(head)Commencement

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Bard Commencement Address
by Bryan A. Stevenson
May 20, 2006

Bryan A. Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, was the speaker at Bard College's 146th commencement, which was held on Saturday, May 20, 2006. This is the text of his address.


Bryan A. StevensonI'm extremely honored to be invited to speak to you, to be invited to share this moment with you. Graduation really is a life-changing experience. Every day we work on creating identities for ourselves. Before we came here, we were working on our identities. After we leave here, we're going to be working on our identities. And our identities are important, because when we create an identity that has meaning, that has value, we get to say things to other people, and, after today, whenever you say anything you'll be saying it as a college graduate. And for a lot of people that's really important. To employers, to graduate schools, to a whole host of institutions, that's very, very meaningful, and so this is exciting. I hope most of you are sharing this excitement with your families, because family is absolutely crucial in creating the understanding of what identity can really become. And I also hope that as a Bard graduate, you appreciate that your identity and what you say is going to have special meaning. Because we expect Bard graduates to be prepared to be provocative, prepared to challenge things that concern us, prepared to sometimes stand up when everyone else is sitting down. And that's why I'm so excited to be here to share in this moment with you.

We all get to say things to one another that can be life-changing. I learned that when I was a really young kid. My grandmother, who never went to college, who never went to high school, said things to me that changed the way I lived, that changed who I am, and my grandmother was this classic matriarch. In the African American family, we often have these individuals, these mamas who actually just controlled everything. My grandmother was exactly that person. She was the beginning of usually every fight, but she was also the end of every fight. She was tremendously dominant and strong and powerful, but also incredibly loving and warm and affectionate. She was the daughter of people who were enslaved. Her parents were born in Virginia in the 1840s. She was born in the 1880s, and the experience of slavery very much shaped the way she saw the world.

Well, I loved spending time with my grandmother. There was just something affirming about being with her. The only difficulty was that she had 10 children, and that meant that she had like 100 grandchildren. So, every time I would go to see her, there would always be too many cousins around my grandmother, and I would get angry about it. And I remember when I was about 6 or 7 years of age, and I was staying with my grandmother, and the house was full of her grandkids, my cousins, and I was sitting there, and I had gotten up that morning and my grandmother was across the room looking at me, and I could see her staring at me. Finally she got up and she walked across the room, and she grabbed me by the hand. She said, "Come on, Bryan, you and I are going to have a talk." I'll never forget it. She was pulling me out of the house just by myself. And, as we were walking back there, she said, "I'm going to tell you something, but you have to promise me you're not going to tell anybody else." And I said, "Okay, mama." And then she pulled me out back and she sat me down, and she said, "I want you to know I've been watching you." And she said, "I think you're special." She said, "I think you can do anything you want to do." I can still hear her talking to me. She said, "I just want you to promise me three things," and I said, "Yes, mama." She said, "Promise me, first, that you'll always love your mother, that you'll always take care of her. I don't care what happens, you promise me right now you're going to do that." And I said, "Yes, mama, I'll do that." Then the second thing she said was, "I want you to promise me that you'll always do the right thing, even when the right thing is the hard thing." And I thought about it, and I was about 7 or 8, and I said, "Yes, mama, I'll do that." And then she said, "The last thing I want you to promise me is that you'll never drink alcohol." Well, I was 8 years old so I said, "Yes, mama, I'll never do that."

I have a brother who is a year old than I and a sister who is a year younger, and when I was about 15 or 16, one day my brother came home and he had this six-pack of beer. And he grabbed me and my sister, and we went out back, and he opened up the beer can, and my brother had some, and he gave some to my sister, and she had some, and they offered it to me. And I said, "No, I don't think I'm going to have any beer." And my brother said, "Come on, I had some, your sister had some, you have some. I said, "No, I don't feel right about that." My brother said, "Come on, have some beer." And I just said, "No." Then my brother looked at me real hard and he said, "I hope you're not still hung up on that conversation mama had with you." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Well, mama tells all the grandkids that they're special." I was... I was.... I was completely devastated, okay. But, I'm going to admit something to you that's a little bit embarrassing at a place like Bard, but I'm going to admit it to you anyway. I'm going to tell you that I'm 46 years old, and I've never had a drop of alcohol. And, please believe me, I'm not preaching the virtues of not drinking; that's not my point here. But there was something meaningful to me about that experience, and I can still hear those words resonating, and I know it sounds silly, and I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I actually believe she wasn't lying. She thought all of us were special. She said these things because she thought these were the things we needed to know and understand. My grandfather was in prison during Prohibition, my uncles died in prison from alcohol and related problems, and so these were the things she thought were important. And, I think when we leave this place, we've got to look to find ways to say the important things that can protect the people around us. And they may seem crazy to other people, but I hope that as a Bard graduate, you'll have the courage to say them anyway.

