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Read With Us: Book Discussion Week 1

Welcome . . . to the first ever Read With Us book discussion post!

Read With Us

We're so happy to have you join us as we begin our discussion of Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  I'll be focusing our discussion this week on the Introduction and first 5 chapters of the book.  Next Tuesday (Nov 12), Bonny will talk about the middle portion of the book, and then Carole will follow up on Nov 19 with the final section.  On Nov 26, I'll be back to sum up our discussion for you.

Now for a bit of "housekeeping" regarding the discussion and how (we hope) it will work:  Please join the discussion by leaving a comment here on the blog.  I'll be responding to your comments IN the comments, so please do check back once in a while to see how the discussion is going this week.  Feel free to respond to other commenters as well.  We realize that this is not the most ideal discussion format, and that it's somewhat cumbersome and a little awkward --  but it's the most reasonable way we could think of . . . for a beginning step.  

So.  Let's get started, shall we?



If this were an in-person kind of book group, I'd be welcoming you to my house for the discussion.  Since we're meeting via blog instead, let's just set the stage . . . and pretend we're all together.  In my living room.  Relaxed and sitting around my coffee table in front of the fire.  With a plate of homemade brownies and a couple of bottles of wine in easy reach.  After a few sips of wine and some social chit-chat, I'd announce that we were ready to begin . . . 

So.  What did you all think of the book?

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney in Alabama working with poor and underserved clients, provides a personal and sobering look at modern-day injustices in the US criminal justice system.  While the book closely follows the story of Walter McMillian, a man unjustly sentenced to death row for a murder he did not commit, Stevenson also weaves in several other poignant stories about underage and/or mentally ill clients suffering similar injustices.  By telling these heartbreaking stories, Stevenson brings criminal justice statistics to life and makes us care . . . and seethe.

I found this book to be heartbreaking AND hopeful -- and certainly inspiring.  Going into the reading, I already knew the criminal justice system in our country was broken; Just Mercy opened my eyes to just HOW broken it really is. Bryan Stevenson has challenged me to think more openly about what justice means . . . and what mercy looks like. 

(I shared quite a bit of background about the author, Bryan Stevenson, in an earlier post, and Bonny provided a link to his TED Talk, so I don't want to repeat any of that information here.  Please do take a look if you missed either of those posts earlier.)

Here are a few questions rooted in the early chapters of the book, just to get the discussion started:

  1. Just Mercy begins with information about Bryan Stevenson growing up poor in a racially segregated community in Delaware. He remembers his grandmother telling him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close." How does Stevenson get close to the incarcerated people he is helping? How does getting close to Walter McMillian affect Stevenson’s life? Do you think you can be an effective criminal lawyer without getting close?

  2. Walter McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama.  Monroeville is extremely proud of its hometown hero Harper Lee and her book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a Pulitzer Prize winning piece that sees white lawyer Atticus Finch defending African American man Tom Robinson against fabricated rape charges of a white girl in racially divided Maycomb, Alabama. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is likely the most famous 20th century novel dealing with racial injustice, a distrustful legal system, and the evils of stereotyping. What do you have to say to a community that simultaneously wrongfully convicts a man due in large part to their own prejudice, all the while celebrating Harper Lee’s work? Is it ignorance? Naiveté? Indifference? What would you like to tell the community of Monroeville about this startling parallel?

  3. Early in the book, Stevenson describes an incident when he was racially profiled and the police searched his car. He wonders, if there had been drugs in his car and he was arrested, would he have been able to convince his attorney that his car was searched illegally? Stevenson says, “Would a judge believe that I’d done nothing wrong? Would they believe someone who was just like me but happened not to be a lawyer? Someone like me who was unemployed and had a criminal record?”  How does Stevenson’s work shape his understanding of the justice system? Do his experiences make him more or less empathetic to those in the justice system?  Is it surprising that someone whose 86-year-old grandfather was murdered would work so tirelessly against the death penalty?

Please join in the discussion by commenting below.  We're eager to hear what you think!  And if you don't like the questions I've asked, that's okay!  Please feel free to share your thoughts and impressions about the book -- or ask your own questions.  


