Just Mercy

Just Mercy

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Themes and Colors
Resistance and Advocacy Theme Icon
Systemic Power, Oppression, and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Empathy, Mercy, and Humanization Theme Icon
Media and Public Opinion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Just Mercy, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Resistance and Advocacy Theme Icon

Just Mercy emphasizes the importance of active resistance to unfair institutions. Bryan Stevenson describes the racism, corruption, and cruelty that pervade American court systems and lead to the systematic abuse of marginalized communities. Despite the power and ubiquity of these problems, Stevenson remains steadfast in the power of resistance and advocacy to change conditions for individuals and for marginalized groups overall.

Both of the legal aid organizations that Stevenson has worked for, the Southern Prisoners Defense Fund (SPDC) and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), have made concrete changes in the American legal landscape on behalf of those who have been sentenced unfairly or inhumanely. For example, Stevenson’s representation of wrongfully-convicted people like Walter McMillian, mentally ill prisoners like George Daniel, or harshly-sentenced juveniles like Kuntrell Jackson leads, in each case, to the court overturning an unjust conviction. Over and over, Stevenson describes court cases in which the court-appointed lawyers of marginalized defendants have failed to present evidence, explore leads, or make appeals that could have freed their clients. Having an attorney like Stevenson who is willing to go to any lengths to help his clients—in other words, an advocate who is committed to reforming the justice system—can literally mean the difference between life and death for these individuals.

Stevenson goes on to describe how advocacy organizations can use legal avenues, such the Supreme Court, to seek broader reforms to the criminal justice system—reforms that can affect thousands of people at once rather than just one client at a time. The most powerful example of this in Just Mercy is EJI’s successful appeal to the Supreme Court to ban mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. Not only did this victory free the clients on whose behalf EJI brought the case, but it opened new possibilities for future defendants and made release a possibility for some inmates who could not have hoped for this before.

While Stevenson and his colleagues have won significant victories, they also experience constant setbacks, frustration, and grief in the course of their advocacy work. Stevenson credits his mentors, clients, and community for giving him the strength and wisdom to continue his work in the face of tremendous difficulty. It was other activists, such as Steve Bright (the founder of the Southern Prisoners Defense Fund) and Rosa Parks, who first inspired Stevenson and taught him how to be an advocate. He also cites the importance of community to resisting oppression: being woven in to a network of passionate and dedicated friends and activists helped Stevenson stand up to the injustices he himself faced (like when Charlie Bliss encouraged Stevenson to report the officers who harassed him), not to mention that community has helped Stevenson effectively stand up to injustice on behalf of others. Stevenson writes that his clients—those who have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system—have taught him the most. This comes at the level of policy and research (Diane Jones and Marsha Colby, for example, helped Stevenson to recognize the ways in which women are systematically mistreated and they assisted him in compiling evidence of abuse), and also in terms of personal values. Stevenson’s clients have experienced unimaginable suffering, injustice, and cruelty, and their hope, strength, and resilience set an example for Stevenson and inspire him to keep fighting. Stevenson suggests that by witnessing the examples of his clients and their supportive communities, he has learned that fighting to effect change is a slow process that requires optimism and personal resilience. Despite its difficulty, advocacy is an effective form of resistance against the entire system of inequalities and prejudices that leads to unfair treatment.

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Resistance and Advocacy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Resistance and Advocacy appears in each Chapter of Just Mercy. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Resistance and Advocacy Quotes in Just Mercy

Below you will find the important quotes in Just Mercy related to the theme of Resistance and Advocacy.
Introduction Quotes

Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction […]
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song as a precious gift.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Henry (speaker)
Related Symbols: Songs/ Hymns
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry is the first death row inmate that Stevenson ever meets, and, on his first visit with Henry in prison, Stevenson is appalled by the rough manner in which the guard shackles Henry to lead him back to his cell. Stevenson tells the guard to stop, but Henry says not to worry and begins singing the hymn. Henry’s song impacts Stevenson greatly. It symbolizes Henry’s suffering, faith, kindness, and his desire for redemption.

