grabbed me by my jacket, he pulled me into his wheelchair, he said, “Come here, come here, come here. I want to show you something.” And he turned his head and he said, “You see this scar I have behind my right ear? I got this scar in Greene County, Alabama in 1963 trying to register people to vote.” He turned his head. He said, “You see this cut I have down here on the bottom of my neck?” He said, “I got that cut in Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1964, trying to register people to vote.” He turned his head, he said, “You see this dark spot? That’s my bruise. I got my bruise in Birmingham, Alabama, 1965 trying to register people to vote.” He said, “I’m going to tell you something, young man. People look at me. They think I’m some old man covered with cuts and bruises and scars sitting in a wheelchair. But I’m going to tell you something.” He said, “There aren’t my cuts, these aren’t my bruises, these aren’t my scars.” He said, “These are my medals.”

There is something challenging in front of you. But I think if you really want to honor the convictions that brought you here, if you really want to aspire and achieve those things that change the world, I urge you to find ways to get proximate to the places where there’s poverty and abuse. I urge you to find ways to change these narratives of destruction and inequality. I urge you to stay hopeful, and finally I urge you to do uncomfortable things. I am so honored to be part of this ceremony with you. You honor me by inviting me here to be here with you today, and i just want to say: Change the world. Do justice. We need you to do it. Thank you very much.