This is why Bryan Stevenson won the People’s Champion Award.
The Equal Justice Initiative founder was recognized Sunday at the E! People’s Choice Awards, when John Legend honored him with the accolade after performing an emotional rendition of U2‘s “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
When the social justice activist took the stage to accept the trophy, his speech was nothing short of inspiring.
Stevenson opened by addressing the ongoing battle for criminal justice reform in the United States.
“I have spent the last 35 years standing with the poor, standing with the excluded, standing with the disfavored,” he said during the PCAs broadcast. “I’ve represented the accused and the incarcerated and the condemned, and I’ve done it because I am persuaded that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I don’t believe any human being is just their worst act.”
He continued by highlighting some major issues within the nation’s justice system, saying, “There are places in this country where our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. We’ve created conditions that are not just or fair.”
In his impassioned speech, Stevenson addressed the history of inequality in America as well, saying, “We’ve had two and a half centuries of slavery in America, and the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude or forced labor.”
“It was this narrative of racial difference. We said that black people aren’t as good as white people,” he continued. “We called them three-fifths human, and that narrative of racial difference still burdens us today.”
Stevenson expressed that slavery never actually ended, noting “it just evolved” into “decades of terrorism” and violence that still impact us today, and implored the people to take action.
“It’s important for all of us, on a night like this, to commit to challenging this history of inequality, to commit to ending the hate,” he exclaimed.
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“When people are going into synagogues and killing people because they’re Jewish, who are burdening and discriminating against people because they’re Muslim, when black men and boys are being gunned down in the streets unarmed because of a presumption of dangerousness and guilt, when women can’t work safely in the workplace because of harassment and sexual violence, we’ve got to end the hate,” he said, getting a moving reaction from those in attendance.
The lawyer admitted that, while the road may be difficult, it’s not impossible and that’s why everyone watching and in the audience needs to do their part.
“I believe that there are these things we can do to end the hate. That’s why I’m so excited to be here tonight,” he revealed.
“I think to end hate, some of us are going to have to stand up when people say sit down. Some of us are going to have to speak when people say ‘be quiet.’ To end the hate, we have to embrace hope, because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
As Stevenson continued his heartfelt message he argued that maintaining hope is crucial to changing our society.
“We’ve got to be hopeful,” he said. “We’ve got to do some uncomfortable things. We’ve got to do some difficult things. But if we do them together, we can create a new America. There’s something better waiting for us.”
He finished up his moving speech—which was embraced with a standing ovation—by accepting the People’s Champion Award on behalf of all the activists who came before him.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of people who protested, and fought, and bled, and died,” he said. “They did so much more with so much less.”
He also accepted the award for all the advocates who dedicate their lives to help the communities that remain discriminated against, as well as those people who aren’t afraid to speak up for what is right.
Watch his full speech in the video above and check out the rest of the winners from the 2018 E! People’s Choice Awards here.
For a recap of all the biggest PCAs show moments, fashion and winners, watch E! News tonight at 7!
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