Taylor Corley, Campus Carrier arts & living editor
In Warner Bros Pictures’ newest movie, “Just Mercy,” Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx tell the underrated story of a social justice activist, Bryan Stevenson, and his fight against a legal system that labeled inmates as guilty based on the color of their skin before they were even born.
The movie is based on the memoir, also titled “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson who graduated from Havard Law School in 1969. Rather than taking the traditional route and working in a law firm fresh out of school, he started his own non-profit work taking on cases from death-row inmates in need of free and adequate representation in Montgomery, Alabama.
During the time he started his work, and even now as he continues work with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), African Americans were targeted by the United States justice system. Prison was used to oppress black people and physically remove them from society.
Growing up in poor, rural Milton, Delaware, Stevenson was able to experience first hand the role race and economic status played in the outcome of court decisions. Throughout the book, Stevenson sheds light on the historical context at the time and includes his own analysis of the morals on which the American criminal justice system is built. He argues that our current systems, both legal and reformational, often choose condemnation and punishment rather than empathy and mercy, specifically shown through the practice of capital punishment.
Stevenson has dedicated his life to being a voice for those who have been silenced by the law, a voice for those who were put behind bars because they looked like they could commit a crime, and a voice for those who were told their life was meaningless regardless of what they did or did not do.
His fight for mercy has not been an easy one but Stevenson perseveres. It was his dedication to his cause that led faculty and staff to choose “Just Mercy” as the summer reading book for the incoming freshmen in 2016.
“It’s a really well-written book and Bryan Stevenson’s life is a very inspiring life,” Katherine Powell, director of the Office of First-Year Experience, said. “One of the criteria that we consider when choosing a book is does the story give students something to aspire to and the example of Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to a difficult but important cause we felt was worth the students’ time.”
It’s common knowledge that America has a justice system in place, but unless students have an in-depth knowledge of the ins and outs of the system, the injustices within it are rarely discussed. The goal of first year experience summer reading is to open the students’ minds to topics they may not have discussed in the past.
“We thought that for many students, the book would challenge their previous understanding of justice in the United States and how the system works,” Powell said. “I think it also challenged people’s understanding of race in the United States.”
The hope was that Stevenson’s memoir would encourage students to consider issues that they may not have recognized as prevalent in society before coming to college.
“I think a lot of students may come in a little naive about certain social justice issues,” Powell said. “I think for some freshman, but not all freshmen, this was the first time they had considered the idea that how much money you have determines a case’s outcome or that there is not racial equity across the justice system.”
Many current seniors were impacted by “Just Mercy” because it was their first introduction to college discussions, specifically at Berry.
“This was the first time I was exposed to this topic and I thought it was cool that we had the chance to talk about our prison system,” senior Aubrey McFayden said. “It wasn’t a social justice issue I was aware of coming into college and the conversation really differentiated the difference between high school and college discussions for me.”
Another goal of the first year summer reading book is to give rise to open important and productive dialogue between students.
“ We thought it was a good vehicle for provoking some engaging discussion around those topics, ” Powell said. “It provoked a lot of discussion about whether or not the death penalty was ever an appropriate punishment but especially whether or not it could ever be a justly administered punishment given the history of racism in the justice system of the United States.”
Anytime an author introduces an argument, discussion from both opposing and allied views must be entertained. But students were receptive to the message surrounding “Just Mercy” and were willing to engage in conversation.
“I think this was the most universally well-received first year book we’ve ever done,” Powell said. “I think it started a lot of thinking for a lot of people, which is exactly what we want.”
Students had the privilege of listening to Stevenson discuss his memoir and the topics discussed in the book at Berry.
“He did a really nice job of telling his personal story but also talking about the larger issues,” Powell said. “He was very engaging and warm and kind and also very intelligent. He was very generous with his time and drove himself up from Montgomery, had dinner with our committee, gave his talk, signed books and took pictures with anyone who wanted pictures.”
Since visiting in 2016, Stevenson has opened several museums and memorials dedicated to educating the public about the history of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, people humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color whose lives were encumbered by presumptions of guilt and police violence.
Stevenson’s work with EJI has grown, as he and his associates continue to fight for prisoners’ right to life, those who have been wrongfully convicted, anyone who cannot afford appropriate legal consultation and anyone who is broken in search of mercy.
In the words of Bryan Stevenson, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”