Just Mercy

Just Mercy

Just Mercy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson grew up in a rural community in Delaware. His grandmother, with whom he was very close, was the daughter of slaves in Virginia. Stevenson’s father worked in a processing plant and his mother worked a civilian job at an air force base. His family were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he sang and played piano and his mother directed the choir. Stevenson majored in philosophy at Eastern University and he went onto study at Harvard Law in a joint program with the Kennedy School of Public Policy. While interning one summer at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (Now the Southern Center for Human Rights) he developed a passion for prison justice and for fighting against the death penalty. In 1985, he moved to Atlanta to work for the SPDC. To meet growing demand for legal aid to death row inmates in Alabama, Stevenson and his friend Eva Ansley moved to Montgomery to start the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989. For decades, EJI has defended inmates on death row, challenged inhumane prison conditions, and fought for improvement of the juvenile justice system. Stevenson has argued before the Supreme Court in several cases, including in the high profile 2012 case Miller vs. Alabama, in which the Court banned life sentences for juvenile offenders. With the support of EJI, Stevenson has blocked the executions of over 100 death row inmates. He has traveled throughout the country and around the world to speak about the American criminal justice system, prison justice, the death penalty, and racial and economic equality.
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Historical Context of Just Mercy

In Just Mercy, Stevenson describes several periods in American history in order to show the relationship between those periods and the modern penal system. For example, Stevenson recounts in detail the political and social situation during the Reconstruction era and how progress toward justice for African-Americans was reversed during the post-Reconstruction era. He describes the evolution of Jim Crow laws and their legacy up through the Civil Rights movement, and he references the array of civil action, brutality, and legal battles that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. Stevenson points to the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1975 as an important turning point, and he describes how the changing political and social climates of the 1980’s, 90’s, and 2000’s impacted trends in media coverage, social views, and the legal and criminal justice system. Throughout the book, he zooms in on specific historical periods related to featured legal cases.

Other Books Related to Just Mercy

Just Mercy is one of many books published in recent years that explore the social and historical roots of mass incarceration. The most popular and widely discussed of these is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Like Stevenson, Alexander argues that oppressive structures of the past, such as slavery and Jim Crow laws, have transformed into the mass incarceration of black men. Another book on this subject is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, which discusses the problem of mass incarceration in California, and Angela Davis argues for the abolition of the prison system in Are Prisons Obsolete? Within Just Mercy, Stevenson references the writing of W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American writer and activist. Du Bois was one of many early twentieth century African-American writers who exposed the reality of racial oppression through literature: others include Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, and Marcus Garvey. Stevenson also frequently references To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s novel about a rape accusation against an innocent black man. In a sense, Just Mercy is related to the modern genre of legal nonfiction, which focuses on the exoneration of the innocent. An example of a work of legal nonfiction is John Grisham’s The Innocent Man.
Key Facts about Just Mercy
  • Full Title: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
  • When Written: 2014
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: United States
  • Literary Period: Contemporary nonfiction; 21st century African-American criticism
  • Genre: Sociopolitical Nonfiction; Legal Nonfiction
  • Setting: Monroeville, AL; Montgomery, AL; Atlanta, GA, and several other cities throughout the United States
  • Climax: The climax occurs in Chapter 15, on the night of Jimmy Dill’s execution. Dill’s petition for clemency is denied within an hour of his scheduled execution, which is a devastating loss for Stevenson. In addition, Walter’s dementia is causing his decline, and EJI has an almost unmanageable docket of people needing relief. After his heartbreaking phone call with Dill moments before his death, Stevenson feels the weight of all the tragedy and injustice that he has witnessed over the years. He suffers a crisis of faith and considers quitting.
  • Antagonist: The Criminal Justice/ Prison System
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Just Mercy

Viral Justice Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk entitled “We Need to Talk About Injustice” was posted on YouTube and went viral on the Internet.

Literary Laurels Just Mercy was listed in Time Magazine’s top 10 nonfiction books of the year. It won the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Nonfiction.