Civil Rights Race & Justice

Honor the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Going to a Movie

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

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.


Just Mercy

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.

39 Comments

  • I’ll pass, Celeste. I’ve seen this movie in hundreds of variations of blacks being victimized by whites.

    Through one exceptional story, it perpetuates the tired, formulaic trope of innocent blacks being victimized by evil white people and, I think, prevents blacks from advancing in society by focusing on past injustices as opposed to working hard, staying in school, making responsible choices and not committing crimes.

    This piece by Heather MacDonald talks about uncomfortable truths with regard to blacks and crime stats that liberals would rather ignore.

    https://www.city-journal.org/democratic-candidates-racism-crime

    • There is nothing uncomfortable about truth to an honest individual. The problem is that when dealing with certain members of out society, the only black person they are willing to discuss is a criminal. Never anything positive, only negative and therefore casting a shadow of suspicion on your motive to discuss the issue in the first place. And black crime is often discussed as if the only criminals that exist in this country are black and the black race is doing nothing about it other than complaining about racism. This segment of our society never mentions the marches, rallies clinics etc that exist in those communities that seek to address those issues but are quick to bring up the subject of black crime when it’s not the subject matter, which further cast suspicion on their motive to discuss the topic.

      The majority of us are not criminals and we still have a history in this country that we talk about. As you suggest that the topic of black crime may be uncomfortable for some, I say to you that you’re obviously uncomfortable with real history of this country. And I’m not talking about it’s past.

  • Editor’s note:

    Dear “LASD Apostle,”

    It’s Bryan Stevenson you shouldn’t miss, movie or no movie. I far and away prefer his book, Just Mercy, which is not some tired trope. It’s brilliant and devastating and full of heart. He’s the real deal. I don’t say that lightly.

    If you don’t want to take the time to read his book, listen to his TED talk, or his 2014 interview on Fresh Air, which followed the release of his book, or the newest Fresh Air interview released today, all three of which are linked in the story above. What do you have to lose?

    C.

    • Your post is informative and appreciated by those who can relate, not only by Blacks but to people of all races.
      The “Apostle” guy is the kid in the classroom always raising his hand to get attention as regular readers already know.

  • As a matter of fact, I’m listening to him now on NPR. I agree with many of his points, but I wonder how long blacks will use the crutch of racism and past injustices to excuse their disproportionate numbers in the criminal justice system.

    He’s now talking about the long history of lynchings in the US….I havent heard of one of those recently, have you?

  • LASD Apostle – how about they keep talking about racism until there is no more racism. And, people have tried to explain why there are disproportionate number of black people in the criminal justice system, but you will have none of it. You can’t hear the truth with the hood covering your ears. That history about lynching that you are tired of hearing about is deep and long, and it had an effect then and its effects linger. You had it too easy for too long my white brother, and when blacks advance a little you whine. I know, I know they are taking your job. Stop the whining. I think its worse than the tired “trope” are tired of hearing.

      • No, talking about racism does not keep it alive. You just don’t like the history. 88% of this country’s history is oppression. I’m not going to forget that and to some fictitious, revised version of history that erroneously touts “god fearing” christian beginnings.

      • Skippy – So why is AV protecting criminal illegal’s from ICE. especially the one’s from Mexico – he does talk about it a lot though – is lot for his benefit you know CHIRLA. Still ponders to them on race.

    • Now now cf, we’ve both been reading this blog for quite awhile now, and it’s been pretty clear that Celeste’s track record of endorsing self promoting professional social justice types hasn’t been exactly stellar. She’s been down right gullible at times.
      But even she doesn’t presume to lecture people with crazy self righteous nonsense like, “Talking about racism until there is no more racism”. Where did you get that from? Sounds like a line from some old 60’s t.v. show, talk about cringe.

      • Maj Kong, Surely no one expects you to relate.
        While you watch media and read stories about racism, others actually experience it.
        Easy to presume from a pedestal when you live in the green zone.

        • Brother, “reading stories about racism”. Isn’t that what you’re doing? One more trope riddled fantasy about the bad old south, you have any direct knowledge on this subject other than watching a Ted talk? Why don’t you tell us about it?

      • And if I were to say let’s stop talking about black crime because it creates more black crime, you should rightfully call me delusional. Same principle applies to racism.

  • Wow, certain post on this page often point out the racist individuals. I know a guy, but hat guy is me…was raised in the hood, Inglewood, Compton, Lynwood, South Central Watts….saw the drugs, gangs, killings etc etc etc. Never got involved because it wasn’t my thing, but yet I was always harassed by LE.