"My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.  Finally, I've come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment ot the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, adn the respected among us.  The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."
    ----- Bryan Stevenson



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I am half way through this book, only because I find it so disturbing that I can't read it in just a day or two.
Reading this book I keep returning to something my son said to me several years ago. He has lived in Chicago(my home town) for over 18 years now, as a young man, very early 20's, got in some trouble and experienced the Chicago police and court system. Thank God, he had minimal consequences and because of a supportive family navigated this system successfully and.... he is white. While taking me on a drive in the West Side of Chicago to show me what so many people of color, ( mainly black young men) are up against to just survive, he commented that the trouble he got into years ago, if he was black, the police would not have arrested him but shot him dead. It took my breath away!
America has two different justice systems and people of color must navigate a very racist and corrupt judicial system as seen in Just Mercy. The South compounds this issue because they elect their judges, where the majority of Northern States appoint their judges. Judges elected in the South is a 'white culture" method to ensure white control with in the southern judicial system. This is done by all sorts of methods, but Gerrymandering and Voter suppression being most obvious.
I find this all heartbreaking and am thinking daily,"what can I do to right this injustice", what meaningful change can I promote?


I am also only 1/2 way through the story but am horrified at the injustices and really find it unbelievable what is gotten away with. We are pretty far removed from this type of activity in the northeast but no doubt these things happen in the city here as well. As far as Monroeville and Harper Lee I think it's all of the above. It's easy to circle the wagons but hard to stand up and do the right thing.


Thanks for the invitation to your home; no wine for me since it's 8:15 here, but I will have a brownie for breakfast. First question: I agree with Stevenson's grandmother and think that he really took that message to heart. By visiting the incarcerated people he was helping he got to know them, their families, and their situations. He seemed willing to just sit with them if that's what it took to forge a relationship. These visits and his tireless work seemed to take over his life, maybe because there were so many people that needed his help. I think getting close certainly put Stevenson in his client's shoes and gave him reasons for his tireless work, but there had to be a huge personal cost to him.


The second question really made me think, and get angry at the politics and actions in Monroeville. It's wonderful to celebrate Harper Lee's work, but I think the citizens missed the whole point. It's one thing to wrongfully convict someone, but when it happens due to lies and prejudice, and all the exculpatory evidence is ignored and dismissed for seven years that is the ultimate in hypocrisy. I think it may be due to ignorance but also a kind of malevolent indifference. I wonder if Harper Lee would have been lauded if she had been black.


Eileen writes about the scary truths with her son's experience. It's hard for me as a white woman to understand how things can be so unfair and unjust, but it's true that where we end up depends largely on the color of our skin, our support systems, socioeconomic status, education, etc. A person's fate should depend on true justice being carried out, not a roll of the genetic and economic dice.

Thanks so much for this discussion, Kym! You've gotten us off to a great start!


What I found really interesting about Stevenson's initial encounters with the criminal justice system is that he was somewhat a stranger to the racial imbalances; while he grew up in a segregated city, segregation in Delaware is very different from segregation in the deep South. I think he probably had a better idea than I of what that meant, but it surprised me that he was taken aback by it.

This book also made me think very differently about "To Kill a Mockingbird." For many years, it was one of my favorite books. Thinking about it now, though, I'm troubled. For all it is made out to be a book about someone standing up to racial injustice, it really isn't. Atticus Finch is almost definitively a white savior in the book, and Tom doesn't really get justice. He's still convicted and still killed by a group of white men.

As to your last question, I think Stevenson has a really powerful position for his work. He can understand that all too easily he could be on the other side of the law, fighting against an unjust system as a defendant rather than a defender. Because of that, I think, his advocacy carries more weight, and I think it also serves as a means to forming a strong rapport with his clients. At the same time, the fact that he is in many ways an anomaly -- that there are more Black men behind bars than defending them -- saddens me.


First, thank you for hosting this book discussion. I've never been part of an "in person" book club so this book discussion is my first. You chose a wonderful book for our first read, and I hope this will be successful and that there will be more books and more discussions.
It's hard to know where to start.
Many years ago, I worked as a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer in the northeast, mostly in an old mill city in Massachusetts. Most of our clients were very poor, some were illiterate, some were immigrants, but mostly they were poor white people. I was (and am) a white, middle class woman with a law degree. These basic differences made for differences that were vast. Unlike my clients, I did not grow up in a family where people were afraid to answer the door: it might be the police, or a bill collector or immigration officials. I expected that I would always have a job and that I would not likely be homeless or be evicted from my apartment. I expected that "the system" would treat me fairly and, in fact, would be helpful. That was not the expectation of my clients.
They understood that "the system" and, in this case that we're discussing the criminal justice system specifically, was not their friend. Most of my clients did not have the skills (educational or social) to hold a job. And they understood that it was going to be very very easy for them to be at risk. They understood what we had been taught in Trial Practice/Criminal Law courses in law school, that once someone (especially someone poor) has an encounter with law enforcement, it is very very likely they will be convicted. And that the system basically rolls on (and over) way too many people. We now think and talk much more (as we should) about how exponentially more unfair the criminal justice system is when you add in the important matter of race. But our entire criminal justice system needs so very very much work to make it a system that is "just".
I think I'll just stop there for now. And say, again, thank you for bringing this book to our group.