Though Stevenson had been worried that he wouldn’t be able to relate to Henry, Stevenson is surprised during their meeting by how much he identifies with Henry, who is a young black man near Stevenson’s age. Henry’s song, which Stevenson remembers from church growing up, further adds to Stevenson’s sense of familiarity with and empathy for Henry. Most of all, Stevenson goes on to explain why Henry’s song is a “gift”: despite Henry’s suffering and his precarious position on death row, his song is a deliberate attempt to comfort Stevenson, and it represents the warmth and kindness that Henry remains capable of showing. Stevenson is a young, inexperienced intern, who came to offer hope to Henry but finds himself filled with hope instead.

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You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.

Related Characters: Stevenson’s grandmother (speaker), Bryan Stevenson
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In explaining his own family background and how it influenced his path, Stevenson discusses his grandmother, a cautious, affectionate woman who was the daughter of slaves. He explains how she often told him to “keep close” to stay out of danger, something she learned from her parents. “Getting close” was also her way of explaining to Stevenson the importance of seeing things in a detailed, personal way before making judgments.

Influenced by the wisdom of his grandmother, Stevenson argues that what led him to fight on behalf of those condemned or marginalized by society was his realization that true understanding requires “getting close.” Rather than judging and condemning people as “other” and looking at them from a distance, Stevenson advocates for getting to know the condemned as human beings by understanding their personal stories, their thoughts, and their capacity for change.

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the word “proximity” is used in connection with the concept of “getting close” enough to know the lives of those condemned by society and the criminal justice system. To Stevenson, “proximity” leads to empathy and humanization of those who have been dehumanized.

The message that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” is repeated again and again throughout the book. This central argument implies that individuals aren’t defined by the worst of their actions: a person who commits a crime is much more than that one mistake. Stevenson suggests instead that a person’s character should be understood as the sum of all of his or her actions, intentions, experiences, and hopes. In addition, a person’s capacity to repent, grow, and change should be respected: we are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done because, if given the chance, we can redeem ourselves through our actions in the future.

Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and 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.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Stevenson challenges a fundamental premise of the prison system: that punishment is the primary mechanism by which justice should be recognized in a society. To Stevenson, consequences and punishment aren’t the hallmarks of justice: instead, justice is connected to equality and to treating vulnerable people with dignity and respect.

In this passage, Stevenson lays out his philosophy regarding the social injustice that underlies the functions of the criminal justice system. The system, according to his arguments, disproportionately criminalizes marginalized communities and vulnerable populations while favoring powerful and privileged groups. Instead of understanding the United States to be a place of unrivaled opportunity (as it might be from the perspective of, say, a successful entrepreneur), Stevenson argues that a society should be judged by the way it treats the members it deems least valuable, such as prisoners. In a sense, then, the book’s argument about the inhumane treatment of marginalized groups by the criminal justice system is an indictment of American society at large. Stevenson’s message regarding society’s treatment of the disfavored evokes the Christian saying derived from the words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40, King James Version)

Chapter 2 Quotes

“You see this scar on the top of my head?” He tilted his head to show me. “I got that scar in Greene County, Alabama trying to register to vote in 1964. You see this scar on the side of my head? […] I got that scar in Mississippi demanding civil rights. […] These aren’t my scars, cuts and bruises. These are my medals of honor.”

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), The older man in the wheelchair (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

After his own jarring experience with racial profiling, Stevenson begins giving speeches at black churches and community centers to educate the public about the importance of knowing their rights and demanding police accountability. At one such church, the old man in the wheelchair asks to speak with Stevenson after his speech. The man tells Stevenson that he has to keep “beating the drum for justice,” and he shows Stevenson the scars that he received at the hands of the police while trying to fight for civil rights.

The old man’s words illustrate the personal risks that activists often take in fighting for justice, and the scars especially emphasize how African-Americans, already targets of police brutality and other forms of oppression, have often faced those risks to extreme degrees when fighting for equality. It’s important that, in the face of this, the old man doesn’t position himself as simply a victim. He doesn’t lament his scars or curse the police who gave them to him: instead, the old man sees himself as a veteran of a heroic war. His scars are his medals of honor that prove his sacrifice and his dedication. The old man’s optimism, bravery, and encouragement bolster Stevenson.

