CLEO EDGE AWARD HONOREES
2021 CLEO EDGE Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. Heritage Award RECIPIENT
Bryan Stevenson’s life and career is documented in the 2019 film Just Mercy, with Michael B. Jordan portraying Bryan. In the film—as in real life—Bryan achieves what many believed impossible by overturning the wrongful conviction of death row inmate Walter McMillan, a poor Black man sentenced to death for murdering a white woman in rural Alabama.
In 1993, Bryan earned a complete dismissal of charges against his client after winning a new trial. The case Bryan built for his client’s innocence was so compelling and so overwhelming that the District Attorney joined the defense in urging the charges to be dropped.
The McMillan case was a classic case of racial injustice. At the time of the murder, McMillan was at a church fish fry attended by dozens of witnesses, making it impossible that he could have committed the crime. McMillan also had no prior felony record.
But he was involved in a romantic relationship with a white woman, which made him a suspect in the eyes of police, who were looking to make a quick arrest. When McMillan explained that he had a conclusive alibi, the sheriff told him, “I’m going to put twelve people on a jury who are going to find your g–d— black a– guilty.”
Bryan Stevenson’s commitment to justice did not end with the McMillan case. In 1989, he founded the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is a not-forprofit organization committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
The organization provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. In addition, EJI provides research and recommendations to assist advocates and policymakers in the critically important work of criminal justice reform. Finally, EJI opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. These national landmark institutions chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
Bryan also continues to defend civil rights as a practicing attorney. He has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. He 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.
Upon reading Bryan’s memoir, Oprah Winfrey called it a “book that changed my life.” For his work in saving Walter McMillan’s life—and his three-decade commitment to equal justice—Bryan Stevenson would be an outstanding recipient of the CLEO EDGE Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. Heritage Award.
2021 CLEO EDGE AWARD HONOREES
Evangeline M. Mitchell, Esq., Ed.M.
Cuong Quy Huynh
PREVIOUS CLEO EDGE AWARD HONOREES
2020 CLEO EDGE Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. Heritage Award RECIPIENT
Stacey Y. Abrams BIO
Stacey Y. Abrams is an American politician, lawyer, voting rights activist, and author who served in the Georgia House of Representatives froher mostm 2007 to 2017, serving as minority leader from 2011 to 2017. In 2018, she was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, where she won more votes than any other Democrat in the state’s history.
Over the course of her career, she has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues. Stacey is dedicated to civic engagement, and her most recent endeavors include launching Fair Fight to ensure every American has a voice in our election system; Fair Count to ensure accuracy in the 2020 Census and greater participation in civic engagement; and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a public policy initiative to broaden economic power and build equity in the South.
She serves on the Board of Advisors for Climate Power 2020, the Center for American Progress, and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, and is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Abrams received degrees from Spelman College, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and Yale Law School. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, she and her five siblings grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Georgia.