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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is almost like a real life version of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a story of multiple instances where people were wrongly or unfairly convicted. Bryan Stevenson is the lawyer who represents these people free of charge. Many of these cases display how race plays an unfair role in the criminal justice system. Not only are minorities unfairly treated, but so are the mentally ill and minors. The main character who has been wrongly convicted is a black man from Alabama named Walter McMillian. After the murder of a well-liked young, white girl, police cannot find someone to arrest. When Walter is accused by a white man, he is quickly arrested, despite his alibi of being at a fish fry with dozens of people miles away at the time of the murder. Although Stevenson is eventually able to fight and prove Walter’s innocence, he ends up spending six years on death row, leaving him traumatized and scarred.
Bryan Stevenson works for a non-profit agency that provides lawyers to those who are wrongly convicted free of charge. There are a number of programs like this around the country. An example of this kind of agency is South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program located in Mobile, Alabama. According to their website, they have over 855 volunteer lawyers who work with low income clients on certain types of civil cases.
Bryan Stevenson’s practice in Montgomery, Alabama is very similar to the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program. According to his book and LinkedIn page, he is the Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. On EJI’s website, it has a number of tabs at the top listing what issues are important to the organization. It has a Racial Justice tab, Children in Prison tab, Mass Incarceration tab, Death Penalty tab, and a Just Mercy tab. Under the Racial Justice tab, there are three sub-tabs labeled “Evolution of Slavery”, which gives the reader a brief history on the enslavement of black people in America, “Legacy of Lynching”, gives us a moderately lengthy history and background of the lynching of African Americans in the South, “Resistance to Civil Rights”, gives us a walkthrough of the Civil Rights Movement and the backlash African Americans faced for speaking up for what was right, and lastly “Presumption of Guilt”, essentially explains how African Americans are and always have been presumed by the dominant (white) culture to be inferior, which makes them more deserving to be incarcerated and enslaved because it is for their own good.
Stevenson describes his program as volunteer based. Although it is a private practice, everyone using his services is affected by the state criminal justice system. During the time period when the book took place, EJI was just starting out, so Stevenson was not able to take on as many clients as he can now that his practice is pretty well developed. This meant that some people went without getting any service and were put to death. However, Stevenson took on as many clients as he possibly could.
Although by the 1980s, racism and segregation were not blatantly allowed in laws, for example the Jim Crow Laws, racism was (and is) still heavily practiced and engrained into Southern culture especially. This meant that it also affected the criminal justice system, which was supposed to be unbiased and fair. Stevenson’s practice fought against institutional racism and practices of racism in the criminal justice system. Because blacks have always been mistreated, it was easy for everyone to pin murder on a poor, black Alabama man. It would be easy enough to get away with. Stevenson and his colleagues practice specifically for cases like Walter McMillian’s.
Stevenson also expanded his areas of interest past racial inequality. He represented people who were more vulnerable to unfair treatment like women, blacks, minors, and the mentally ill. He was not always able to keep these people from being executed though, which took a serious emotional toll on him.
One of the clients he represented was Vietnam veteran, Herbert Richardson, who was seriously affected by trauma from his childhood and the war. His Richardson’s case, he assembled a bomb and when it went off, two children were unintentionally killed. He did not mean to kill anyone; he did not do anything out of malice. And he was mentally ill. However, he was still executed in 1989.
Stevenson’s thought process behind what he fought for was that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect, regardless of his or her race, sex, age, or mental condition. Throughout our nation, especially in the conservative, Southern states, equality has not always been practiced. As a black man in America, Stevenson probably experienced some racism. People probably did not expect him to be so driven and successful in his field as a lawyer, but he graduated from fantastic schools and has gone on to be recognized by groups like the New York Times and TED Talks. Not to mention, he has won several awards in his field.
I believe he hit the nail right on the head with his discussion of racism and race based issues in his book. As a white woman, I have not experienced the amount of discrimination and oppression that a black person or incarcerated person has. Stevenson knows exactly what he is talking about from experience and his knowledge of black history.
Stevenson’s EJI has positively affected so many people. He himself has represented a number of oppressed people and was either able to reduce their sentences to life in prison without parole from the death penalty or even win their freedom back. His drive to right America’s wrongs is something to aspire to. As a social worker, I want to incorporate that into my thought process more than I already have. It may not pay well, but assisting oppressed, low-income people is the right thing to do. They need the help the most because they have been given the fewest opportunities.
The idea of institutional racism and fighting that is what drives my position. It still exists in modern culture. Minorities are still not given an equal chance as whites. Blacks have always been oppressed and have fought for hundreds of years to at least be treated as equals. First generation immigrants have to work especially hard to build wealth and a foundation for their family and their future children and grandchildren. Often times, they are the hardest working groups of people and have the least to show for it. As a social worker, I want to work to make sure these groups get the same opportunities as everyone else. They should be just as entitled to things like a college education as a wealthy, white person.
This book has made a serious impact on the way I see racism. I have always acknowledged and been saddened and angered by the way racism still plays a big part in our society. But to actually see it play out to such an extreme only 30 years ago enrages me and makes me want to get involved.
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