Chapter 4 Quotes

It was sad like few other hymns I’d heard. I don’t know why exactly, but I started to hum it as I saw more uniformed officers entering the vestibule outside the visitation room. It seemed like something that might help […] After a few minutes, the family joined me. I went over to Herbert’s wife as she held him tightly, sobbing softly. I whispered to her, “We have to let him go.” Herbert saw the officers lining up outside, and he pulled away from her slowly and told me to take her out of the room.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Herbert Richardson, Herbert’s wife
Related Symbols: Songs/ Hymns
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Stevenson describes the moments before Herbert Richardson’s family leaves the visitor center on the night of Herbert’s execution. After many failed attempts to seek legal recourse for Herbert, Stevenson has come to be with Herbert and his family for his death. Herbert had asked in advance for the church hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” to be played during his execution. Now, unable to get Herbert’s wife and family to say their goodbyes, Stevenson hopes that humming the song will help to ease their pain.

The hymn, which describes a man’s faith and repentance as he speaks to Jesus before his death, reflects Herbert’s attempt to make peace with his own death. Throughout the book, songs and hymns represent the suffering, loss, and hope of individuals in grim situations. This scene of Stevenson and Herbert’s family humming the sorrowful song as they pry Herbert’s wife away from him brings the reality and tragedy of execution to life. In this scene, Stevenson illustrates the humanity of Herbert and his family, and the reality of their loss.

Chapter 6 Quotes

We’ve been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.

Related Characters: Mr. and Mrs. Jennings (speaker), Bryan Stevenson, Charlie
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. and Mrs. Jennings are the rural white couple who befriend and support Charlie, a young black teenager who was incarcerated after killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Charlie had to spend his teenage years in jail while recovering from the trauma of domestic violence, the residual anguish from his crime, and the sexual abuse he experienced in jail. The Jenningses offered to support Charlie through college, and Stevenson worries that, after all of Charlie’s suffering, they may be asking him to achieve too much.

Mrs. Jennings’ reply to Stevenson demonstrates her commitment to overcoming her own loss and pain from her grandchild’s suicide years before. Instead of allowing their pain to conquer them, Mr. and Mrs. Jennings used their pain to develop their empathy and become advocates for other struggling youth. Mrs. Jennings’s words speak to one of the larger messages of Stevenson’s book: condemned individuals are capable of change and reform, as is society overall. In order to achieve this, we must all believe that it is possible and demand more from one another.

Chapter 7 Quotes

You know they’ll try to kill you if you actually get to the bottom of everything.

Related Characters: Ralph Myers (speaker), Bryan Stevenson, Walter McMillian, Michael O’Connor
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

After reaching out to EJI for help in recanting his false testimony, Myers warns Stevenson and Michael that their lives might be in danger because of their involvement in Walter’s case. The “they” to which Myers refers is the State and local law enforcement in Monroeville. Myers is speaking from experience here: he has faced intimidation and cruelty at the hands of law enforcement officials who aimed to keep Myers from recanting his testimony. While Myers’ words demonstrate his own capacity for dramatic storytelling (confirming Stevenson’s depiction of his character), this statement also speaks to the growing hatred in the community of Monroeville toward anyone trying to defend or exonerate Walter or expose the corruption of local officials. This should evoke the specter of the Jim Crow era when force, manipulation, and even lethal violence were used to keep marginalized groups from gaining power. Myers’ prediction later proves somewhat true: EJI begins receiving bomb threats for its efforts to shed light on the truth of Walter’s conviction.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Imagine teardrops left uncried
From pain trapped inside
Waiting to escape
Through the windows of your eyes

“Why won’t you let us out?”
The tears question the conscience
“Relinquish your fears and doubts
and heal yourself in the process.”

The conscience told the tears
“I knew you really wanted me to cry
but if I release you from bondage
In gaining your freedom, you die.”

The tears gave it some though
Before giving the conscience an answer
“If crying brings you to triumph
Then dying’s not such a disaster.”

Related Characters: Ian Manuel (speaker)
Page Number: 147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

“Uncried Tears” is a poem by Ian Manuel, a young man who was sentenced to life in prison for a non-homicide juvenile offense. To protect Ian from predatory adult inmates, the prison kept him in solitary confinement. At the time of the book’s publication, he had spent around twenty years in solitary confinement.