    Got tire of it, educated myself, gathered my boots straps, graduated from college, got into LE….well years later that was wrongfully taken from me because of color and 3 years later I’m still fighting this unjust system that wasn’t designed for men of color to succeed.

    So to all you haters out there, let’s continue to “talk about racism until there is no more racism”. SMH, unless we continue to talk about racism and ask for just a little bit of mercy, surely it will continue.

    As stated in “Just Mercy” the system wasn’t built for men of color and I’m a living testimony to that. So as I’ve said it before, don’t judge any man unless you’ve walked a day in their shoes.

    Started my sentence Black History month 3 years ago, let’s see if I will be freed this Black History month.

    SMH, there’s always exceptions, but some of y’all just don’t get it.

    Stay Blessed

    • Idk mr and 1, sounds like you got fired from law enforcement. This blog supports firing as many cops as possible, locking them up and extending their sentences. I don’t think Celeste makes allowances for black cops, wouldn’t count on much mercy here.

    • And 1:

      “…And three years later I’m still fighting this unjust system….

      If you are right–that is the IMPORTANT qualifier–then you will win your case, but you will need a GOOD lawyer; don’t do it alone.

      Steven R. Pingel; his particulars can be Googled, and if you are RIGHT–THAT is the important qualifier–he will win your case, no matter how long it takes.

      Good lick!!

  • 2027 is the year all of the FBI surveillance recordings will be released , the world will get to hear “the reverend” with all of his mistresses, great guy

    • A surveillance caper fueled by a cross dressing, panty wearing, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. LMAO!

  • Skippy, surely you jest? And, talking about crime keeps crime alive? I suspect you are a white man who is tired of hearing the black man complain. I am sure you complained about the white man who kept black man out of the union, off the government job, off the bus or at the rear of the bus, out of the fire department, out of the neighborhood. Only a few decades ago they were still riding in the back off the bus and white folk would go mad if they moved into the neighborhood. But, all that is in the past and doesn’t affect the present.

    Madame Kong, Celeste probably feels as I do and thinks you and your ilk are a bunch of racist kooks, but she is too diplomatic to say anything. Get her in private company and she will confide that she probably wishes the racist rednecks would not visit her site. Me, I could care less what you or Celeste think. And, 60s shows? You are dating yourself. The only 60s show I think Ive watched was in re-runs and its was a reality show called the Beverly Hill Billies.

    • Cf is a pretty good example of your basic woke social justice type. In order to sell the narrative regarding the horrible oppression of blacks by whites they are required to go back in time. What cf describes as “a few decades” was at least 60 years ago. It’s not that they haven’t tried to come up with current examples, but things like social media and cell phone cameras make it difficult to spin a modern “just mercy” fable.

      The Mike Brown case is a good example. Hard to make the case Mike Brown was proud, stoic, gentile giant, when he’s on Facebook twerking and rapping about killing fellow blacks. Harder still to sell the family as simple humble God fearing folk when they’re out in the street hitting each other over the head with pipes, fighting over that sweet donation cash. So instead we’re fed myths going back sixty years and earlier, where the narrative can better be controlled.

  • CF-You are correct. I am a white man who is married to an absolutely beautiful black woman for 13 years now.

    I would have conversations with her grandma (hows heaven looking Gam Gam) about this stuff all the time. Before she passed, she absolutely hated how the black community were representing themselves in today’s America. Calling each other the N-word as if it was a casual thing. She was always furious about that and would approach younger black people and tell them to stop calling each other that. She would tell them about how life was for her, born and raised in Georgia and how that word is a very negative and disgusting word.

    She would also be ashamed of people in the black community not pushing themselves for a better life and blaming their short comings on everybody else but themselves. Her son, my father in law, fought an uphill battle his whole life. Went to college to become a lawyer in a school where it was only him and 3 other black students in a school of whites.

    She walked with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and believed firmly in what he spoke. She used to tell me that if Dr King were still alive today, he would be so ashamed of the black community and what it has become.

    One last thing…if Gam Gam would’ve ever seen the crap you post on here, she would invite you over to her house, make you a big southern meal and spank your ass with education and wisdom…in a nice respectful way.

