Amal and George Clooney, Bryan Stevenson and John Lewis honored by Freedom Center

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Amal and George Clooney, Bryan Stevenson and John Lewis honored by Freedom Center

International Freedom Conductor Awards celebrated four modern-day freedom heroes

CINCINNATI — Four modern-day freedom conductors were recognized Saturday evening at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s International Freedom Conductor Awards. Amal and George Clooney, Bryan Stevenson and the late Congressman John Lewis joined the ranks of past award recipients and social justice icons Rosa Parks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and more.

The International Freedom Conductor Award is the Freedom Center’s highest honor. The award recognizes the contributions of contemporary individuals who, by their actions and personal examples, reflect the spirit and courageous actions of conductors on the historic Underground Railroad, the nation’s original social justice movement. The inaugural award was presented to Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks in 1998. Since then, Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Height, Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Nicolas Kristof, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and Judge Nathaniel Jones have received the honor.

"As many despair in the darkness of injustice and oppression, our International Freedom Conductors stand bright and defiant, showing the power of an individual emboldened in the name of freedom to extinguish the darkness,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president and COO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “The work of Mr. Stevenson, Congressman Lewis and Mr. and Mrs. Clooney represent systemically, historically and categorically the injustices we continue to fight in our pursuit of freedom. They are conductors on our current path to freedom.”

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His work challenges the inequities of the criminal justice system in America, particularly the biases against minorities. As director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson guaranteed defense of anyone sentenced to the death penalty in Alabama, the state with the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing. He has been instrumental in influencing Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or life in prison without parole and he has argued cases that have saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty. Most notably, Stevenson helped overturn the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian, during which McMillian served six years on death row before being exonerated in 1993. In 2018, Stevenson founded the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the names of more than 4,000 Blacks lynched in the American South between 1877 and 1950. That history of racial violence and lynchings, Stevenson argues, has influenced the high rate of death sentences in the South, where it is disproportionately applied to minorities. In 2018, Stevenson received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the American Philosophical Society for his work in support of justice and mercy, the organization’s most prestigious award for distinguished public service. In 2020 he was a co-recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.

“I’m here in Montgomery, Alabama, where I stand on the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less,” said Bryan Stevenson in a recorded acceptance speech. “This space that I occupy, that was occupied by so many who gave their lives to advance the cause of justice reminds me, and teaches me, that we have to be conductors for justice, that we have no choice to be silent in the face of so many threats to democracy and justice. I’m inspired because I know that when we believe the things we have not seen, we can achieve greatness, we can achieve justice. I am persuaded that in this moment, even though things are difficult, we will prevail.”

Congressman John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020) was integral to the Civil Rights movement for over 50 years. At just 21, Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, was beaten and bloodied as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, seeking to end the racist Jim Crow policies of the American South. At 23, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he marched on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking just before Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At 25, he was one of the leaders of the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, advocating for voting rights. At the head of the march, he and others stood their ground against police in riot gear, before Lewis was beaten by law enforcement and his skull fractured. But his efforts achieved their purpose – President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law shortly after, securing the right to vote that had so long been denied to Black voters in America. In 1986, he was elected to the first of 17 terms in the US Congress, representing Georgia’s 5th district, taking the fight for human rights and racial equity to the halls of Congress. During his tenure Congressman Lewis was also an advocate of LGBTQIA rights, expanded access to healthcare and voting rights. In 2011, President Obama awarded Congressman Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying he was “an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.” Congressman Lewis dedicated his life to racial equity and human rights, applauding those marching in protest of police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, considering the protests a continuation of his life’s work. His colleagues are hoping his legacy lives on in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a bill the congressman advocated for in the halls of Congress and bled for in the segregated South. Congressman Lewis reminds us always to “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

In a tribute to Congressman Lewis recorded for the event, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder remarked, “His life was always about more than just him. It was about a noble cause in a righteous crusade. About whether America would make good on the promise of its founding and become a country in which every person from every station, every background and every community would be afforded the dignity that all people deserve.... He was calling on us to be the people he believed we could be. He had faith in us. He believed in us, and in our capacity for goodness and grace.”

Accepting on behalf of the late Congressman Lewis, Mignon Morman Willis, representing the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, said, “[Congressman Lewis] believed the work the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is doing to be critical. Thank you, Freedom Center, for inspiring and empowering change and what Congressman Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”

Amal Clooney

is a barrister specializing in international law and human rights. She represents victims of human rights violations in national and international courts and is currently representing Yazidi victims of genocide, including the first genocide case against an ISIS member. Ms. Clooney also represents over one hundred Sudanese victims of crimes committed by Janjaweed
leader Ali Kushayb, who faces trial before the International Criminal Court. She is also representing a state in one of the most groundbreaking cases before the International Court of Justice, alleging that Myanmar is responsible for the crime of genocide against the Rohingya people. Ms. Clooney has helped to secure freedom for political prisoners around the world, including journalists and opposition figures. In 2020 she was the recipient of the Gwen Ifill Award for extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom and currently represents award-winning Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who faces a lifetime behind bars for her work in the Philippines. Ms. Clooney is the author of The Right to a Fair Trial in International Law and is a visiting professor at Columbia Law School. Together with her husband, George, she is co-founder of the Clooney Foundation for Justice. One of their first projects – an initiative to educate hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon – was showcased at the 2016 United Nations summit hosted by President Barack Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power.

“We all stand on the shoulders of people who decided to fight for our freedom, individuals who were not going to wait for some other person in some other place to care. We are the beneficiaries of other people’s bravery and kindness and there is hardly a better example of these qualities than John Lewis,” Amal Clooney said in a call to action. “I believe that we can all make a difference if we stand up for those who are not free. As John Lewis told us, ‘Freedom is not a state; it is an act.’ Thank you to the organizers for reminding us that we should all strive to be this generation’s conductors of freedom – we all have a part to play, and a lot of work to do.”

George Clooney

George Clooney is an American actor, filmmaker and activist recognized as much for his global humanitarian efforts as he is for his film accomplishments. Among the many honors received for his humanitarian work was the 2007 Peace Summit Award and the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award. He has produced three telethons: The Tribute to Heroes after the 9/11 attacks, Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope and Hope for Haiti Now, which raised a record $66 million. In 2010, he founded The Satellite Sentinel Project, which used private satellites to take photographs of Sudan and South Sudan to alert civilians of any potential threats. He founded The Sentry in 2015 to use forensic accountants to follow the money stolen from citizens of Sudan and South Sudan by their governments. He has testified in front of Congress, two Secretaries of State and dozens of senators to help bring peace to South Sudan. In March 2012, Mr. Clooney and his father, Nick, were arrested as part of the delegation that peacefully protested in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC, calling worldwide attention to the human rights violations being committed in Sudan. He and his wife, Amal, launched the ambitious Clooney Foundation for Justice in 2016. Mr. Clooney has won two Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award, four SAG awards, one BAFTA award, two Critic’s Choice Awards, an Emmy and four National Board of Review awards.

“John Lewis said to get into good trouble. Growing up we were taught to pick good fights. To challenge people with power and protect those without power. That’s it. You do that and you’ve won,” George Clooney said from the stage. “Amal and I pursue that goal every day. And we fail often. But that tells us we’re on the right track.”



About the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, more than 1.3 million people have visited its permanent and changing exhibits and public programs, inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom. Two million people have utilized educational resources online at, working to connect the lessons of the Underground Railroad to inform and inspire today’s global and local fight for freedom. Partnerships include Historians Against Slavery, Polaris Project, Free the Slaves, US Department of State and International Justice Mission. In 2014, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center launched a new online resource in the fight against modern slavery,

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