Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me.
If historical films Selma and Loving forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present in the United States when my father was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present when I was a child. The book is a memoir of sorts, describing Stevenson’s work leading the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other disfavored people, especially the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced, particularly in Alabama and nearby Deep South states.
The book’s primary narrative follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, spending several debilitating years on death row. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of a movie, from the shocking actions of local officials to EJI’s dogged efforts to uncover the truth and extract justice for Walter McMillian. (I’ve always been skeptical of the populist liberal narrative that elite whites exploit divisions between poor whites and poor blacks for their own benefit, but the role of the delinquent Ralph Meyers makes for a fascinating parable of that very theme.)
While Walter’s experience is manifestly an outlier for 1980’s Alabama, it is painfully obvious that it would not have been possible without the bigotry of local officials or even of the general white population in the county. Nor is the suffering limited to Walter as an individual. If Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of gang violence in the inner city on whole black communities, Just Mercy starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of injustice at the hands of the government through the criminal justice system. A community full of people who were at the barbecue that solidified Walter’s alibi was crushed with a heavy hopelessness that such a blatant miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen, compounding upon their shared historical pain even in spite of the progress of the civil rights movement.
And yet I still believe in that continuing stream of progress, much of which Stevenson has had a direct hand in bringing about. I was inspired by his work as well as encouraged by my (perhaps but hopefully not naive) confidence that most of the local officials’ disgraces toward Walter would not be tolerated today. From Supreme Court decisions to the continually evolving attitudes of the American public, our nation is both progressing and full of opportunities for us to play a part in the progress that still desperately needs to be manifested. Stevenson’s impacts on individual lives, and the radiating influence of those impacts, gave me much to ponder about the tension between pursuing small things and big things in the name of truth and justice.
Stevenson’s tellings of recent history have plenty of relevance for today. The national media’s outside attention to Walter’s case reinforced local opinions against him, reflecting defensive attitudes that could still be felt during last year’s special senate election in Alabama. Yet this bitter divisiveness was contrasted with a beautiful account of a proud Confederate correctional officer who was completely transformed from his hateful attitude toward Stevenson and one of his clients after hearing the client’s backstory, unleashing a powerful empathy from their shared hurtful experiences in the foster system. Time and again, telling people they’re evil racists is far less effective than telling the stories that unlock the irresistible compassion of our shared humanity. (As Stevenson’s grandmother always said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.”)
Much of the book is more about class than race. The stories offer a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system, and all the complications that go behind and beyond a simple “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, and the huge disparities in outcomes that often hinge on whether or not you have a good lawyer. Upon finishing Stevenson’s book, it is hard not to agree with his conclusion that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”
While I acknowledge difficult questions around the nature of justice for victims of violence, the book deepened my personal opposition to the death penalty. “Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.” There are probably few examples of the sad incongruence of the evangelical “Bible Belt” and the land of “Jim Crow” that are more searing than the image of a young black teenager climbing into the electric chair and made to sit atop a Bible for his execution since he was too short for the restraints. “Let he who is without sin,” indeed. Yet I also smiled to read of the old Methodist couple who took in a released youngster, determined to redeem him from all the horrors he had lived. That is the sort of neighborly, Christ-like love that is truly our only hope.
The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. – Bryan Stevenson