Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

This might be the most important book I’ve read this year.  Paired with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  Between the World and Me, these two memoirs offer a raw and brutal lens with which to examine race in America.  As a recent Harvard Law graduate in the 203426171980s, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a firm based in Alabama dedicated to defending the poor, the non-represented, the incarcerated, the  condemned–specifically those on death row. The book spotlights one of his first cases–Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white woman–in which Stevenson discovers not only a shocking lack of credible evidence that sent a man to death row (where he spent decades of his life), but also a rural Southern culture steeped in political corruption, racism, and fear-mongering. Stories of numerous inmates are woven in between the McMillian case, one just as heartbreaking as the next.

I found myself continually shocked by the information in this book: shocked and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of prison statistics and my lack of understanding of policies like “three strikes and you’re out” or political slogans like “tough on crime.”  These seemingly positive policies that appear to protecting our safety have actually led to startling statistics: “the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a quarter of a million kids sent to adult jails and prisons for extremely long sentences, 3,000 juveniles sentenced to die in prison, hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders forced to spend decades in prison, a half a million people in prisons for drug offenses, and life sentences for non-homicide offenses” (p 15). And finally, “scores of innocent people who were sentenced to death and nearly executed” (16). An unprecedented amount of money has shifted from health, education, and social services to prisons, and a huge number of private prison companies have hit the jackpot through our mass incarceration rate.

I could go on for pages and pages, but here are some of the most memorable statements I took from this book:

  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (17).
  • One older man said to Stevenson, “Tell them to stop saying our country never experienced terrorism before 9/11.  We grew up with terrorism. Anyone who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings, lynchings, and racial violence of all kinds.”(299).
  • “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we have thrown away children, the disabled, and the weak, not because they are a threat to public safety, but because it makes us seem tough” (290).
  • A society should be judged not by how it treats the rich, but how it treats the poor and the disenfranchised.
  • The opposite of poverty is not wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.

When I teach Mockingbird to 9th graders next month, we inevitably talk about race, racial profiling, false accusations, and fear.  But over and over again, students are quick to say, “thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.”  They are so mistaken.  Because most of them are white, they have no idea what it means to be black.  And they have no idea what it’s like to live with the fear of being arrested and jailed for something they didn’t do or for something so minor, it would heed little more than a warning for someone with lighter skin. Stevenson has committed his entire career to providing equal justice for those who have been ignored by our court system.  We could learn so much from his definition of mercy.

View Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk: We Need to Talk about an Injustice

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