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In Emory Commencement address, Stevenson discusses killing of Ahmaud Arbery

Delivering the keynote address at Emory’s Commencement, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson addressed the death of Ahmaud Arbery, calling on graduates to challenge the narrative of racial injustice.

While delivering the keynote address at Emory’s 175thCommencement, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson addressed the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old former high school athlete who was fatally shot Feb. 23 while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Georgia.

Arbery, who is black, was confronted by Gregory McMichael, 64, and his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael, who are white. During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. On May 7, the GBI arrested Gregory and Travis McMichael. Both are charged with murder and aggravated assault. 

The case has attracted national and international attention, raising concerns about racial inequities in the justice system. The arrest came after video of the shooting became public. 

Speaking to graduating students during Emory’s May 11 Commencement ceremony, which was presented in an online platform, Stevenson discussed how the killing fits within America’s long-running history of race-based violence, terror lynchings and murder. 

“Just a couple of months ago, a young black man was killed in Southeast Georgia running through a neighborhood. He was hunted, and I believe wrongfully killed, because of this narrative that made us believe that we can act in this way,” he said. “We have got to challenge this narrative.”

In his address, Stevenson went on to encourage Emory graduates to confront the inequalities they will encounter — from racial inequities to the challenges posed by a global pandemic — with hope and courage to do uncomfortable things in the service of justice.

An acclaimed human rights lawyer, Stevenson also led the creation of two nationally acclaimed cultural sites that opened in Montgomery in 2018: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Last year, his 2014 memoir, “Just Mercy,” was made into a major motion picture.

In response, Emory President Claire E. Sterk noted that it was “especially fitting that Bryan Stevenson graced us today with a Commencement address that emphasized the need for us as a society to affirm the humanity and dignity of every individual. 

“The recent tragedy that resulted in Mr. Arbery’s death is a reminder that we, as a society, must stand for justice. It is an inspiring message for our graduates, our entire community, to hear and act upon.” 

Stevenson’s call to remain hopeful and resilient in the face of adversity and social injustice — and by the challenges of a pandemic that has exposed global inequities — is a message that deeply resonates with the Emory community, says Jan Love, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

“How inspiring it was to hear Mr. Stevenson emphasize the values that Emory holds dear –– a commitment to confronting inequality and building justice, meeting our challenges with a willingness to deepen our own understanding and the courage to seek change that serves the greater good.” 

In a recent newsletter to the Emory community, Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, wrote that “Ahmaud’s killing reminds us that our society still has much work to do regarding the personal and social prisms through which we view the humanity of others.” 

“It also makes clear that the entitlements of some, can be the death of others. Therefore, we must continue to create space for growth, reflection, self-awareness, understanding and healing within our own Emory community. We must continue to have courageous conversations about those things that fray our human fabric — about those things that run counter to our human and institutional ideals of justice and justness, equity and fairness.”

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