The poem personifies Ian’s conscience and emotions, and, significantly, it places his conscience and emotions in opposition to one another. The “conscience” appears to represent his sense of guilt and shame, while the tears that are held in “uncried” represent his own suffering. He illustrates how the two are at odds with each other and need to be reconciled. Reconciling his conflict through releasing his emotions is symbolized by crying.

However, the tears seem to have life and energy only when they are held in. In Ian’s life, which is marked by minimal human contact and minimal opportunity for growth or achievements, his emotions are one of the few things he has to hold on to. His poem suggests that his inner conflicts animate his experience, and that he has become attached to them. Yet, he recognizes that he needs to relieve his conscience in order to move on. To do so, he must reconcile his shame with his suffering.

Stevenson’s inclusion of the poem at the beginning of Chapter 8 speaks to the often unseen and unheard suffering of incarcerated children, as well as to their capacity for reflection, growth, and redemption.

Chapter 9 Quotes

In that moment, I felt something peculiar. A deep sense of recognition. I smiled now, because I knew she was saying to the room, “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away.”

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Mrs. Williams (speaker)
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes during Stevenson’s reflections on the last day of Walter’s Rule 32 hearing. After EJI’s success of their first day, the State retaliated by implementing advanced security measures to deter the black community from attending the hearing—measures that included a metal detector and a police dog. Ms. Williams, a respected elderly woman in Walter’s community, became paralyzed with fear when she saw the dogs. Ms. Williams had been injured by police dogs years before during the Voting Rights protests. That night, she prayed for the strength needed to overcome her fear. The next day, she made her way past the dogs with great effort. When she arrived, she announced, “I’m Here!”

It takes Stevenson a moment to realize what Ms. Williams means by her proclamation. She’s reacting to a specific historical moment (her experiences as a protestor in the Civil Rights Movement) in order to demonstrate her ability to overcome obstacles and show up despite efforts to intimidate her and keep her away. By showing up and refusing to be intimidated, Ms. Williams reasserts her right to be there, inspires Stevenson and others to keep fighting, and demonstrates her commitment—despite physical risk—to representing her community in their fight for justice.

Chapter 10 Quotes

I argued to the judge that not taking Avery’s mental health issues into consideration at trial was as cruel as saying to someone who has lost his legs, “You must climb these stairs with no assistance, and if you don’t your just lazy.” Or to say to someone who was blind, “You should get across this busy interstate highway, unaided, or you’re just cowardly.”

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Avery Jenkins
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Stevenson argues before the court during his appeal of Avery Jenkins’ death sentence. Avery Jenkins is an intellectually disabled man whose condition was exacerbated by extreme neglect and abuse while being shuffled between foster care homes as a child.

Stevenson argues that for mentally ill and disabled individuals like Avery, equal treatment means taking into consideration the needs created by their disabilities. To Stevenson, holding Avery accountable for actions related to his disabilities is the same as holding physically disabled people accountable for achieving the same feats as non-disabled individuals. Through his argument, Stevenson attempts to challenge the way the courts conceive of disabilities and reveal how this unfair conception impacts punishments assigned to disabled individuals. Stevenson’s argument also demonstrates, once again, his commitment to finding empathy and common humanity in order to grant mercy to people who have erred.

Chapter 13 Quotes

His story was a counter narrative to the rhetoric of fairness and reliability offered by politicians and law enforcement officials who wanted more and faster executions. Walter’s case complicated the debate in very graphic ways.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

After Walter’s release, he accompanies Stevenson to conferences and events throughout the country, sharing his experience and participating in the national discourse around the death penalty. Walter’s case receives media coverage to a degree that exceeds other previous stories of death row exonerations.

Here, Stevenson describes how Walter’s case challenged national political debates about the death penalty. The details of Walter’s case showed the public how false witnesses, bribery, threats, and corruption led to his conviction and sentence. The clear corruption and life-and-death stakes of the case captivated the public and enabled people to begin to question whether the death penalty was ever appropriate, given the flawed nature of the criminal justice system. Walter’s case also shows how media sensationalism can affect policy: the case gained so much attention because its particulars were so outrageous and unsavory. Many exonerated felons do not have stories that can captured the public imagination, even though they face similar suffering to Walter.

