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Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson to be spring 2023 Commencement speaker

UNC 2022 graduates toss their caps at the end of the spring commencement ceremony on May 8. Photo courtesy of Johnny Andrews via UNC Media Relations.

Bryan Stevenson, public interest lawyer and author of bestselling memoir "Just Mercy," will be the keynote speaker at UNC's spring 2023 Commencement, the University announced Wednesday.

Stevenson will address UNC graduates at the commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 14, at 9 a.m. in Kenan Stadium.

He is the founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights organization which provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons. 

Stevenson and his team have aided over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row through winning reversals, relief or release from prison.

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

Stevenson visited UNC in 2015 to speak to about his work and “Just Mercy” — his New York Times bestselling book that won the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. The memoir focuses on injustices in the United States judicial system, specifically around one of Stevenson's first clients, Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was wrongfully accused of murdering a young white woman.

The memoir was adapted into a 2019 movie of the same name.

“I’d like graduates to be hopeful about the ways they can change the world, deepen our commitment to human rights and justice for all,” Stevenson said in a press release. “I’d love to reinforce the importance of creating lives that are healthy, whole and purposeful.”