Last spring I attended the Public Library Association conference and one of the speakers was Bryan Stevenson. His talk was tailored to the vast hall filled with librarians, (he reminded us of public libraries’ important role as one of the last egalitarian institutions in America) but much of what he said is in Just Mercy, the book he has just published.
Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s work as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works to free the wrongly incarcerated, especially those on death row, and to bring about reform in a justice system that “continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” The book is remarkable not only because it is appalling that in the nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” we have such a broken system, but also because the tireless work Stevenson and his colleagues do and the injustices they attempt to right both go largely unnoticed.
Stevenson writes eloquently and passionately about some of the people who have changed his life: Henry, the first death row inmate he met, who sang a hymn as the guard pushed him roughly out of the visitation room where he and Stevenson had spent more than their allotted time; Jimmy Dill, a man whose disabilities did not dissuade the state of Alabama from executing him, and whose stutter reminded Stevenson of a childhood encounter; Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly convicted whose freedom Stevenson won and who became a friend. He writes of the individual circumstances of these people’s lives and also of the broad and shocking statistics that bear witness to the lack of justice available to the poor, disabled, mentally ill, women, children, and minorities in our justice system. Stevenson equates today’s mass incarceration with slavery, racial terrorism (lynching and convict leasing following abolition), and legalized segregation as the most damaging racial injustices in American history.
Stevenson also writes eloquently about being afraid, angry, and broken: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, and injustice and not be broken by it.” This is the most stunning thing about Just Mercy. While Stevenson suggests, and has brought about, many specific reforms, his final prescription for ending injustice is so simple that there is not one person who can’t participate in it.”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.”
It’s that basic. We are all broken. Accept that, and we could be on the road to real racial and economic reconciliation. Reflecting on what he shared at Walter McMillian’s funeral, Stevenson notes, “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”
If you read Just Mercy you’ll conclude that we don’t. And you’ll conclude that racism is still pervasive in America today. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column about Bryan Stevenson last month, “THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. . . . We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”
Embrace Stevenson’s call to just mercy, to compassion, to understanding and healing, and this can end.