It was slavery that gave America an abiding fear of Black people and a taste for violent punishment – a twisted inheritance that continues to taint our criminal justice system to this day. So Bryan Stevenson asserts in the New York Times‘ 1619 Project.
Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), is that unique blend of intellectual, activist, lawyer, advocate and organizer. Unlike many thought leaders who analyze and write, Stevenson acts…and encourages others to join in finding solutions.
He wrote the 2014 best seller Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and more recently has collaborated on a cable TV docudrama titled True Justice.
On Christmas Day of this year, a film version of his book Just Mercy opens nationwide. It shadows the world-renowned civil rights defense attorney as he recounts his experiences and details the case of a condemned death row prisoner whom he fought to free.
Stevenson’s is one of 30-plus contributions to this outstanding work of analytic journalism contained in the 1619 Project. It may even be the most important.
In his 1619 article Stevenson states, “Central to understanding this practice of mass incarceration and excessive punishment is the legacy of slavery.”
He points out that Black children as young as 13 have been given life sentences for non-homicide offenses, and relates anecdotes such as that of the Black man lynched in South Carolina for successfully negotiating a better price for his cotton than a competing white man.
Stevenson asserts that three Reconstruction Era cornerstones are under attack right now in these United States: the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery; the 14th that guarantees equal protection under law regardless of race; and the 15th that assures the right to vote regardless of race.
No wonder that Michelle Alexander, author of the modern classic The New Jim Crow, praises that “Bryan Stevenson is one of my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today. Just Mercy is extraordinary. The stories told within the pages hold the potential to transform what we think we mean when we talk about justice.”
Consider how Stevenson tackles the treatment of Black youth – he writes about the 1944 execution in South Carolina of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. The young Black boy was accused and convicted of murdering two white girs, ages seven and 11. He was executed by electric chair and became the youngest American ever sentenced to death and summarily executed.
Stinney’s conviction was vacated in 2014 when a court ruled that he had not received a fair trial. Stevenson’s writings show how the incident reflects racial politics in the South, not just the way children accused of crimes were generally treated.
It is an example of how policies and norms once developed to control and punish the Black population have filtered their way into today’s criminal justice system. By the late 1980s and early ‘90s, persistent fear of Black crime fueled mass incarceration, including the mass jailing of children.
Staggering Imprisonment Numbers
By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole, several of whom were 13 at the time of the crime. All of the youngest 13- and 14-year-olds were Black or Latino. Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.
Hundreds of thousands of Black men are incarcerated presently in the United States and many more are on probation or parole. Stevenson agrees with Michelle Alexander’s comment that nothing short of a major social movement can successfully dismantle this new version of the old caste system.
Closer to home, Dr. Paul Street of the Chicago Urban League’s Dept. of Research and Planning has found that the total population of Black males in Chicago with a felony record (including both current and ex-felons) is equivalent to 50 percent of the adult Black male population and an astonishing 80 percent of the adult Black male workforce in the Chicago area.
This finding reflects the increase in the number and race of those sent to prison for drug crimes. From the Chicago region alone, the number of those annually sent to prison for drug crimes increased from 469 in 1985 to 8,755 in 2005.
Stevenson’s Just Mercy sandwiches the case of Walter McMillan, the death row prisoner he sought to free, between statistical proofs about the jailing of 13- and 14-year old boys – along with the bewildering number of Black men in the criminal justice system who suffer from mental deficiencies.
Currently, over 50 percent of Black prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness.
There are more than three times the number of seriously mentally ill individuals in jail or prison than in hospitals, and in some states the number is 10 times greater, reports Stevenson.
Walter McMillan was a Black Alabama man accused of killing a white woman. It was clear that he had not been at the scene of the crime from the testimony of several of those with him at the time of the offense.
Yet the criminal justice cabal ensnared him into six years on death row. The corruption, lies, and money changes between and among Alabama police, prosecutors, and witnesses that Stevenson details is astounding. And all aimed at killing an innocent Black man. But after appeal, McMillan was freed.
So there has been a steady, well-researched drumbeat over the last decade nailing the problem: Michele Alexander’s New Jim Crow in 2010, Just Mercy in 2014, True Justice in 2017.
Impact Of The Movie
However, the new film version of Just Mercy, due to the broader reach of video, may finally move the needle of public opinion even among whites.
In August, my wife, son and I attended the sold-out world premiere of Just Mercy at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is an inspirational, well done film.
Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillan and Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson are faithful to the words, spirit, and passion of the book. The agony and hopelessness of Walter McMillan is given a face and a voice by Jamie Foxx. There’s no way to understand what McMillan went through absent Foxx’s representation.
Following the film’s screening, the cast, producers, director and Stevenson came on stage for a discussion. After the routine congratulatory comments and queries, one Black female actor voiced an unexpected, but wholly sincere appreciation.
She said what an honor it was to be in the film, how the experience informed and inspired her, and importantly, how it challenged her to give purpose to the solutions Stevenson sought.
Delightfully surprising to this writer was the way Foxx and Jordan used their celebrity platform to support Stevenson’s mission. Rappers and sports heroes, please take note.
In a separate two-hour event, Jordan and Foxx were clearly moved when explaining how they had to abandon their own personas and climb “into the skin” of their respective characters.
Jamie Foxx, coming from Terrell, Texas in the 1960s, said he could totally identify with the treatment of Walter McMillan. Both actors stated that their hope was to inspire younger people into action.
Bryan Stevenson repeated on stage what he says in the book. If I may paraphrase: With more than two million incarcerated people in the U.S., an additional 6 million people on probation or parole, there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.
If you have interest in working with or supporting volunteer programs that serve incarcerated people, organizations that provide re-entry assistance to the formerly incarcerated or organizations, please contact the Equal Justice initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The website is www.EJI.org. Or, email them at Contact_Us@eji.org.
Here’s my own short list of action items:
• Read the book Just Mercy; I guarantee it’ll inform and move you to action.
• View the new film version that debuted in June on HBO cable TV.
• See the film in person and among friends when it reaches Chicago in December.
• Go to the EJI web site (above) to see how you can support their efforts.
• Contribute to a conversation that being against crime doesn’t mean victimizing Black people with mass incarceration, jailing 13-year-olds, and imprisoning the mentally ill.
Personally, I’m working with Stevenson’s representatives and other Black businesses leaders to bring him to Chicago in the interest of speaking and possibly establishing an EJI chapter here.
(Paul King is a construction industry consultant and member of the Business Leadership Council.)