I have been trying to say things about poverty and race and injustice in America. It's not always an easy thing to talk about. There's a lot of fear in our society. There's a lot of anger in our society. Our political leaders sometimes preach fear and they preach anger, and they want everyone afraid, and they want everyone angry, because when we're afraid and we're angry, we do things that seem unfair, that seem unjust when you look at it from a distance, but we do them because we're afraid and angry. I've seen this going on in our country. Within the work I do, I see it manifesting itself in some very tragic ways. Today, in the United States, we've had this phenomenon emerge that has fundamentally changed our society. It's called mass incarceration. In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today there are 2.3 million. There are 6 million people on probation and parole in this country, and the consequence of that is devastating. The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. For poorer communities and for communities of color, the consequences have been absolutely horrific. One out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. In some states, we actually take away the right to vote, permanently, for people with criminal convictions. In my state of Alabama, 31 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote. We now have economic incentives because we built these prisons to keep 2.3 million people in jail and prisons, and so there are a lot of folks who actually don't want crime to decrease. They don't want there to be fewer people in jails and prisons. And this creates this world where there are these real human problems.

The problems that I work on affect the poor. Our criminal justice system is a system, unfortunately, that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. I see that all the time. I handle death penalty cases, and these cases can at times be very difficult. Very difficult. We opened this project in Alabama in 1989, and that year 25 percent of the executions in America took place in Alabama.

When I opened my office, I got a call from a man who was scheduled to be executed in 30 days, and he said, "Mr. Stevenson, I don't have a lawyer, will you please take my case?" I began kind of stuttering, and I said, "I'm sorry, but we don't have staff, we don't have books, we don't have material to take cases. I can't help you." The man didn't say very much; he just hung up the phone. I didn't feel very good that night when I went home. I came back the next day, the man called me again, and he said, "Mr. Stevenson, I'm begging you. Please take my case. You don't have to tell me you can win, you don't have to tell me you can get a stay of execution, but please tell me that you'll fight for me." He said, "I don't think I can make it these next 29 days if there's no hope at all." Well, when he said it like that I couldn't say no, so I said yes. We tried very hard to get a stay of execution, but it was too late.

Our courts have increasingly become more committed to finality than fairness. And so every place we went, our appeals were deemed too late, even though we had very compelling evidence about his involvement in this crime, about the impropriety of the sentence, about race bias in his case. Every court said, "It's too late." On the night that he was scheduled to be executed, I got this dreadful call from the United States Supreme Court telling me that the last stay motion had been denied.

Well, I got in my car, and I drove down to Atmore, Alabama, to be with this man, and it was a very surreal, very difficult experience. We were back there some 20 minutes before this man was scheduled to be executed, and we were talking and crying. It was very emotional.

He began telling me about his day, and I've never forgotten this conversation. He was telling me, he said, "Bryan, it's been so strange." He said, "All day long, people have been saying to me, 'What can I do to help you?'" He said, "This morning the guards came to me and said, 'What do you want for breakfast?' At midday they came to me and said, 'What do you want for lunch?' In the evening they came to me and said, 'What do you want for dinner?'" He said, "All day long, people have been saying, 'what can I do to help you.'" And he said, "they've been coming to me and asking me do I want stamps to mail my letters, do I need coffee or water, do I want access to the phone to call my friends and family." And, I will never forget him saying in these last few minutes, he said, "Bryan, it's been so strange. More people have said, 'What can I do to help you?' in the last 14 hours of my life, than they ever did in the first 19 years of my life."

