This year, one of the best ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., might be going to a movie.
The movie in question is, “Just Mercy,” which opened on Christmas Day, 2019, and is based on the best-selling 2014 memoir by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”
Stevenson, 60, grew up in a poor neighborhood in rural Delaware. His grandmother, who was the family’s matriarch, was the daughter of slaves. When Stevenson was sixteen, his maternal grandfather was stabbed to death in his home during a robbery. During Stevenson’s childhood, his local schools were still aggressively segregated, and he remembers that the town’s public-health officers told black children to stand at the back of the line to receive their polio vaccines, while the white children went first. His mother protested both conditions.
Both in spite of and also because of his upbringing, Stevenson wound up at Harvard Law School on a full scholarship. When he was 23 and still moving toward graduation, he took an internship position in Atlanta, GA, Southern Center for Human Rights under a highly-regarded expert in death penalty jurisprudence named Stephen Bright.
After graduation from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson went to work for the SCHR, full time, in their Mongomery, Ala. office.
Three years later, in 1988, that the still somewhat wet-behind-the-ears Stevenson met Walter McMillian whose story is the narrative spine of his memoir, and also of “Just Mercy,” the film about Stevenson’s work, starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson.
When Stevenson encountered him, McMillian was on death row for killing an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Ala., ironically the hometown of To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee. At the time he was arrested, McMillian was a pulpwood contractor with no serious criminal record. After Stevenson graduated, he began digging into the case and learned that, at the time of the murder, the man whom the state had in mind killing, had been at a neighborhood church fish fry under the continuous gaze of several dozen alibi witnesses.
Yet local white authorities, who were under tremendous pressure to solve the crime, decided they had their man anyway. So, they suppressed exculpatory evidence, and both blackmailed and bribed their main informant into testifying against McMillian with a stream of contradictory, fact-challenged supposed “witness” accounts.
When Stevenson initially visited McMillian, the man’s hope had been trashed by other failed attempts at appeal, and he recoiled at the idea of a new disappointment. But, from the beginning, Stevenson believed the man in front of him was innocent, and he persevered.
In 1989, after he’d begun battling on McMillian’s behalf, the Southern Center for Human Rights office lost its federal funding, so Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), in Montgomery, which since that time, has provided legal representation for people who have been wrongly convicted, like McMillian, or unfairly sentenced — while working, in general, to combat injustice in the U.S. legal system.
In the early years of this work, the black lawyer and his white administrative director, Eva Ansley, EJI’s only other employee, were frequently on the receiving end of threats, including some credible bomb threats, and repeated attempts at intimidation.
Fast forward to today, when Stevenson and his EJI team have spared more than 130 people from execution, including Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years on death row for a crime that, as with McMillian, he didn’t commit.
Stevenson obtained McMillian’s freedom in 1993 after unequivocally demonstrating that the prosecution had withheld essential evidence and both bullied and incentivized their star witness into lying. But, it took an appearance by Stevenson before the U.S. Supreme Court, before Hinton got a new trial, and finally release, in 2015.
To date, Bryan Stevenson has argued five times successfully in front of the nation’s highest court, with several of those appearances resulting in significant changes in U.S. justice policy. Among those victories was the 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who have dementia, and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children under 18.
How to change a narrative
Most recently, Stevenson and EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors and documents the deaths of over 4,000 African Americans who were lynched in the twelve states of the South from 1877 to 1950, but whose deaths, in many cases, had gone unmarked. The memorial and the EJI-sponsored Legacy Museum, are both dedicated to opening much-needed conversations about slavery, lynching, segregation, and mass incarceration in the U.S.
“I just felt like we had to introduce a narrative about American history that wasn’t [being] clearly articulated,” Stevenson told NPR recently. “We need to create institutions in this country that motivate more people to say ‘Never again’ to racial bias and bigotry.”
While the film, “Just Mercy,” directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, cannot come close to capturing the whole of the work and commitment of the man whom Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as “America’s young Nelson Mandela,” the movie is nevertheless urgent and timely and also profoundly affecting as it brings to us the true story of a string of white officials, along with a white judge, and an unquestioning mostly-white jury, who pushed an innocent man toward execution.
Or, if you can’t make it to the movies, you can always watch Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk (below), “We Need to Talk About Injustice,” after which Stevenson reportedly received one of the longest standing ovations the TED’s history. As of now, Stevenson’s talk — which suddenly turned the death-row lawyer into a public figure — has been viewed more than six million times on the TED site.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth,” Stevenson said in the talk when describing what he’s learned in the course of his work. “The opposite of poverty is justice.”
And, while you’re at it, you could also listen to a brand new and terrific interview with Stevenson by host Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” which was just released today.
Actually, you might consider beginning with Stevenson’s 2014 “Fresh Air” interview, which followed the release of his book.
Whatever you choose, spending time in Bryan Stevenson’s company is an excellent way to honor Dr. King, and some of the critical ways the work he began is being moved forward. It is also a good way to face, once again, how far we still need to go.