Common Read selection ‘Just Mercy’ delves into mass incarceration

After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South, and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyer and no right to counsel. There was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. I’d never heard voices so desperate.

Bryan Stevenson

This year’s Common Read selection at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) is the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), in which Stevenson tells the story of one of his first cases as a young attorney with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, an organization based in Atlanta that assisted condemned people on death row. It was adapted into the multi-award-winning movie by the same name, which starred Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

EMU’s Common Read establishes common ground for discussion in classrooms and other venues.

In Just Mercy, Stevenson, who is Black, vibrantly paints pictures of his time commuting across the South, interacting with defendants and judges and police officers. He weaves together his own and others’ personal stories alongside threads of statistics, case law examples, and regional and racial history. 

The book focuses on one man he represented in particular: Walter McMillan, a Black man who was convicted of murder in 1988 by a nearly all-white jury. Their decision was based solely on eyewitness testimony, in spite of the nearly one dozen friends, family members, and a police officer who accounted for his whereabouts the day of the killing.

“This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America,” writes Stevenson. “It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. It’s also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked the lives of millions of Americans – of all races, ages, and sexes – and the American psyche as a whole.”

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation to those who have been “illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons,” according to their website. The organization also works on education initiatives concerning race in America, such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people and those affected by lynching, racial segregation, and police violence. 

“I hope readers will use the information and stories from this book to take a critical look at the criminal justice system, mass incarceration and harsh punishments that don’t seem to look for the truth but just want to seek retribution,” said Jennifer Ulrich, technical services librarian at EMU. “I hope we think about bias and racism and poverty and how these things can make it impossible for someone caught up in this system to get out. I hope we take Mr. Stevenson’s quote on page 17, ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,’ to heart.”

Previous Common Read selections at EMU have included In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), Exit West by Moshin Hamid (Riverhead, 2017) Callings by Dave Isay with Maya Millett (Penguin, 2017), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Random House, 2015), and Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Teos, 2012).