Today, on July 4, many Americans will celebrate America’s independence from Britain, a part of this country’s history. Some say to “never forget” the events that led to our freedom. Meanwhile, there is a push by some to absolutely forget another part of our history, when white peoples’ inhuman and degrading treatment of black people was common. Slavery, when rarely spoken of, is described as a historic event that we do not need to dwell on because it happened so long ago (89 years more recent than our independence from Britain), and that reconciliation is unnecessary because those of us living today did not own slaves. This contradiction to never forget the hardships that benefitted whites, while constantly censoring the hardships of others is one we do need to reconcile with. Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” is an excellent step in acknowledging our history and working toward a future we can all feel hopeful about.
In his 2014 nonfiction book “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson shows us his passionate journey to fight for justice within the criminal justice system. He works for truth to be uncovered in legal cases, he demands we take a hard look at mass incarceration. The book clearly shows us how those who are already disadvantaged by society are too often victims of an unjust court system. Much of the book revolves around the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent black man who was put on death row by white men of power who used McMillian as a scapegoat as a way to uphold their own reputations.
To understand how America’s judicial system could be what it is today, Stevenson takes us back in time to examine a part of this country’s history that is too often left out of text books, political speeches, or history lectures.
The history of racism in America described by Stevenson is at first unnerving – how could this happen? How am I just learning the extent of this now? – and in the end horrifying. Almost everyone who I have spoken with about the book says it was difficult for them to read and that they would often have to put the book down and come back to it later. For me, one passage that did this was a quote from the Alabama highest court in 1882. “The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races … Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization.”
Throughout the book, there is example after example of white men using their white privilege and professional power to exert unimaginable racist actions on black men, women, children, and those with disabilities. Reading about the threats, abuse, and force used by white people troubled me to my core.
As much as this book is a reckoning with America’s treatment of its people, it is also part memoir. We learn how Stevenson became the influential and inspiring person he is today.
As a lawyer, law professor, and social justice activist, Stevenson is well versed in America’s judicial system. He has seen the work of the courts and our prisons. He has personally felt the oppression of police officers. He shows us in numbers – Alabama at the time of writing had more juvenile court sentences to death than any other state or country in the world – and anecdotally that systemic change is needed to truly provide a just and fair judicial system.
Stevenson is someone who will not be intimidated by people with power, nor will his work be stopped by the hurt and loss he has experienced in his own life. Stevenson and several others he introduces us to in “Just Mercy” show us our potential as fellow humans to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
Patrons have recommended this book to me over the years, at times with tears in their eyes, and rightfully so. It truly is a moving, wake-up call that every American should read and reflect on.
“Just Mercy” on Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative website
Interviews with Stevenson, book reviews and more in this one handy guide
Place a hold on the book with Minot-Sleeper Library in the catalog