I finished reading the book two hours before the author was to begin his presentation. Bryan Stevenson, who wrote “Just Mercy,” would be speaking at the Fairhope United Methodist Church at 7:30 p.m. While anxious to finish, I found myself slowing down to underline passages as I neared the end of the story.
The quality of Bryan Stevenson’s character was evident throughout the account he wrote about redeeming Walter McMillan from death row. But when he begins to reflect on why he continues to do such agonizing work, the reader sees an emotionally astute human being with much to teach us.
A non-fiction book about innocent men on death row doesn’t sound like a riveting read. Yet walking beside this Harvard-educated black lawyer as he hounds actors in the legal system of Alabama, the reader begins to become one with him. Hurry-up trials, unjust convictions, cruel prison practices, death row — rare is the reader who ever experiences these in an intimate manner. But we follow Bryan hungrily, hoping that the hardened hearts, the shuttered minds, the casual injustice will finally yield an inch to his persistence.
Unlike the usual hour-long television drama, where lucky breaks resolve knotty problems, Bryan encounters closed doors, willful disregard for exonerating facts, and a dogged disrespect due to his skin color. We wonder why he keeps trying, until we begin to care about the men he cares about. How could he give up, when innocent lives are scheduled for a rendezvous with the electric chair? Then later on, the needle?
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Walter McMillan of Monroeville, Alabama, sat on death row for six years, a black man convicted on the false testimony of a known criminal seeking to better his own legal prospects. Because the crime involved the murder of a young white woman, the court imposed the death sentence. Walter had no money, no powerful friends, no competent legal representation and little hope. Until Bryan. After years of discouraging setbacks, Bryan won Walter’s freedom. When Walter emerges into the sunlight, we feel as if the heavy doors have swung open for us.
Years of seeking the release of innocent men, with all its attendant heartbreak, left Bryan despondent and broken. He asked himself why he should continue. Indeed, why do any of us persist in worthy endeavors if they leave us heartsick?
For Bryan Stevenson, the answer came from the scripture of his Christian faith.
“My grace is sufficient for thee.”
The insight he shares near the end of the book can help us change the story we tell ourselves about racial difference, embolden us to endure discomfort to further justice and bestow mercy, and encourage us never to lose hope.
In Bryan’s words, “It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.”
Even more powerful is this passage. “ … our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”
Comfort, meaning, and healing. As we try to offer this to one another, we move toward fulfilling the scriptural admonition that gave Bryan the title of his book — and the purpose of his life.
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Bless you, Bryan Stevenson, for not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good.
Carol Megathlin is a writer living in Fairhope, Ala., and Savannah.