Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, is probably the best book I’ve read in the last five or so years.
It’s pretty much about everything I care about: social justice, race, poverty, compassion and empathy, commitment and dedication, and the power of hard work and hope.
Mr. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, is an attorney who has spent his life defending people on death row. He has done most of his work in the South, where the death penalty, along with years of mass incarceration, serves to extend the legacy of slavery.
In fact, Just Mercy is a perfect companion to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. While Prof. Alexander’s book focuses on the institutional progression from slavery to race terrorism to Jim Crow to segregation to mass incarceration, Mr. Stevenson centers in on the personal, dedicating most of his book to the case of Walter McMillian. He intersperses the main narrative with poignant, disturbing chapters on injustices facing women, children, and people with intellectual disabilities.
There are many reasons to read this book. If you care about issues of social justice, the justice system, race, or poverty, then this book is a natural fit.
But this book is even more. It will push you to consider what you’re doing with your life, about what you stand for, about how you treat people. It will get you out of the humdrum dailiness and encourage you to think about the big.
Just as an example, here’s a short excerpt where Mr. Stevenson reflects on why he stays in this challenging work. After a page in which he describes how society has “broken” his clients, he continues:
I do what I do because I’m broken, too. My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.
Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, consider watching Mr. Stevenson’s TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About an Injustice.”
As Mr. Stevenson says, let’s listen. And once we’ve listened, let’s talk about what we may not want to talk about. Let’s believe things that we haven’t yet seen. Let’s consider our hearts in addition to our minds. Let’s have an orientation of hope. And if you’ve read the book, let’s start talking about it! Please leave a comment.