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In Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, he writes about growing up around racial and economic inequality and how it has molded him into his career as a legal advocate. Stevenson argues that by reaching a more just society that encourages the ethic of mercy, it can push people to become more empathetic towards one another. He meets many people on death row who have been falsely convicted and or harshly sentenced. Racial discrimination and injustice grows when individuals are portrayed as someone not belonging with society, in this case the condemned, creating a gap between the criminals and the rest. To connect these two, Stevenson enforces the importance of paying attention and understanding the personal tales of the inmates. He believes that by deeply understanding people’s lives and experiences it can bring empathy towards one another causing to show mercy over punishment while he represents each inmate on death row.
Ever since Stevenson was young his grandmother had influenced his views on life due to the important role she played while growing up. When he was younger his grandmother would be very protective over him in the sense that she didn’t want any harm emotionally or physically to affect him. Stevenson’s grandmother would always say to him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,” meaning that in order to understand certain issues he would have to dig deeper in each situation in order to understand the full concept of it. She could have meant it either politically or even just in their day to day life since there was a lot of racial discrination during this time. This formed part of his life later on when he became a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer for the death row inmates and then forming a project known as Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan incorporated his grandmother’s thoughts in order to fully understand the whole story of the cases. For Stevenson, empathy had been executed naturally because of his grandmother. He wanted to see a world where there was an equal chance for everyone to have a fair representation in the legal system rather than having a racial prejudice in each case; this later drives him to further his learning.
Before representing death row inmates, Stevenson was unsure of his career in Law; however; that changes when he begins to get more involved. When meeting his first death row inmates, he begins to recognize his passion to fight for justice against the death penalty. His grandmother’s teachings come into play and he realizes that not everyone on death row are “criminals” the way society portrays them to be, but each individual has their own story to tell but were just poorly represented. He says, “Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” Stevenson mentions that our “true measure of character” shows in the way someone treats the ones who are struggling the most. He repeats “commitment” in order to emphasize the passion he carries going forward in his Law career. The realization he took from getting to know death row inmates changed his whole outlook on his career and his grandmother’s teachings became more prominent. It pushed him towards wanting to know more about what he could do in order to change these racial disadvantages in his society, and prepared for the life changing stories he would soon learn in the future.
Stevenson creates a friendship with inmates in order to further his knowledge in their cases. During the first small meeting Stevenson had with Henry, one of the first inmates he met, they instantly grow close to one another. By sharing stories they were able to have a normal conversation, without judgement, further than what a typical lawyer in those times would have had with a death row inmate. He says, “I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out that we were exactly the same age… Within an hour we were both lost in conversation… We talked about everything… we talked about what’s important in life and what’s not… we laughed at times”. Stevenson comes into his first inmate appointment as a nervous intern and didn’t know what to expect, but through their conversation he finds out that they are the same age which makes them relate. He couldn’t imagine that someone with the same age as him would be on death row. He mentions how both Henry and himself are “relaxed” implying that they were both getting comfortable with one another leading to less tension. He then keeps saying “we” in order to show that they are similar people. In order to empathize with Henry, he avoids creating a barrier by using words like “we.” This also ensures that even if they come from different pasts, they can still carry out a full conversation while still relating to one another.
One way Stevenson showed empathy is by taking in consideration others emotions. Herbert Richardson, a death row inmate, reached out to Stevenson when he found out that his execution was scheduled. Stevenson begins to worry and says, “I was still working on the best way to talk to condemned people about how to respond to news of an execution date. I wanted to say something reassuring like, ‘Don’t worry,’ but of course that would be a remarkable request to make of anyone–news of scheduled execution was nothing if not unimaginably worrisome. ‘Sorry’ didn’t seem quite right either, but it tended to be the best I could think of” (72). By even planning out what to say next or worrying if it’s the right thing to say to someone going through this shows how sympathetic he is. When he says, “unimaginably worrisome,” he acknowledges that whatever Richardson has gone through can be completely different from his background, but Stevenson is still able to show sympathy towards him. The fact that he wants them to feel reassured was something that was not seen with other lawyers during that time. This makes Stevenson stand out as a lawyer himself.
Upon meeting Walter McMillian, Stevenson was able to be more than just a lawyer, but he was also a friend to him. McMillian was a successful black businessman from a poor community that lost his reputation for being convicted of murder. While going through his case with Stevenson, Walter’s emotions were all over the place. At times he would be very depressed and hopeless from never seeing his family again, but with Stevenson it was different. He says, “Walter’s sense of humor hadn’t failed him despite his six years on death row… We would often talk about situations and people connected to the case that, for all the damage they had caused, had still made us laugh at their absurdity. But the laughter today felt very different. It was the laughter of liberation”. The relationship Stevenson created with Walter was because of the empathy and care he showed towards him. At the end when he says, “laughter of liberation” it enforces the immense happiness that is given from the end results of the case and highlights the outcoming friendship that was created.
Stevenson finalizes by acknowledging that if one denies empathy they are denying a crucial part of humanity. The relationship that Stevenson and Walter created at the end of the case has grown from the effort that Stevenson gave into each case. He says, “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…Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity”. Stevenson constantly mentions “we” in order to unite the society. By doing this he enforces the fact that there is no difference in anyone and actions are just a small thing that forms part of someone. He breaks the barrier and pushes the prejudice by using an inclusive word such as “we.” This forms part of the “humanness” that he later mentions goes on about and what it takes to be human. Empathy forms part of being human and he shows this throughout the book.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, is a narrative that highlights racial and economical issues that are unjust in society. Growing up and becoming a lawyer, Stevenson has grown an ideology of that society was racially unfair. This motivated him to make a change in the world by becoming a lawyer further a passion to fight for those who were convicted incorrectly.
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