And holding his hands, I couldn't help but think, yes, where were they when you were 3 years old when you were being physically abused? Where were they when you were 7 years old being sexually assaulted by your step-sibling? Where were they when you were 13 and 14, and you were drug-addicted and trying crack cocaine and heroin? Where were they when you were 17, and you were homeless, roaming the streets of Birmingham, Alabama? And with those kind of questions resonating in my mind, this man was pulled away from me, strapped in Alabama's electric chair, and executed. Very difficult. Very surreal. And I felt the need to say something about how we are failing so many people in our society, about how the poor in America are struggling.

There are 37 million people who live beneath the federal poverty level. That's $9,000 of income for a single person; $16,000, $17,000 for a family of four. Forty million people near poverty, and I work in these communities, and I see the problems that it creates. And it became necessary for me to say something about that. Well, it's not just poverty that we try to talk about in our work; we also try to talk about the legacy of race, of apartheid, because mass incarceration is just the fourth institution for many communities. People of color in this country, for African Americans, the first institution would be slavery; the second institution would be the reign of terror that followed Reconstruction. In the places where I've worked, I've worked with older people who are very offended when they hear news commentators talking about how we're dealing with terrorism for the first time in our country's history, because these people had their lives shaped by racial violence and lynchings and bombings that were sometimes sustained by law enforcement. The third institution would be Jim Crow/ racial apartheid, and the fourth institution is this mass incarceration. When we talk about this legacy, it gets very difficult, very difficult. And it's not just race, it's not just poverty, it's all the things that go with it. On death row, as president [Botstein] mentioned, we have these incredibly skewed disparities.

There's an interesting U.S. Supreme Court case. In 1987, the United States Supreme Court was presented with evidence about the bias of the death penalty and race. And in this particular case, researchers had gone to Georgia and established that, in Georgia, you are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black. If the defendant is black and the victim is white, you're 22 times more likely to get the death penalty. So, armed with these data, the lawyers went to the United States Supreme Court and said, "The death penalty is discriminatory, you must strike it down." And in a 5-4 decision in this case, called McClesky vs. Kemp, the court said, "We accept your evidence of bias, but we nonetheless conclude that the death penalty is constitutional."

Now, there were two things the court advanced in this decision, and I'm going to tell you about them because I believe this case is significant to you. The first thing the court said was, if we accept evidence of bias, racial bias, in the administration of the death penalty, it's going to be just a matter of time before some Bard College graduate who has gone to law school, who is working as a social worker, or is working as a mental health worker, or a social scientist, is going to point out to us that these disparities exist for other kinds of crimes. They'll point out that the same race disparities exist for property crimes and drug crimes and sex crimes and misdemeanors. And the court said, "This problem is too big." Now, Justice Brennan, in his dissent, ridiculed the court's analysis as "fear of too much justice." And, in a lot of ways, he was right. But it's the second thing that the court said that, I have to tell you, broke my heart. The second thing the court said was that these kinds of disparities, this kind of bias, is inevitable. And they used that word to characterize this outcome. Now I tell you about that case because I think it is the "Plessy vs. Ferguson" of your generation. It is the Dred Scott of your era. It is the Supreme Court conceding to bias.

Now, I argue cases all the time, and I've been to the Supreme Court to argue cases, but I couldn't make sense of this inevitability doctrine. And, so it became necessary for me to say something about it. I'm a product of Brown vs. Board of Education. When I started my education, I couldn't go to the public school. I had to go to a colored school, and the colored school in our community wasn't much bigger than this stage. And then lawyers came into our community, and they said things that made it possible for me to go to public schools. And, but for them saying those things, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you today. And so the importance of saying something can't be minimized.

Well, we're trying to say things about young people and about mental illness, and I could go on and tell you about my clients who are 14 years of age, who have been sentenced to life without parole, or my clients who are 16 and are on death row, or my clients who have been sexually abused and victimized all their lives and, when they finally reach out and victimize someone else, they end up in prison or on death row. But I really didn't come here this afternoon just to document these problems. What I came here to share with you is that we all have the power to say something. And, what I hope you'll do is to say something that you believe. As Bard graduates, you've got lots of ideas in your mind. You've got all kinds of things going on in your heads about how to change the world, how to think critically about a whole host of issues. And those ideas in your mind—that the faculty have given you, that you've given each other, that your friends and families have nourished—are absolutely crucial to saying something that can make a difference.

