Two of my greatest heroes- former NFL QB and current social justice activist Colin Kaepernick and death row lawyer, activist, founder of The Equal Justice Initiative, author, and professor Bryan Stevenson were honored with Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois medal last night. According to Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research, the medal is presented to people who have “made significant contributions to African and African-American history and culture” and “who advocate for intercultural understanding and human rights.”
Although Kaepernick has been blackballed by the NFL since 2016 for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racism and injustice, his grassroots work in communities across America have earned him numerous awards such as: Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award (2018), Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award (2017), ACLU Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award (2017), and GQ Citizen of the Year (2017). At the ceremony, Kaepernick shared his motivation for the protest and his continued advocacy for oppressed groups when he said, “I’m going to start by sharing a story of when I first took a knee. That following week, a whole high school football team — Castlemont High School, Oakland California — their whole football team took a knee in support of what I was doing. So I went to go visit these young brothers and spend game day with them, and I’m in the locker room with them. They’re getting ready, they’re getting prepped, and I hear them talking back and forth, getting hyped up, and I hear one of the young brothers say, ‘We don’t get to eat at home, so we’re going to eat on
this field.’ That moment has never left me, and I’ve carried that everywhere I went.” Kaepernick repeated his motto: “love is at the root of our resistance, and it will continue to be, and it will fortify everything that we do.” Despite losing his career and everything he worked for in the football world, Kaepernick remains a hero in the activism and human rights community.
Bryan Stevenson has advocated for some of the most outcast people in the world through his work with prisoners on death row. During his medal acceptance speech, Stevenson dedicated the medal to “people who did so much more with so much less” and directly spoke to the Harvard students when he said, “You’ve got to be willing to do uncomfortable things. You’ve got to be willing to do inconvenient things. Don’t ever think that your grades are a measure of your capacity.” In 2012, Stevenson most recently argued and won a historic Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17-years-old or younger are unconstitutional. With assistance from the Equal Justice Initiative staff, Stevenson won sentence reversals, relief, and/or prison release for over 125 wrongly convicted people on death row. For his tireless work, Stevenson has earned dozens of awards such as: MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award (1995), ACLU National Medal of Liberty (1991), National Association of Public Interest Lawyers Public Interest Lawyer of the Year (1996), Olaf Palme Prize (2000), The American Bar Association’s John Minor Public Service and Professionalism Award, Alabama State Bar Commissioners Award (2002), SALT Human Rights Award (2003), American College of Trial Lawyers Award for Courageous Advocacy (2004), National Lawyers Guild Lawyer for the People Award (2004), New York University’s Distinguished Teaching Award (2006), Gruber Foundation International Justice Prize (2006), NAACP William Robert Ming Advocacy Award (2006), National Legal Aid & Defender Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), Ford Foundation Visionaries Award (2006), Roosevelt Institute Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Award (2006), American Psychiatric Association Human Rights Award (2012), Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award (2012), and Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award in Social Progress (2012). In 2014, Stevenson was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Science and won the Lannan Foundation Prize for Human and Civil Rights.
Both men (along with the five other awardees) are world changers and will be seen highly in history books. This most recent award presentation only confirmed their work as historically and socially essential and I hope their crowds of supporters continue growing!