“I believe that you have the capacity to change the world,” Bryan Stevenson said. “We need a generation of people who are prepared to say things that haven’t been said and prepared to do things that haven’t been done.”
The class of 2021 and transfer students gathered together in the Pavilion on Tuesday night for this year’s freshman convocation.
Stevenson, the keynote speaker, wrote this year’s Common Reading Experience book, “Just Mercy.” He is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, “a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system” in Montgomery, Alabama.
During his career as a lawyer, he has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued before the Supreme Court and earned national acclaim for his work challenging bias against people of color and those suffering from poverty.
Stevenson challenged all of the students in the room. He said people must be prepared to get out of their comfort zones in order to enact change.
“I think you cannot change the world if you don’t allow yourself to get proximal to the problems you care about,” Stevenson said. “It is tempting when you come to college to seclude yourself … I’m going to urge you not to do that.”
Stevenson said no one can change the world from a distance.
“I think we have to change the narrative about race because we live in a country where we are still not free,” he said. “We have to change the narrative by being courageous enough to talk about things that we haven’t talked about.”
The crowd applauded when Stevenson said, “Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.”
Stevenson said the era of lynching and terrorism was devastating to all people, no matter their skin color.
“We didn’t treat those injuries, and now we are living in a time where racial difference still persists,” Stevenson said.
His speech was punctuated by a standing ovation from the Pavilion crowd.
Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Interim Provost Noel Wilkin also took the stage Tuesday night.
Aside from talking about and congratulating the university’s many achievements and growing population, Vitter addressed the tension throughout the nation and how following the Ole Miss Creed can promote and encourage respect for all.
“We are a diverse community, and there is a lot going on,” Vitter said. “We have many different types of people with many different ideas, and that is all to your tremendous advantage. As our country continues to struggle with acts of violence, hatred and bigotry that we saw in Charlottesville, [Virginia], the Creed serves as our guide.”
Vitter ended his speech with a fins up panorama of the entire class.
Each student in attendance received a coin bearing an etching of the Pavilion and the freshman class’ graduation date. The coin is given out annually, decorated with a different design every year.
Fall Convocation was concluded with the class of 2021 reciting the Creed and signing the alma mater.
David Rock, dean of education, said Tuesday night’s speech was one of the best in his 13 years of convocations at the university and among universities he has worked for in the past.
Freshman Delaney Cavanaugh said she was glad she attended the event.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I think that it’s really beneficial if you actually listened to what they’re saying,” freshman Delaney Cavanaugh said.