“Just Mercy” Common Book Author Speaks at Browning

Bryan Stevenson, a public-interest lawyer devoted to helping the incarcerated and poor, was a special guest at Browning on October 30. Mr. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Alabama-based group, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which as its website notes, “has won legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.” In fact, EJI recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional.

Mr. Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” was selected as this year’s Common Book at Browning, so his arrival was much anticipated and his address as remarkable as his book. The Common Book is read by boys in Forms II-VI, Browning Trustees and faculty during summer recess. Mr. Stevenson, who was introduced by Head of Upper School James Reynolds, began his address by citing tremendous problems that require immediate intervention, such as the deplorable number of incarcerated people – some 2.3 million in the United States – including an increasing number of women in the last 20 years. “In the 21st century,” he said, “one in three Black male babies is expected to grow up and go to prison.” Mr. Stevenson explained, however, that he was not at Browning to talk about problems but, rather, solutions. “I hope you are prepared to create more justice in the world,” he said.

“Now is the time to make a difference,” he told his audience, then asked them to embrace four concepts, which he explained as follows:

Proximity is key. You can’t be too far away from the problems and issues. As in science and medicine, proximity to the process is what yields solutions. When you get close to a situation, you will discover powers about yourself that you had not realized before.

Change the world by changing the narrative. Policymakers have been allowed to make decisions rooted in fear and evil. Whenever that is the case, a poor decision will be made – one that ultimately violates other people’s rights. We need to change the narrative about race, which has been influenced by a history of racial inequality. A narrative of white supremacy still exists. The 13th Amendment only deals with involuntary servitude, and that is not enough. Especially in the south, victims of racial terrorism fled to cities to escape injustice.

We must protect our hope. You are talented and gifted boys. You need to stay hopeful. Injustice prevails where hopelessness exists. Today the rich and guilty prevail over the poor and innocent. We must stay hopeful and change these circumstances.

Be willing to do uncomfortable things. Position yourself to be uncomfortable, even though that’s hard. We can’t have justice without doing the uncomfortable. I represent those who are broken through abuse and neglect. I work in a broken system. The broken people teach us that we can do what we thought we couldn’t. I realize that I do what I do because I’m broken, too. 

Mr. Stevenson provided details about his family that served to influence him later in life, including the fact that he was the first in his family to attend college. A philosophy major who enjoyed sports and music, he joked about the concern others expressed over how he would make a living. Undecided about a career, he decided to attend law school (“Well, why not?”) and later the School of Public Policy – both at Harvard. Still he remained uninspired and “even more miserable.” The turning point came when he was asked to go to Georgia to work with a human rights organization. His first assignment was to meet with a prisoner on death row and explain to him that he was not at risk of being executed at any time within the next year. Mr. Stevenson described the extraordinary details of meeting this man and relaying that message, including the physical abuse the man endured at the hands of the prison guards and his strength in the face of it: “He began to sing a hymn, part of which goes, ‘Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.’ That song changed me. I decided I would help get people like him (and me) to higher ground.”

Mr. Stevenson also spoke of the pain he felt when he could not win a stay of execution for a prisoner. “He had an awful stutter when he was stressed or nervous, but I managed to understand his last words to me: ‘Thank you for helping me, Mr. Stevenson. I love you.’ ” That moment triggered a childhood memory of Mr. Stevenson’s mother admonishing him for making fun of another boy with a stutter. She demanded, among other things, that he apologize and even insisted he tell the boy he loved him. “I did as she asked, very awkwardly, and in response that boy told me he loved me, too.”

Not surprisingly, serving the needs of disadvantaged youths is another of Mr. Stevenson’s top priorities. “A narrative has emerged in America that says the 10,000 kids in jail today are not kids but ‘super predators.’ In fact, all children are children.”

Perhaps one of Mr. Stevenson’s most compelling stories revolved around an abusive guard he once encountered. It seems the guard later watched Mr. Stevenson in action in the courtroom. “Afterward, this guard asked if he could shake my hand. Then he told me that, like my client who was mentally disabled (and, by the way had earlier kept asking us for a chocolate milkshake), he, too, was brought up in the foster care system. ‘I’m an angry man because of it. But I was listening to you in that courtroom, and I hope you keep fighting for justice,’ he told me. And then he explained that as he was transporting my client back to prison, he took an exit to Wendy’s where he bought him a chocolate milkshake!”

Many other such stories are part of Mr. Stevenson’s compelling book. He ended his address by telling the Browning community, “I’m so excited that you took the time to read my book. I want to express my gratitude to you for that.” Judging by the standing ovation he received, we are all grateful for his fine work and his powerful message shared that day.