I was so excited to hear that my new school Holderness was reading Just Mercy as an all-school read. Just the act of the entire school embarking on reading such a substantial book said a lot about the intentions and work, in terms of social justice, that was taking place at what was to soon be my new school. I had heard of the book, but I did not know much about the details of the story, so I just assumed we were going to read a great historical account of events that happened back in the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
However, it didn’t take long for me to find something in Just Mercy that viscerally shocked me. As I began to read the introduction, Bryan Stevenson wrote “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was over my head.” For many of you, you probably read it and moved on as it was just some contextualizing narrative of when Mr. Stevenson’s story began.
But, for me, I was numb, I was dumbfounded, I was viscerally shaken, and I was emotionally distraught. From the moment that I read 1983, 1983, 1983 I could not get those numbers out of my head. After reading just those numbers 1983, I felt ill to my stomach. Again, when I heard we were reading Just Mercy, I assumed it was going to be about some great historical events far removed from personal lived experience. Yet 1983, well, that just hit a little too close to home for me.
You see, 1983 was the year I graduated from high school. 1983 was the year where my greatest concerns in my life were college music auditions, college essays, trying not to come last in the finals of the 800 meters track championships, and, of course, would Emily Hildgartner go to the prom with me. She didn’t, but Kim Johnson did, and we had a great time. But, in 1983, when my greatest concerns of all were passing Biology, getting into a good if not excellent college, and learning to play the saxophone intro on Men at Work’s “Who Can it Be Now”, other African American men in Alabama were concerned with issues of life and death, issues of law and justice, and trying to get a lawyer to help them get off of death row for crimes that they had not committed. 1983, 1983, 1983. As I read that date, guilt, shame, and sadness overwhelmed me. How shallow a person must I have been not to have been aware of the plight of my Black brethren in the deep South? How socially unaware was I at that time not to know that the deep South had not really changed one bit since the times before the Civil Rights Movement? And how could I be such a self-absorbed and self-indulgent teenager to not be aware that, despite my reality as a privileged middle-class African American teenager, Martin Luther King’s dream had not come true for so many African Americans in the United States? How was it possible that I did not know? But, I did not know, I simply did not know!
To me, it was almost too much to bear to realize that in the same year that I graduated from high school, young and old African American men, many of them innocent, and without proper legal counsel were sitting on death row where justice was neither just nor merciful.
Reading Just Mercy forced me to realize that so much more work needed to be done than I had ever imagined. It was just so very shocking to my system that in my very own lifetime, such tremendous atrocities of the American justice system had taken place. And, as a result, oh so many people had been placed on death row and many of them killed in the name of serving justice.
So, please do not assume that our work with and for social justice is over, or that it is just a thing of the past. If you need some motivation, just remember me and how I thought so much of the social and racial injustice of this country was a thing of the past. However, Just Mercy had shown me how terribly wrong I was.
So, I would like to leave you with the sage, immortal words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is a short excerpt from the not-so-famous part of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, but for me and so many other African Americans this speech of nearly 60 years ago still resounds as relevant today as that immortal day when he spoke these words. In this part of his speech he uses the perhaps outdated analogy of a bounced check, but his remarks are something to the effect of your parents telling you they are going to put money in your account, but when you to order those tacos from Uber Eats, you find out that, in fact, they had not fulfilled that promise to you. And you all know what a huge disappointment that would be.
So in Dr. King’s speech, it is the African American people of the United States who were promised a check – freedom and equal rights – but when they cashed it, the promise of the government had gone unfulfilled. So, here are Dr. King’s words for us all, as a poignant reminder of the work we all have yet to do to truly make our society just, merciful, and fair for all.
This excerpt starts in the middle of his speech, where Dr. King says:
“But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check.
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But, we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
So please go forward and remember these words and remember that for all Americans this is still not yet truly the land of freedom, prosperity, and justice.
I am humbled and grateful to chat with you tonight. And I appreciate your time, patience, and attention. It has been my honor to be able to share my thoughts on Just Mercy with you all tonight.