The most appalling and distressing takeaway from Just Mercy, the excellent book that has been on my night table for ages that I finally read last month, is the fact that the real-life cases and injustices it describes did not take place that long ago. And even more appalling is that many of the underlying inequities and prejudices the book depicts so poignantly are still prevalent today. That is incredibly disheartening. And my anguish is compounded by the sobering reality that what has happened to our country and our moral fiber since Trump took office has actually moved us backwards on this front, with bigotry once again given unprecedented reign.
That is the bad news. But this blog is about hope and optimism and is a celebration of the good that is happening in this world. So here is the good news, and the ultimately uplifting takeaway from Just Mercy. I am so glad that Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the book and is the attorney who serves as the book’s protagonist (and is a hero both on and off the written page), had the courage and selflessness to devote his professional life to fighting these wrongs. Armed with a Harvard Law degree that could have earned him a lucrative and prestigious law firm job, he moved to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Foundation. The fact that there are Bryan Stevensons in this world is so heartening.
I have never met Bryan Stevenson, but I do know his mentor, Stephen Bright. Stephen is another one of those equal justice warriors who has spent decades representing people who have been sentenced to death and taking on defendants whose sentences are a direct result of the shoddy legal representation they received. I first heard Stephen speak when I was working at Georgetown Law Center and he was a visiting lecturer. His talk about his death row clients and the fact that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done was so inspiring and moving to me that I felt galvanized to do something. I approached him and told him I wanted to write a book about the death penalty, and to my continued surprise he agreed to give me access to his cases and to his wealth of knowledge and experience. Finding Life on Death Row, published by Northeastern University Press the year we moved from Washington, DC to Charlotte, North Carolina, served as the transition from my work as an attorney to my self-identify as a writer. It was my attempt at doing my part to address the injustices that had propelled me to law school.
But it is something very different to walk the walk, to tirelessly work for practically minimum wage taking on gut-wrenching and often demoralizing cases, not just for a year or two (and that I applaud as well) but for your entire professional life. Stephen and Bryan are heroes, plain and simple. They are the kind of people who fill me with hope when I see families separated and children caged who are just trying to make a better life for themselves. I remind myself that the Bryans and the Stephens of this world exist when I watch Republican senators abandon their morals right alongside Trump and vote to acquit him for something he irrefutably did. And as my year writing this blog starts drawing to an end, I can look back over the people and initiatives I profiled and feel encouraged by the fact that there is still more good than bad in this world. The bad is often louder so it feels more prevalent, but the good is still there, quietly doing the work. The good is what will ultimately bring us just mercy.