I’ve been putting off writing a review of Just Mercy, because it felt so important I didn’t think I’d do it justice. There are very few books that I wish everyone would read, but this was one of them. It’s about race and the criminal justice system — how the U.S. locks up disproportionate numbers of African-Americans, even children for life-long sentences and the death penalty.
This book is a memoir in a way, since Stevenson writes about his own experiences with the law and creating the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He starts out just wanting to help defend those in prison. Then he starts up a nonprofit to represent death row inmates in Montgomery, Alabama who can’t afford lawyers. He’s overwhelmed by the amount of work, and how few resources he has. But over time, his organization grows – and what EJI does today is truly amazing.
I was particularly affected by his story of his own experience as a young lawyer, when he pulled up to his own apartment complex and sat in his car for five minutes to listen to a song – and ends up being interrogated by police in front of all his neighbors. He realizes how lucky he was that he knew to speak calmly, to say he was a lawyer, and not to make any sudden moves, because otherwise an incident that was humiliating and scary could have been much worse. He brings this experience to his work in social justice.
Throughout the book, he tells of many different cases, but focuses on one case that spans years. It’s the story of Walter McMillian, a law-abiding black man who is well-regarded as a businessman in his community, until he has an affair with a white woman. This leads to being framed for murder by an unstable couple and the police who need a suspect. The evidence against him is so ridiculous, and the evidence supporting his alibi so strong, that even the most cynical will be shocked that this man could go to death row in our country.
When I was young I dreamed of being a courtroom lawyer, but it took law school for me to see that wasn’t for me. Among other reasons, I knew I couldn’t handle the pressure of having someone’s life depending on my ability to give a speech or interview a witness. That leaves me even more in awe of what Bryan Stevenson has done for so many people. I think – and hope – this book will inspire many people to go to law school. I just want to support what he’s doing.
“There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
This book told me things I already knew, but I still found myself shocked by it, in the same way I was by Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five. I already knew there was racism and corruption and unfairness in the legal system. I knew that cases go wrong, that juries don’t always get it right, and that sometimes we convict innocent people. But I didn’t see it through the eyes of the people who have suffered. I didn’t realize the devastating consequences of how our system throws people away. Here’s an example (one of many) that I found haunting: I didn’t realize women could be sent to jail their whole lives for the painful act of miscarrying a child. But they have.
I’ve been reading a lot more books about race lately, and they’ve given me important new perspectives, but this one more than the rest. I’m constantly reminded by the news every day of my own white privilege. This book is a great example of why we should all read nonfiction once in a while, and why we should pick up books that expand our view of the world.
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.” Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
This is the kind of book you’ll look at and say “but I’m not in the mood for a topic like this” — I did. Thanks to my blogger friends who reminded me how good this book is. And if you’ve read this book and want to read some related fiction, I recommend An American Marriage, Sing Unburied Sing, The Vain Conversation, or The Hate U Give. Or please, add your own recommendations.