Chapter 14 Quotes

When these basic deficits that burden all children are combined with the environments that some poor children experience—environments marked by abuse, violence, dysfunction, neglect and the absence of loving caretaker— adolescence can leave kids vulnerable to the sort of extremely poor decision making that results in tragic violence.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Evan Miller
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

The “deficits” mentioned in this section are the neurological, emotional, and psychological features that are present in normal adults but have not yet formed in adolescent brains. When Stevenson argues before the Supreme Court against the use of life sentences for juvenile offenders, he presents scientific research showing that adolescents are in a critical period of development that affects their judgment and risk-taking impulses. In a sense, Stevenson argues that all adolescents should be considered to be cognitively impaired when compared to adults, particularly in terms of their abilities to think through the consequences of their actions and to assess risk.

In his Supreme Court arguments as summarized here, Stevenson contends that these normal developmental stages are especially dangerous periods for low-income children and other children experiencing environmentally unsafe situations. Rather than receiving the guidance and care needed to develop their judgment faculties and coping mechanisms, they are left alone to navigate their own particularly difficult experiences. Stevenson argues that this combination of youth and environment is especially conducive to mistakes that lead to “tragic violence.” This argument is an example of Stevenson’s commitment to empathizing with people who make mistakes. By trying to contextualize acts of violence rather than condemning people who commit them without understanding their stories, Stevenson is able to make a reasoned and compassionate case for offering mercy.

I watched Joe, who laughed like a little boy, but I saw the lines in his face and even the emergence of a few prematurely grey hairs on his head. I realized even while I laughed, that his unhappy childhood had been followed by unhappy, imprisoned teenage years followed by unhappy incarceration through young adulthood. All of the sudden, it occurred to me what a miracle it was that he could still laugh.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Joe Sullivan
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe Sullivan, a young man sentenced to life in prison as a child, becomes deeply attached to Stevenson. Joe is an emotionally and physically disabled victim of prison sexual abuse who has spent years in prison for a non-homicide crime that Stevenson suggests he didn’t commit. After arguing before the Supreme Court against juvenile life sentences, Stevenson goes to visit Joe in prison. This moment takes place just after Joe reads a heartfelt but somewhat disjointed poem to Stevenson.

In this passage, Stevenson illustrates how incarceration can freeze a person’s development in time. In Joe’s case, this was exacerbated by existing emotional problems and the trauma and violence he experienced in prison. On the one hand, Joe’s story is an example of the ways in which prison makes already-vulnerable people even more vulnerable, thereby perpetuating a cycle of violence instead of preventing violence. On the other hand, though, Stevenson’s portrayal of Joe serves as a testimony to human resilience and, in particular, how laughter reflects and preserves strength.

Chapter 15 Quotes

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness, even if our brokenness is not equivalent […] Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, foreswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian, Jimmy Dill, The little boy at church
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

Just after the execution of Jimmy Dill, Stevenson faces a crisis of faith. With Walter dying from advancing dementia, Stevenson is especially tired and sad, and, despite his best efforts, Stevenson was unable to secure a motion to stay Jimmy’s execution. On the phone with Jimmy moments before his execution, Stevenson weeps. As Jimmy’s works hard to overcome his stutter so he can express his gratitude, Stevenson is reminded of a little boy he once met at church who also had a stutter. After they hang up, Stevenson is heartbroken, emotionally exhausted, and overwhelmed by the persistence of injustice. For the first time, he considers the thought of quitting.

His realization that he has been “broken” by the injustices and cruelty he has witnessed, however, creates in him a new understanding of his work. His thought that everyone is “broken” relates to his earlier argument that everyone will, at some point, need mercy from others. Only those who deny their own shame and pain are able to continue inflicting pain on others; seeing one’s own pain and shame makes it much harder to pass the cycle of pain onto other people. This suggests that, in addition to empathy for others, self-reflection and admitting personal vulnerability can help to stop cycles of violence.