Monday, February 9, 2015

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a book EVERYONE needs to read. Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela” and John Grisham compares him to a living Atticus Finch. Yesterday I co-led a discussion of Just Mercy at my church. Twenty-eight people showed up (in the Chicago suburbs in February) and our spirited discussion of the disparities in our justice system led to many comments and questions about the book, about Stevenson, and about what ordinary people can do to help.

Bryan Stevenson is a crusader but he’s also a fine storyteller who personalizes the lives of the incarcerated and those on death row to make the reader care deeply about them and him. The story of Walter McMillan, a man wrongly sentenced to die for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, is the tale that ties the book together. Everything about his wrongful conviction from the fact that he was put on death row BEFORE his trial, to the intimidation of witnesses and Stevenson himself, depict a story so very wrong that it seemed almost over the top. It took Walter’s appearance on “60 Minutes” to set the wheels of justice moving in his case. Other stories portray injustice in many forms. Those of children sentenced to life in prison, of a mistreated veteran suffering from PTSD and a head injury, of the mentally ill put in solitary confinement, and of a woman charged with killing her stillborn baby - will make you cheer for Stevenson’s resolve. This book is a memoir as well as the telling of what happens to the powerless and the glimpses into Stevenson’s personal life enhance the story and its message.

Stevenson presents facts that make all of us, regardless of politics, see that this is a problem that affects our economy as well as our desire to do what’s right. 

“Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. . . . We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment.  . . . There are more than a half-million people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. . . . We make terrible mistakes. . . . we spend lots of money.”

Bryan Stevenson believes that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He points out bad people in the system who are protecting their own power by ruining the lives of the powerless, but he also presents hope.

“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. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”

Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy group, and this book touched me so deeply that I wrote a check to fund their work. (FYI: I never make donations without checking Charity Navigator and the Equal Justice Initiative is the highest ranked charity in its category.)

I encourage you to get your book club, your neighbors, or your faith community to read this book with you.  Our group began by watching Jon Stewart’s six-minute interview with Stevenson on the Daily Show, but you could also ask your fellow readers to watch Stevenson’s TED Talk on Injustice before reading the book.  It’s one of the best twenty minutes I’ve ever seen on the internet as supported by its 2,059,213 views. Exactly six months after Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri, this is a book that can help all of us talk without rancor about what can happen if any part of our population sees itself as marginalized. This is a book that can help us do better.  

Summing it Up: Just Mercy is the powerful memoir of one man’s quest to work for the poor, the oppressed, the mentally ill, and the powerless. It will make you mad and it will make you cheer. As a citizen of the world, you must read it.
Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: October 21, 2014

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