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.
Resistance and Advocacy ThemeTracker
Resistance and Advocacy Quotes in Just Mercy
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.
You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
You know they’ll try to kill you if you actually get to the bottom of everything.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.