Oct 27, 2019
Virginia Film Festival

Introducing the Virginia Film Festival this year gave University of Virginia President Jim Ryan the opportunity to talk about one of his personal heroes.

Taking the Paramount Theater stage Wednesday night to help kick off the festival – a program of the University and its Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts – Ryan spoke about lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and subject of the festival’s opening night film, “Just Mercy.” The festival will run through Sunday.

Stevenson, a Harvard University-educated lawyer now directing the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, has dedicated his career to helping the poor, incarcerated and condemned, including many prisoners on death row. He also founded the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, honoring victims of lynching in the United States. Last year, UVA staff and faculty were among 110 Charlottesville residents who visited the memorialand delivered soil from the Albemarle County site where John Henry James was lynched in 1898.

“Just Mercy” focuses on one of Stevenson’s earliest victories: the case of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Stevenson fought for and secured his release in 1993 after McMillian spent six years on death row.

Addressing the capacity crowd, Ryan – who graduated from UVA’s School of Law and served on its faculty for 15 years – said Stevenson “embodies and expresses our national conscience” and why Ryan wanted to go into law.

“When I was in high school, I decided that I really wanted to be a lawyer when I learned about the civil rights movement and the remarkable lawyers who were a part of that,” Ryan said. “To me, the work that these lawyers did was not just courageous, but noble – appealing to the better angels of our nature and of our laws. They met resistance, but that retained their faith in justice, even when the legal system seemed stacked against them. These lawyers became my heroes, and Bryan Stevenson is a modern-day version of these tireless advocates and visionaries for justice and empathy.”


By: Caroline Newman

Associate Editor

Office of University Communications

Original Publication: UVA Today