Tireless civil rights advocate Stephen Bright leaving

ATLANTA (AP) — After 35 years, one of Atlanta’s tireless civil rights advocates is leaving an agency he transformed into a force for justice on behalf of inmates facing the death penalty, detainees in unsafe jail conditions and defendants neglected by indigent defense systems.

Stephen Bright, now 68, has worked to provide quality legal representation to the powerless and impoverished since 1982, when he took over what’s now known as the Southern Center for Human Rights. And, he’s done it on a shoestring budget, forsaking the high salary his profession often brings.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message as I took it was that there was nothing more important than ending racism, poverty, materialism and militarism and nothing less important than how much money you made doing it,” Bright said of self-imposed low pay. “That suited me perfectly.”

Asked about his time at the Southern Center, Bright, quoting the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, said, “I did the best I could with what I had.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Bright, whose salary hovers at about $38,000, said he will continue to teach at some of the nation’s top law schools. And, on Monday, he’s scheduled to argue his fourth case before the U.S. Supreme Court, this time on behalf of Alabama death-row inmate James McWilliams.

At issue is whether McWilliams should have been provided an independent expert who could have testified at trial about the defendant’s mental health. The case took on more significance Wednesday when two executions in Arkansas were stayed pending the outcome of the McWilliams decision.

Bright is one of only a few lawyers who can say they’ve won all their arguments before the nation’s highest court. In his three prior cases, justices overturned death sentences because of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.

Bright embodies the best the legal system has to offer, Atlanta lawyer Ed Garland said.

“He represents unselfishness, humility and deep personal love and caring for the least of those in our society,” Garland said. “I’ve been with him in courtrooms where he was courageous and magnificently effective. I’ve been with him in jails where he showed individual defendants the greatest of human compassion.”

Working full-tilt for decades has taken a toll. Bright was just 31 when he suffered his first “cardiac incident.” Then, at home in Atlanta in 2007, he blacked out and collapsed to the floor.

He got up, went to work the next day and then saw his doctor, who sent Bright to the emergency room. Doctors found Bright had gone into cardiac arrest. They believed his fall jolted his heart back into action, saving his life. Bright now has a defibrillator.

Bright said he’s never regretted missing out on the lavish income he could command, given his credentials and expertise. “I’ve never had any interest in making a lot of money,” he said.

Bright grew up on his family’s 700-acre farm in central Kentucky. He remembers his father speaking out against segregation in the 1960s.

“My folks,” Bright said, “were among the very few people who said very strongly, ‘You just can’t treat people this way because of their race. You’ve got to integrate the schools. You’ve got to integrate everything.’”

Bright followed his parents’ example at the University of Kentucky, where he was elected student body president.

He spoke out against the war in Vietnam and was once arrested during a campus protest. Represented by a law school professor, Bright avoided being expelled from school. He also started to think about becoming a lawyer.

“I saw how they could help people and bring about change,” he said.

The Southern Center is hosting a tribute for Bright on May 2.


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