Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
I barely found a seat at the back of Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin Auditorium to hear Bryan Stevenson talk about his bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His appearance was the highlight of the university’s Common Reading program for incoming students, which this year featured his book, the story of a 30-year legal career advocating for the poorest and most desperate inmates of American’s prisons – many of them African-Americans like Stevenson.
I expected students and faculty to attend, maybe some members from the Dallas community like me and members of my book group. I wasn’t really prepared for the crowd filling the nearly 2,400 seats in McFarlin. Or for the power of soft-spoken Stevenson’s presentation, even though he’s a man who has sat down with late civil rights doyenne Rosa Parks, has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and helped save dozens of wrongly-convicted death row prisoners from execution.
What I also wasn’t prepared for was the show of hands at the beginning of Stevenson’s talk from listeners whose friends or family members have been homicide victims. And although I knew the rate of incarceration in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last few decades, I also was astounded by the numbers – a more than 600 percent increase in incarceration since the 1970’s. The numbers, however, were no surprise to the numerous African-American student and community leaders in the audience.
Despite daunting statistics – that one in every 15 born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison, including one in every three black male babies born in this century – Stevenson told the audience they have great opportunities for change. And he offered four fundamental suggestions for making those changes: getting close to the problems, working on the narrative behind the issues, staying hopeful, and being willing to get uncomfortable.
“You need to get closer to the parts of your community where there is poverty and despair,” he urged. “There is power in proximity.”
His first contact with a death row inmate occurred early in his career, while he was still a law student/intern. He was charged with delivering a simple message: that the man was not in danger of being executed for at least one year. As he drove to the Georgia state prison, all he could think about was how inadequate that message must seem. Instead, the man grabbed his hands and thanked him. Stevenson and the prisoner, who were exactly the same age, were scheduled to talk together for an hour. They talked for three. “I hadn’t realized how being proximate with this man would change my life.”
At another, less happy encounter, a condemned prisoner marveled at how kind everyone around him had been on his final day of life. Guards asked if they could bring him coffee, offered stamps so he could mail his letters. “More people have asked what they could do to help me in the last 14 hours,” the prisoner said, “than in the entire rest of my life.”
Why, Stevenson wondered, hadn’t anyone offered to help when the man was an impoverished child, when he was a victim of sexual abuse, when he was an addict. “I began to think about the narrative: not do people deserve to die for their acts but do we deserve to kill. . . We’ve got to be willing to stay hopeful and to meet the challenges.”
But meeting those challenges also entails a willingness to move outside our comfort zones, a lesson he learned from Rosa Parker herself. When he spoke to her late in her life, explaining his work, “The thing she told me was, you got to do uncomfortable things to change things.”
For more about Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative he founded, and ways to become involved, see his site.