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“Just Mercy” Offers Lifelong Lessons on Racial Justice

            “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher.  A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss.  Be content — pleased, even — when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get.  If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?

            “Don’t be intimidated.  Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.

            “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threat of bullies.  There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life — body and soul — in his hands.

            “Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven.  If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?”

~Matthew 10:24-28; 32-33
(Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).

This is how a meaningful Sunday school lesson began on June 21st. Because of Covid-19, I now attend Sunday school and church without leaving my apartment.  I belong to a class with six teachers, five males and one female.  When Doctor Verbie Prevost, a recently retired English professor, teaches she often posits biblical truths alongside current social-political happenings. 

Sporting her mischievous grin, she said, “I find it ironic that the title of today’s discourse is, ‘The World Needs Shaking.’ ” I instinctively knew she was acknowledging the tsunami reaction worldwide against the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis.  She soon followed suit with words about the movie, Just Mercy, and she then shared some excerpts from Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I couldn’t wait to leave my Zoom class to download the book.

Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice advocate, founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law.

 My friends were right!  Stevenson’s nonfictional account of how easy it is to be charged as a criminal in America if you’re Black, poor, mentally ill, or have a physical disability is both alarming and uncomfortably truthful.  I couldn’t walk away from Stevenson’s riveting first-person accounts of his work as a defense lawyer for death row inmates spending years with charges totally lacking in credibility. 

As I read Just Mercy I found myself being shocked, angry, and often crying as I recalled painful memories emerging from newspaper accounts during my southern Georgia childhood of Black men being lynched and others forced to work on Georgia’s infamous chain gangs.  These situations were always wrapped in silence and fear. I never heard anyone speaking up for racial justice and fear was rampant.

Fortunately, the silence of my childhood was broken during my college years at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.  I began to understand how terribly we were treating Black Americans through conversations with my international college friends and especially my associations with my sociology professor, Doctor Margarite Woodruff.

Before I graduated in 1953, I’d progressed from hearing about the treatment of Blacks to seeing for myself what racism was really like.  While I was serving as a vacation bible school coordinator during the summer I found it invigorating to work with children, some Black, some white, and always segregated.  The pastor in charge of our work assignments sent my partner and I to inspect a black public school in the heart of Dallas as a possible place for us to hold a bible school.

Even today I cringe when I remember visiting that school!  The entire building was no larger than three adjoining rooms. I felt like a strong gust of wind would leave the entire school in a splintered heap.  When my vacation bible school partner and I attempted to move the teacher’s desk, it obliged by falling apart.  Textbooks were devoid of covers, and the walls of the building were bare.  One year later, in 1954, I needed no one to convince me that “separate but equal” schools were a farce, and I gladly welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court to abolish school segregation in America.     

Stevenson wrote, “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.  Being broken is what makes us human.  It’s the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.  The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving.  It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent…”

I recommend Just Mercy – the book or the movie — to anyone who is not afraid to be confronted by some ugly truths concerning our country’s justice system.

Just Mercy, reminds me I can either embrace or deny being human.  I can choose to become part of the solution to social injustice, or I can camouflage the issue with outmoded clichés.  Today, more than ever, we must shuck off our timidity and speak up against systemic racism. 

Remember Jesus’ words, “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.”

Discover more about Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy–both the book and the movie–and the important work of the Equal Justice Initiative.

EJI is a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Montgomery, Alabama.