    • Pretty amazing how some in this dialogue are, in your own way you , begging not to judged for being white guys while consistently painting the black community with one broad negative brush. Sorry , but I see no evidence of the evil black race that you speak of in this dialogue,but the bigot that is historically spoken of is well represented. Further i really doubt that Gam Gam and family were actually or would be ashamed, they are just acutely aware of the double standards of judgement that exist in this country. Gam Gam’s generation was different: Her generations had very little honest historic integrity to work with as that generation was subjected solely to the lies of the oppressor. With that in mind, I think it’s quite deviant of you to use her to suggest that she would be ashamed. Today, being better educated on the real history of this country, the black community should be viewed as miracles for still be here and wanting to be black. The more real history I learn, the prouder I am. But that conversation with your ilk is pointless because you don’t know your history. And no, by no means am i suggesting that there are not plenty of problems that need to be addressed with some black folks but I think the constant negative reinforcement has less to do with a voice of real concern, and more to do with someone who has real issues.

  • Madame Kong – You claim you are being “fed myths going back sixty years and earlier.” Are you serious? Do you really think they are myths? Are you one of those rednecks that thinks slavery was not that bad because there was “full employment in the black community.” Or, because it came with “free” room and board? And, I see your point of how it was not such a big deal to shoot Michael Brown because he was twerking and rapping. He wasn’t an upstanding citizen. I see how you can claim that he deserved to die, or at minimum to be shot. I want you to arrest Johnny Cash because he claims to have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

    Skippy, I see you got cred. You are are not racist because you have a black wife. Tell that to Virgina Thomas, she married a black man. And, I suspect her husband is blacker than your wife. Or, how about Strom Thurman. I think he had a black “girlfriend.” And, let us go back futher, as you follow a great lineage from our founding fathers, as I believe Thomas Jefferson also had a black “girlfriend.” The fact that you are with a black woman does not mean you not are racist. No doubt you think she is “different than the other blacks.” And, do not parade Gam Gam as your badge of credibility. What do you think your white predecessors called Gam Gam. It was not Gam Gam. And, why do you think there were only 3 blacks in that school your father-in-law went to. All those things you claim Gam Gam said can be said about my poor white brothers and sisters. Hell, those hills and trailers are killing people and they are bringing life expectancy down. Some white towns have over 50% of folks on disability or government aid, out of wedlock births are similarly up for them. In some places white unemployment is higher than that of blacks. Yet, coincidentally, I do not hear you say anything about that.

    • Skippy you hit a nerve with cf. like a lot of traditionally thinking people you seem to think racism is treating people of color unfairly, or disrespectfully. You seem to be thinking in terms of personal relationships, a “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” code of conduct. The cf types sneer at this kind of thinking. To the cf types personal relationships mean very little, what matters is the acceptance of an ideology. If you don’t accept the notions of things like “white privilege” “white supremacy” or “intersectionality ” and the like, you are a racist.

      Notice cf (who is now claiming to be white) will vehemently attack people, accusing them of racism, while she has no problem lashing out against, mocking, and accusing people of color of being racist themselves. Like a religious zealot attacking heresy, thoughts in conflict with the dogma will not be tolerated. Very New England puritanical, which is probably the origin of modern day P.C. thought.

      • Actually Skippy hit a funny bone with the Gam Gam story. You guys are poor story tellers because you’re actually telling a lie, I mean a story.

        Reminds me of Mark Furhman telling the jury at the O.J. trial that he wasn’t racist because he liked Apollonia (of Prince fame) then went on to tell the story, I mean a lie, by saying he never said the N word. Amazing!

  • Madame Kong, if asked under oath whether you ever used the N-word, what would you say. No one knows your true identity so you can be honest. Have you ever used the N-word? Or, do you, too, like Fuhrman, think you are not racist because you like Apolonia. Be honest. BTW, that Apolonia was very attractive. I am sure even a Klansman would probably put his portly wife back in the trailer and take off with Apolonia if he could.

    And, to be clear, I am not claiming to be white. I just see me as having a certain kinship with poor white folk given my history. I think we have more in common than they think. And, I certainly have more in common with the them than they do with Trump and his ilk. But alas, this too shall pass; one step backwards every so often, but forward we move.

    • Cf, One thing that’s not in question cf is weather or not you have you ever used the n-word. No doubt you have, and I’m also sure you feel entitled to do so. In fact you feel secure enough in your ideology that you are entitled in “calling out” people of color and using the n- word to denigrate black people simply because they have the wrong ideas.

      Last I remember you claim to be a hispanic Jew, white enough to run with the progressive left, and certainly white enough not to be confused with a person of color. For some reason it’s the Lilly white progressives who push racial politics the hardest.

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