I'm a read-in-bed kind of person. Most nights, before I go to sleep, I read a chapter of something. (I have a nifty little book light for "traditional" books, and I love the "night reading" feature on my iPad for digital books.) (So I don't bug Tom while I read, y'know? Because he is generally not a read-in-bed kind of person.) Right now, my before-sleep reading is Just Mercy, our Read With Us book selection for this quarter. It’s a compelling read -- and I’m getting caught up in the stories author Bryan Stevenson is telling.
There’s still plenty of time to join us as we read Just Mercy this quarter. This month, we’re providing some background information about the book. Next month, we’ll begin posting some discussion questions so we can talk about the book together. I hope you’ll join us! It's easy. There's nothing to sign up for or commit to. All you need to do . . . is read with us!
Whenever I read a memoir*, I always find that I get more and more curious about the author as I read, and it’s been no different with this memoir, Just Mercy. As I’m reading, I’m also doing quite a bit of Googling about the author, Bryan Stevenson.
(Photo: Nick Frontiero/Pacific Standard)
Here are some interesting things I’ve learned about him:
- Bryan Stevenson was born in the same year I was . . . 1959. (We graduated from high school the same year, too . . . 1977.) He grew up poor in rural Delaware, in a community where segregation was the norm – even after integration in the early 1960s. As a child, Bryan was a talented pianist and singer. He traveled and performed with his church choir. Bryan’s great grandparents were slaves in Virginia; his grandfather was murdered in a Philadelphia housing project when Bryan was a teenager.
- He attended Eastern College (now Eastern University) in Pennsylvania, and then went on to Harvard Law School. As you’ll read in Just Mercy, his law school classes weren’t quite resonating with him – until he did an internship with Southern Prisoners Defense Committee based in Atlanta and first worked with death row prisoners. Then . . . his career path was clear, and he made this his life's work.
- Alabama is the only death-penalty state that doesn’t provide state-funded legal assistance to death row inmates. To address this inequity, Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, and remains its executive director. In his 30 year career with EJI, Bryan Stevenson has won relief for scores of condemned prisoners, exonerating a number of innocent ones. He fought to end the death penalty and life sentences without parole for juveniles, and continues to work for improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and children in prison.
- In addition to his work in the courtroom, Bryan has also led the creation of two cultural sites which opened in 2018: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.
- An HBO documentary about Bryan and his work with EJI, True Justice, premiered in June. (Watch the trailer below.) In December, Just Mercy - a movie based on the book we're reading, will be out in theaters. You can see the trailer for the movie here.
To read a more comprehensive summary of Bryan Stevenson’s accomplishments and accolades, click here. To learn more about his philosophy and commitment to breaking down bias by teaching/talking about racial trauma, segregation, and listening to marginalized voices, you may want to read this excellent interview in the Pacific Standard.
I do hope you’ll join us over the next few weeks as we read Just Mercy.
Read With Us!
*If you’re wondering what the difference is between an autobiography and a memoir, click here for a helpful description.
Read Bonny's post from last Tuesday with even more information about Just Mercy. And watch for another post next Tuesday when Carole adds her perspective.