What I came here this afternoon to share with you is that those ideas in your mind are not enough. To actually say things that change the world, those ideas in your mind have to be fueled by some conviction in your heart. I hope that you haven't forgotten your conviction. I hope you haven't been misled or distracted or otherwise persuaded that your convictions aren't important, because, in some ways, they're the only things that are important. And, married with those ideas, you can say things.

I've learned something about this from the work that I do. I see this kind of dynamic all the time: the importance of saying something. There is profound hopelessness in our society. I believe when we say we're going to execute someone, we're actually expressing a pretty hopeless thing. I go into communities where I talk to 13- and 14-year-old kids who don't think they're going to live past the age of 18. And, it's pretty sad to hear that. Well, I've learned something about this, and I just want to share it with you before I sit down. Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader . . . Eastern European leader, talked about the need for creating hope in order to create justice. And Havel says the kind of hope we need to create justice, to create meaning, to create change, is not that pie-in-the-sky-stuff, it's not that preference for optimism over pessimism. Havel says the kind of hope we need is an orientation of the spirit, a willingness to position ourselves sometime, someway, someplace in hopeless spaces and be a witness and say something. I hope that as a Bard graduate, you'll do that.

I've seen the power of this. I handled a case years ago, representing a man on death row for six years for a crime he didn't commit. It was an outrageous case of injustice. This man, an African American, was arrested, wrongly charged with this death penalty trial, and was actually placed on death row before the case ever went to trial. We got involved in the case. A young white woman had been murdered in a south Alabama town. It was actually the place where Harper Lee grew up and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Every time I went to the community, people would say, go to the To Kill a Mockingbird Museum—they had this real sentimentality about the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. They would say, "You can go stand where Gregory Peck stood, go stand in those little gold feet we had embalmed in the court." There was this preoccupation with To Kill a Mockingbird. I would say, "Well, I'm actually here because I'm representing an innocent black man who's been charged and convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and I'd rather talk about that." "No, you want to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird."

Our client went to trial; he got poor representation, he was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row. We got involved in the case, and I found out very quickly that he was innocent. On the day the crime took place, he was actually 11 miles away with his family, about 30 people who were raising money for their sister's church. When they went to the police and said, "Look you've got the wrong person," they were ignored. He went to trial, was convicted, sentenced to death, went back to death row, and we got involved sometime after that. When I would go to people of color in that community, they would tell me, "We don't know what to do. We would feel so much better if he had been out in the woods hunting by himself when this crime took place, but because we were there with him, we feel like we've been convicted too. How do we live in a society where this kind of injustice can prevail?"

When we started working on the case, we found some very dramatic evidence of Mr. McMillan's innocence. He was convicted because a man had been coerced to testify falsely against him. And for some bizarre reason, the police actually tape-recorded the sessions where they coerced the witness to testify falsely. And, oddly enough, we actually found the tapes in another courthouse. So, the first thing you hear this witness say is, "You want me to frame an innocent man for murder, and I don't feel right about that." And the police officer says, "If you don't do what we want you to do, we're going to put you on death row too." And they actually did put him on death row until he agreed to give this incriminating statement. Oddly enough, we found these tapes, and we got the witnesses to admit that their trial testimony was false, and we finally went to court.

On the day we went to court, this despair that had taken over this poor community, this minority community, that you could just feel everywhere you went, we saw it outside the courthouse. We went into the courtroom, and all the poor people and all the people of color came inside. And when we started presenting our evidence, we had a great day in court. We put these tapes in evidence. The witnesses admitted that their trial testimony was false. It was great. And when I came out that day, I saw people walking with a little more pride, with a little more energy.

When I came back to court the next day, I saw all the poor people and all the people of color sitting outside the courtroom. I went up to the community leaders, and I said, "Well, why aren't you all inside?" They said, "They won't let us in today." I said, "What do you mean, they won't let you in?" I went over to the deputy sheriff, and I said, "I want to go into the courtroom." And, he said, "You can't come in." I said, "You mean I can't come in? I'm the defense lawyer. I think I have to be able to come in." He said, "Well, let me go check," and he checked and came back and said, "Well, you can come in." And between the first day and the second day, everything had been changed around. On the second day, they had put a metal detector on the inside of the door, and on the other side of the metal detector, they had positioned a huge German shepherd dog that you had to walk past. The courtroom was filled with people brought in by the prosecution, and I knew that all of these people weren't going to get to come inside because there weren't enough seats. I complained to the judge, and the judge said, "I'm sorry, your people will just have to get here earlier tomorrow."

