There’s a scene at the beginning of “Just Mercy” in which Alice Stevenson is vigorously sweeping the front porch of her family’s home, nervous about the danger her son Bryan could face in southern Alabama.
When he finally gets her to sit and talk, Bryan Stevenson gently reminds her that it was her heart that set him on this journey, that taught him to always “fight for the people who need it the most.”
With that, the young attorney headed to Montgomery, Alabama, where against great odds, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who’ve been denied a fair trial.
That scene didn’t last long, but it made a lasting impression on me.
It reinforced the notion that, for better or worse, we parents are our children’s first teachers; but more than anything, it was a stark reminder that what the good Lord requires of us is “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with” him.
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Days before “Just Mercy” opened Friday in theaters across the country, Stevenson told me that he never imagined he’d see his work presented on the big screen.
In fact, he hesitated to even write the book of the same name, “Just Mercy.”
“I didn’t feel like I had time for a major writing project with so many cases and other litigation active,” he said. “I also wasn’t sure the return would be worth the hours invested.”
Stevenson had decided, however, that EJI needed to take its fight for criminal justice reform and racial justice to the public.
And so after years of saying no to calls to write about his work, in 2012, he finally said yes.
That year, EJI successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that juveniles charged with capital murder can’t be automatically sentenced to life with no chance at parole just because the death penalty is no longer available as a sentence for juveniles. The decision has led to a few thousand inmates nationwide getting a chance at being paroled one day.
Stevenson believed “people needed to understand more fundamentally why the ban on mandatory death in prison sentences imposed on children was important. That issue and others made me feel like the time to talk more publicly about these issues might be right.”
Still he had very modest expectations for “Just Mercy.”
“The response to the book (published in 2014) was a welcome but completely unexpected surprise,” he said. “The film project even more so.”
When I met Stevenson late in 2018, EJI had opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to more than 4,000 African American victims of lynching, as well as the Legacy Museum, which traces America’s history of slavery, racial terror, segregation and mass incarceration.
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More than 650,000 people have visited the sites since their opening April 26, 2018.
Months later, EJI would dedicate a new monument to women, men and children who were victims of racial terror lynchings or violence during the 1950s, but by the time the monument was dedicated, Bryan Stevenson and EJI were already a public advocacy force, quietly working on behalf of indigent defendants since its founding in 1989.
Now comes the movie “Just Mercy,” of which Stevenson is also an executive producer.
The film is based on the true story of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroe County who sat on death row for six years, wrongly accused of the murder of an 18-year-old white woman. Stevenson and his nonprofit law firm, the Equal Justice Initiative, overcame entrenched resistance to win McMillian’s release in 1993.
In the film, Stevenson is brilliantly played by Michael B. Jordan. Ditto to Jamie Foxx, who plays McMillian.
Initially worried that elements would be added to the film that made it more entertaining “and less honest about the issues and the challenges of the people” he serves and represents, Stevenson said that he is really excited and relieved to finally see the film.
“Through the extraordinary performances from the cast, not only was it true to the work but it actually allowed people to see the humanity and dignity of so many people we rarely think about, and that was very exciting for me,” he said.
If only what happened to McMillian was a thing of the past. It isn’t.
That’s why after three decades of doing this work, Stevenson hopes the rest of us will take an interest in what he still sees as an urgent need in this country to reform our criminal justice system.
“With thousands of innocent people in our jails and prisons and the highest rate of incarceration in the world, I think we need to pay closer attention to what’s happening every day,” he said. “I hope the film inspires people to get closer to some of these issues and to get informed, active and motivated.”
As for Stevenson, he said his work will continue.
Later this month, he said, EJI will add a new space to support the museum and memorial it opened in 2018.
“We are challenging prison conditions as the rights of imprisoned people are being routinely violated,” he said. “We want to aid people suffering from mental illness who have been unfairly sentenced.”
Stevenson told me he hopes he can “continue to find ways to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly.”
I hope the rest of us can, too, acting out of a sense of right and wrong and lovingkindness in our heart, knowing full well that there is little we can do for God except try to abide by his word, humbly seeking justice and mercy for all.
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