The 2016 John Jay Justice Awards ceremony held on March 3 was a celebration of five individuals who have shown themselves to be “true champions of justice,” and the honorees who were cited for outstanding leadership in the pursuit of justice were lauded with repeated ovations from a packed house in the College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater.
Before an enthusiastic audience of members of the College community, public officials, notables from entertainment and the arts, and other dignitaries, the Justice Awards were presented to Anthony McGill, principal clarinet with the New York Philharmonic; attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, author, activist and founder of Ms. magazine.
In addition, the College for the first time presented two Fierce Advocate Awards, to criminal defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerome F. Buting, whose advocacy on behalf of the wrongly convicted Steven Avery was chronicled in the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”
To learn more about the honorees, click here.
Strang and Buting “remind us of the power of the presumption of innocence,” said President Jeremy Travis. “Tonight we applaud. . .their willingness to step outside the role of lawyers [to be] what we like to call fierce advocates for justice.” The Avery case and the Netflix documentary, Travis noted, “raised important questions about the fallibility of the justice system.”
The Justice Awards ceremony included a roster of presenters as notable as the recipients themselves. Each of the honorees was first saluted with a special video tribute before their respective presenters took the stage. Matthew Van Besien, president of the New York Philharmonic, hailed McGill as someone who is in great demand as a performer throughout the world, yet still finds time to serve as a mentor and role model for youngsters. “How lucky we are to have this special individual as an ambassador,” Van Besien said of McGill before welcoming to the stage actor Alec Baldwin, a member of the Philharmonic’s board, to join in the presentation.
“When I think back, I could never have imagined receiving this honor,” said McGill. “I was just a clarinet player in a band.” Having access to important mentors and important institutions, he noted, “is something every child deserves.”
Actor and director Ellen Burstyn noted that she grew up in the era before feminism, when no one told women they could be doctors or CEOs. “I don’t know if young women today have any idea what it was like,” said Burstyn. “Gloria Steinem changed all that, changed the consciousness.”
Steinem, who has traveled the world advocating and organizing for peace and justice, observed that in her life she has witnessed 50 years of profound change, yet “we still find ourselves divided in ways that don’t need to be.” Our imagination, she said, “has gone much further than our reality.” Steinem called herself “a hope-aholic,” and said she feels “most hopeful about justice when I talk to or listen to children.”
Stevenson, whose efforts have led to reversals, relief or release for more than 115 wrongly condemned death-row inmates, was hailed by presenter Bill Keller, editor in chief of The Marshall Project, as “a forceful and effective champion for juveniles.” In a video tribute, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia said of Stevenson, “I can think of no person in America who’s more deserving of the John Jay Medal for Justice.”
Stevenson said the enemy of justice is hopelessness, and achieving justice means “doing uncomfortable things, inconvenient things.” He called on the audience to “keep beating the drum for justice.”
The Justice Awards, created in 2008, affirm the commitment of John Jay College to strengthening society’s social fabric through justice and civic engagement. Named after John Jay, a founding father and first Chief Justice of the United States, the awards recognize individuals and organizations for their unparalleled dedication to the cause of justice.
Previous John Jay Medal winners include Elie Wiesel, author, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; the late Judith Kaye, former Chief Judge of the State of New York; Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; B.J. Bernstein, prominent Atlanta attorney; the NYU Brennan Center for Justice; Leymah Gbowee, Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; the Innocence Project; the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project; Sunitha Krishnan, founder and President of Prajwala; Marian Wright Edelman, founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund; Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County, Illinois; Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somali human rights activist; Harry Belafonte, actor, musician and civil rights activist; and the Rev. Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship.
The John Jay Justice Awards are made possible through the generosity of Richard J. Tarlow, Kristin Kehrberg, and Anne Beane Rudman, a member of the John Jay College Foundation Board of Trustees.
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To learn more about the John Jay Medal for Justice and past recipients, click here.