I went out and explained to the community leaders what had happened, and I thought they'd be upset, but they weren't. They said, "That's okay Mr. Stevenson, we'll have a few representatives," and they identified an older woman I'll never forget for the rest of my life whose name is Ms. Williams. And they said, "Ms. Williams, we want you to be one of the representatives," and when they did that, you could see this woman swell with pride. She was so glad to be designated a representative. And she started fixing her hat up and getting herself together, and they opened the door, and I was inside the courtroom when they started letting people inside, and I saw this beautiful older black woman walk through the door with such grace and with such dignity and she held her head up high as she walked through the metal detector.

But when she got in front of this dog, the huge German shepherd dog they positioned on the other side of that metal detector, she stopped dead in her tracks. I stood there and watched her, and her body began to shake, and her whole body began to tremble and her shoulders dropped. Then I saw tears run down her face. And she stood there trembling for what seemed like two or three minutes, and then I heard her groan loudly and then watched her turn around and run out of the courtroom. A painful thing to see. Other people made it inside. We had another good day in court.

I had forgotten all about Ms. Williams until I was going to my car that night. When I went to my car, Ms. Williams was still sitting outside the courthouse. And when she saw me, she came up to me. She said, "Mr. Stevenson, I feel so bad. "I let you down today. I let everybody down today." I said, "No, Ms. Williams, it's all right. It's not your fault. They shouldn't have done what they did." She said, "No, no, no, I was meant to be in that courtroom. I should have been in that courtroom, but I couldn't do it." She started to cry again. I tried to console her. I said, "Ms. Williams, please, it's okay." She said, "No, no, no, I was meant to be in that courtroom. I should have been in that courtroom." And then she said, "But when I saw that dog, all I could think about was Selma, Alabama, in 1965. And I remembered how we marched to Montgomery for the right to vote, and they put those dogs on us, and I tried to move, I wanted to move, but I just couldn't do it." She went away with tears running down her face.

We came to court the next day, and I was talking to her sister, and her sister told me that that night that Ms. Williams didn't talk to anybody, but they could hear her praying all night long, "Lord, I can't be scared of no dog." She said on the trip from the house to the courthouse, she kept saying over and over again, "I ain't scared of no dog." And I was standing there, talking with her sister, when Ms. Williams came into the courtroom, and you could hear her saying, over and over again, "I ain't scared of no dog, I ain't scared of no dog." I watched this woman walk into the courtroom. She walked through the metal detector and she got up in front of that dog and she said, "I ain't scared of no dog." And, she walked past the dog, and she sat down in the front row of the courtroom, and she said, "Mr. Stevenson, I'm here." And I turned around, and I said, "Ms. Williams, it's good to see you here." A few minutes went by, and she said, "No, Mr. Stevenson, you didn't hear me." She said, "I'm here!" I was getting a little embarrassed, and so I said, "No, Ms. Williams, I do see you; I'm glad to see you here."

The courtroom got packed full of people, the judge walked in, and everybody stood up when the judge walked in, and then everybody else sat back down, but Ms. Williams remained standing. And, when the courtroom got real quiet, I saw this woman say in a very loud voice. She said, "I'm here!" And it became clear to me then what she was saying. She wasn't saying I'm physically present. What she was saying is, "I may be old, I may be black, I may be poor, but I'm here because I have this vision of justice that compels me to stand up to injustice."

We ultimately got Walter McMillan released. On the day he was released, the first person he went to was Ms. Williams. He hugged her and said, "Ms. Williams, I'm here because you were there for me." I tell you that story because I believe, more than anything else, that Bard graduates need to go someplace and say, "I'm here." And then, when you're there, say something meaningful. That's the essence of what I'm asking you to do today. I believe very simple things. I believe that each person in our society, each person on this planet, is more than the worst thing they've ever done. I think if you tell a lie, you're not just a liar. I think if you take something that doesn't belong to you, you're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And, because of that, there is this basic human dignity, this basic human right that must be protected. And so I've got to go back to Alabama tonight to say I'm here to tell you, that when the Supreme Court says that race bias is inevitable, that's wrong. When 13- and 14-year-old kids believe that their lives are going to be over by the time they're 18, we've got to hold them and say that's not acceptable. When we tolerate poverty and injustice and abuse of power, I've got to say, no, we can't do that.

