A Story of Justice and Redemption
From the publisher:
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING MICHAEL B. JORDAN AND JAMIE FOXX • A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.
“[Bryan Stevenson’s] dedication to fighting for justice and equality has inspired me and many others and made a lasting impact on our country.”—John Legend
NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOKS OF THE DECADE BY CNN • Named One of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Seattle Times • Esquire • Time
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.
Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction • Winner of a Books for a Better Life Award • Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • Finalist for the Kirkus Reviews Prize • An American Library Association Notable Book
In 2014, I was fortunate to attend the American Library Association Annual Conference, where Bryan Stevenson was one of the speakers. He is not a fiery orator, but is obviously passionate about social justice and racism in this country, and has fought for most of his life to help the underserved. I think he reached every person in that audience on a personal, visceral level, and I immediately got hold of his new book and read it while I was at the conference.
The following year, I was invited to the Carnegie Awards dinner where Stevenson won the award for nonfiction. He gave what is generally considered to be the best acceptance speech ever at the American Library Association Annual Conference. Most of the people in that room were moved to tears.
The book and his talks touched me deeply. It is one of those books that stay with you. For years, apparently. Earlier this year, the Vice President of Academic Affairs at the university where I work sent out a suggested reading list on racism and social justice. This book was on the list, and I offered to do a book discussion on some of her choices. That book discussion turned into two faculty training sessions over the summer.
I asked my colleague, a woman of color, to help as I thought it best to have her perspective alongside my white privilege. It led to very interesting and informative discussions, and we were asked to do another faculty training this week jointly with Project Civitas, a university group that works on civility projects, and the committee for Teaching Excellence. I offered a synopsis of the book, some shocking statistics & additional resources that the professors might want to include in their classes.
Here are some statistics:
- In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the U.S.
- In 2015, there were 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in the U.S.
- The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
- For every nine people who have been executed in the U.S., one person on death row has been exonerated and released.
- There are six million people on probation and parole.
- There are 70 million people with criminal arrest records.
- The percentage of women going to prison has increased 640% in the last 20 years.
- 1 in 3 black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison.
- There are 15 states with no minimum age for trying children as adults.
I found these statistics very disturbing. The book clearly illustrates many of these problems, and even better, offers solutions. Stevenson has been before the Supreme Court and won five times. It is because of him that children, some as young as 13 or 14, are not sentenced to die in prison anymore. He also won his case that people on death row who have dementia or other neurological diseases can no longer be put to death.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that was founded by the EJI. According to the website, it “opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. “
Here are a few resources that I found useful for my own edification:
The movie trailer:
The movie is excellent. It is streaming right now on HBO Max for subscribers or may be purchased on several other streaming sites.
Read an excerpt of “Just Mercy” https://www.npr.org/books/titles/
Visit the Equal Justice Initiative Website: https://eji.org/
HBO produced a documentary on Stevenson that is a sort of update on Just Mercy and is excellent. Here is the trailer:
Watch “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” an HBO documentary streaming on HBO Max if you’re a subscriber, or anyone can stream it from the EJI website: https://eji.org/projects/true-justice/
From the 60 Minutes archives: The true story behind “Just Mercy”https://youtu.be/1VFtzfnbmvs
I opened the book discussion by asking this:
One of Stevenson’s persistent talking points is that the question is not whether the condemned deserves to die, but whether we deserve to kill. Do you agree? Or find this compelling?
That led to a very interesting discussion of the death penalty, which led to a discussion of systemic racism in our criminal justice system. The professors shared resources and ideas for assignments on social justice and racism that manage to tie in to every college.
There is a wonderful profile of Stevenson that was done in 2019 in the Wall Street Journal that is definitely worth a read: Bryan Stevenson’s Moral Clarity by Donovan X. Ramsey.
Just Mercy is a book worth reading and discussing on so many levels. I have now read it four times, and I can honestly say I feel like I have gotten something new out of it every time. Don’t miss it.
10/2020 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™
JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson. One World; Reprint Edition (August 18, 2015). ISBN 978-0812984965. 368 pages.