Freedom Center announces star-studded Conductor Award list

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center announced today its 2021 recipients of the International Freedom Conductor Award. The Freedom Center’s highest honor will be presented at an Oct. 16 gala celebration to Amal and George Clooney, the late Congressman John Lewis and Bryan Stevenson.

The IFC 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. Award recipients reflect positive impact on contemporary freedom issues.

“The cause of freedom is enduring and must be pursued constantly, relentlessly, to ensure all people, regardless of location, religion, race or sexuality, are free,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president & COO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “Mr. and Mrs. Clooney, Congressman Lewis and Mr. Stevenson represent – historically, categorically and systemically – the injustices we continue to fight in our pursuit of freedom. They are conductors on our current path to freedom.”

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 more than 100 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 recipient of the Gwen Ifill Award for extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom. 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.

George Clooney, a native of Northern Kentucky, 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, D.C., calling worldwide attention to the human rights violations being committed in Sudan. 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.

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 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 and expanded access to healthcare and voting rights. In 2011, President Obama awarded Congressman Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 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.”

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. In 2020 he was a co-recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.

Past recipients of the IFCA include:

  • Rosa Parks, 1998
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2000
  • Dr. Dorothy Height, 2003
  • The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, 2003
  • President George H.W. Bush, 2007
  • President Bill Clinton, 2007
  • His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, 2010
  • Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, 2013
  • Nicholas Kristof, 2013
  • Lech Walesa, 2014
  • Nelson Mandela, 2014
  • Hon. Nathaniel Jones, 2016

Tickets for the 2021 IFCA Gala will be available on July 9.

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