Now, the final thing I'll warn you about is that if you put yourself someplace where people are struggling, where there is discomfort, where things are not always sort of tolerable when folks come in, and you say, "I'm here," you will get tired, you will be challenged. That is the nature of this. A wonderful thing about the work that I do is I get to meet these extraordinary people. When I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, I met Rosa Parks. In the 1980s, she was coming down from Detroit. There were actually three amazing people who were involved in the Montgomery bus boycott. One was Rosa Parks. The other two you may not know: Ms. Johnny Carr, who organized the Montgomery bus boycott, and Virginia Derr. They invited me over to their house, and they were all on the steps talking for about two hours. I was just sitting there listening. And Ms. Carr said, "Come on over, Bryan. Just listen to us." I listened to these incredible women talk about the Montgomery bus boycott and about their lives and their experiences, and it was so inspiring.

Finally, after a couple of hours, Ms. Parks turned to me and she said, "Now tell me, Bryan, what are you doing here in Alabama?" I said, "Well, we're going to try to help people on death row, and we're trying to challenge racial bias in the criminal justice system. We're going to try to do something about mass incarceration, and we're trying to help kids and confront this hopelessness." I gave my whole rap about what we were trying to do, and after I finished, Ms. Parks looked at me and shook her head and said, "Mmmh, mmmh, mmmh." She said, "That's going to make you tired, tired, tired." And Ms. Carr leaned forward and she put her finger in my face, and she said, "That's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."

So, I will warn you that if you try to say something that is provocative, that changes the world, that other people aren't willing to say; if you try to position yourselves someplace and say "I'm here," you will get tired. But, know this: there is this incredible resonance in creating community with people who are compassionate, in creating community with people who are looking for hope, in creating community with people who are looking past difference and bigotry and discrimination. I believe we have to judge our society not by how we treat the rich and the privileged and the favored and the empowered. We judge the civility and the quality of our society by how we treat the poor, the condemned, the imprisoned. And we need Bard graduates who are prepared to understand things and say things.

I'll end with this. You will get tired. You will, but you will meet people along the way who will encourage you. I was doing a case not too long ago where we had really difficult issues, all this misconduct. I had filed motions about prosecutorial misconduct and judicial misconduct and police misconduct. [There was] no conduct going on in this county; it was all misconduct. When I filed these motions, we had a hearing. I had nobody going with me, and I was sitting in my car, and I thought, "This is going to be so ugly; it's going to be so difficult. It's just going to be a lot of tension." I was sitting in my car, and I was tired. Finally, I got my papers together, and I started walking inside the courthouse. At the courthouse door was an older man who was the janitor. When he saw me, he came up to me, and said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm a lawyer." He said, "You're a lawyer?" I said, "Yes, sir." And, at that point, he hugged me, and he said, "I'm so proud of you." It was amazing. I don't ever get greeted that way when I go to court.

I went inside, and, just as I'd expected, it was a very contentious hearing. People were upset that I was talking about race, and about poverty, and we were talking about the abuse of power and misconduct, and everybody was filing into the courtroom because they were angry. Assistant prosecutors and police officers and clerk workers . . . the courtroom was filled with people angry about everything I was saying. And the judge was hollering and the prosecutor was hollering, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this older black man, this janitor who greeted me so lovingly, pacing outside the door. There was a window in the door, and he kept looking through the window. And after 20 minutes of pacing—he was going back and forth—this older man opened the door, came inside the courtroom and sat down behind me. About 10 minutes later, the judge said we're going to have a recess, and during the recess, there was a deputy sheriff who was offended that the janitor had come into court during courtroom proceedings. And this deputy jumped up and he ran across the courtroom, and he went up to this older black man, and he said, "Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?" And this older black man stood up and he looked at me and he looked at that deputy sheriff and he said, "I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, 'keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.'"

Well, more than anything, I've come to Bard College to tell those of you who have not only ideas in your mind but conviction in your heart—who want to say things that can make the world a better place, who are prepared to go someplace and say, "I'm here"—that I'm proud of you. Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.

Thank you very much.

Bryan A. Stevenson

 

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