I'm going to start out by commenting on the brilliance of the title. The word "just" can be read and understood in different ways:
Just, as in "right & just"...the root word of justice.
And just, as in "just something I threw together" or "not too much, just enough" as in the minimal amount required, not an excess.

Pair those different meanings with the word mercy, and you have a powerful mantra. A phrase for meditation as you read through the text. What is justice? What is the right amount of mercy? So many questions to ponder.

I read this book on kindle paired with whispersync. The audio is read by the author which really conveyed his emotional reactions to some of the episodes in the book.


There's a great profile of Stevenson in the WSJ magazine

(Sorry for the long URL)

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close."
I think this quote might be an important guide for just living. Taking one small step to getting closer can be life-changing.


Pam’s comment is so important. And offers so much hope at a time when it’s really needed. Thank you.


I feel like that guest you invited who showed up horrendously late and interrupted the discussion, for which I am so sorry.

I quite agree that the wisdom from Bryan's grandmother was something that made a profound impact on him, but I think he saw just how profound when he got close and personal with those who desperately needed someone to do that.

I think that Justice in America is not just for everyone. Equal under the law is a farce and I will never say those words again in this context - that we are all equal under the law, because we are not.

And, I love what Sarah says about To Kill a Mockingbird - yes, exactly my thoughts! I too love this book, but you are so right. However, in thinking about it this morning as I write this it occurs to me that perhaps we are meant to see things through Scout's eyes. And, in thinking about that - it leaves me feeling less disappointed in myself for loving the book. (But perhaps that is my white privilege shining through again)

And, to the third question - that part of the book was so shocking to read. I have heard many other black writers share very similar stories - well-educated, powerful black men. Bryan's words brought me right there to the incident with him. I could feel his fear. This is made all the more powerful in the fact that I will never have to worry about that. My son never has to worry about that. WE get the benefit of doubt. And, that is exactly what Bryan wanted us to see and feel. It was a huge "ah-ha" moment for me.


First, I want thank you all for your thoughtful and insightful comments! I truly wish we could all be together, talking about this book in my living room! I can see that . . . there are true limitations to replying to comments IN the comments section, at least when it comes to my Typepad blog, so my apologies for the cumbersome nature of this discussion.

Please continue to comment and discuss in this space, while I spend some time today figuring out my comment settings so I can comment-in-the-comments AND you can respond to each other. (Like we said in the beginning of this Read With Us adventure . . . this is our beta version.) Thanks for your patience!


I've enjoyed reading all the comments and am looking forward to reading the book (closing in on Overdrive I believe).


I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what Eileen said: "I find this all heartbreaking and am thinking daily,"what can I do to right this injustice", what meaningful change can I promote?" and I honestly don't have a "ready answer" for this painful question. I believe it starts at the ballot box though - electing officials that are open and honest about the inequality that is our criminal in-justice system. But, I do not mean to imply that solving the problem is a task for someone else - it will take the hard and dedicated work of MANY people to begin to change the systemic injustices that exist.


I have been doing the same kind of thinking, Kat. We've read the book and even though we still have two more weeks of discussion and a summary, I'm wondering what actions I can take. I agree with your take on voting, and the EJI website has a "Get Involved" link that I'm going to be looking into. I don't think I can read this book and not begin to take some small steps toward justice for all.


At first I was reticent about reading this book. My feelings about the death penalty had been altered by the horrific rape and murder of the wife and daughters of a doctor who my close friend worked with. But I knew the approach of this book would enlighten me on how our system varies depending on race an economic status. I do believe what we read about Monroeville is a long developed cultural attitude that has developed since the beginning of slavery. I can’t remember when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird but my guess is it was in high school during the late 60’s. Just Mercy did change my feelings about the book. I marveled at Bryan’s commitment to those unjustly incarcerated and believe he gained a better understanding as a result of his brush with racial profiling. Although I started a reluctant reader I could put the book down.


Bonny! Thank you for that link. I will absolutely make that part of my giving. It seems like a small thing to do, but maybe that is one of the best things to do!

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