Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.", Angela Davis

I recently listened to a podcast series called Seeing White, which explored how and why whiteness as a concept was a created, and how it continues to function in American society. (I know, I know, if you're someone who is also friends with me on social media you've heard me recommend this podcast multiple times. I don't care; you should listen to it.) One of the things I realized listening to the podcast was that even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about racial justice issues, I still have so much to learn about the history of race and the myriad ways white supremacy has been baked into the foundation of American society.

Bryan Stevenson's memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, provides more insight into many of the issues raised in the podcast. Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer who has spent his career representing people whose rights have been trampled on by a racist criminal justice system. Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has argued cases before the US Supreme Court challenging the death penalty, and life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. Just Mercy chronicles his early career; the cases he worked on and the legal issues they represented. Since his days as a young, overworked lawyer, Stevenson has become a sought-after expert on criminal justice reform. He has also, as head of the Equal Justice Initiative, given the country the first museum and memorial dedicated specifically to lynching victims.

Just Mercy does a beautiful job balancing legal theory with the very intense, very personal stories of the clients Stevenson and EJI represented over the years. Stevenson lays out a clear path from the racist policies of the Jim Crow era to the continued racist practices in the age of mass incarceration. He clearly demonstrates the inherent inequities in the jury selection process and the harsh realities of prison on juveniles who are tried as adults. Stevenson intersperses the stories of his clients with his own story, demonstrating a depth of compassion that adds emotional heft to an already powerful story. I don't know how anyone who reads this book could argue with the basic lack of justice in our so-called justice system. Just Mercy is a clarion call for reform, real reform, to a system that was designed to function as a form of social control over people of color and poor people, those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

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