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Javier Sirvent for TIME

When I first heard Bryan Stevenson speak, I found myself admiring the way his gentle voice pulls you in to listen that much closer to the power behind his every word. But I imagine his mild manner is as much about delivering a clear message as it is his own way of conserving energy—for no one knows the steady pace that must be maintained on the long road to equality more than Bryan. For decades, he has dedicated himself to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal-­justice system with the perfect combination of unwavering passion and idealism.

Through the Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded in 1989, Bryan has combatted excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerated innocent prisoners on death row, challenged the abuse of the incarcerated and mentally ill, aided children prosecuted as adults and litigated on behalf of the poor as well as those whose race denied them a fair trial. This year, his organization’s report on lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow South documented at least 700 previously unknown victims.

It is Bryan’s belief that every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, which is a lesson to so many that forgiveness is a necessary means to achieving equality for all.

Williams is the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world

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