Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a gripping account of his experiences working with wrongfully convicted death row prisoners, was chosen as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read book in 2015. I had the privilege of facilitating several discussions, both in public libraries and online, about this book. The book had a very strong impact on its readers, and everyone who participated in the discussions was very fired up, awed, or otherwise moved by this reading experience.
In Just Mercy, Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, sheds light on the deeply broken justice system in the United States. The overarching narrative is that of Walter McMillian, a Black man who was sentenced to death for a murder that he did not commit. Stevenson discusses the ways in which the justice system seems determined to convict McMillian: moving his trial to a largely white county, suppressing evidence, turning a blind eye to the corrupt actions of local cops. McMillian fights what at times seems to be a losing battle with Stevenson at his side.
Stevenson also shares eye-opening stories and statistics about poor women, mentally ill veterans, and Black and Latino children against whom the system works. Disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately at the hands of the law. If you don’t have money, or if you are already a criminal in the eyes of the court because of the color of your skin, it is next to impossible to get anything close to adequate or just legal treatment.
Reading Just Mercy is an incredibly moving experience. I was awed by Stevenson’s stories, inspired by his compassion and drive, and enraged by the blatant—and subtle—racism in the justice system. Stevenson, a Black man himself, has been threatened by police for no reason other than that he is Black—he shares terrifying stories that really made me think deeply about my own white privilege, and the relative safety with which I move about the world.
These injustices are happening everywhere, not just in the South. A review cannot possibly do justice to Just Mercy. This is an extremely important book that should be widely read and reflected upon.
You can watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk here.