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Lawyer’s Call to Work on Death Row

In 2020 Christian leader John Perkins interviewed the lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. Perkins, the son of a sharecropper, was born in poverty in Mississippi. Stevenson was born two years after Perkins’ conversion to Christ, in a poor, black, rural community in Delaware. Stevenson eventually graduated from Harvard law school and founded the Equal Justice initiative. He represents people who have been sentenced to death on flimsy evidence or without proper representation.

Stevenson told Perkins the story of his first visit to death row. As a law student intern, he’d been sent to tell a prisoner that he was not at risk of execution in the coming year. Stevenson felt unprepared. The prisoner had chains around his ankles, wrists, and waist. Stevenson delivered his message. The man expressed profound release. They talked for hours. But then two prison guards burst in.

Angry that the visit had taken so long, the guards reapplied their inmates’ chains. Stevenson pleaded with the officers to stop. He told them it was his fault they overrun their time. But the prisoner told Stevenson not to worry. Then he planted his feet, threw back his head and sang:

I’m pressing on the upward way,

New heights I’m gaining every day;

Still praying as I am onward bound,

Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Everybody stopped, Stevenson said, “The guards recovered, and they started pushing this man down the hallway. You could hear the chains clanking, but you could hear this man singing about higher ground. And in that moment God called me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground.”

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