The book Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson was presented to every new student at UC Berkeley in 2016. If it were to be read by every young adult across the country, it would change America profoundly.
In comments appearing on the book’s back cover, Isobel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, describes Stevenson as “a real-life, modern-day Atticus Finch”; and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes that he “is one of my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today…” And if that can be topped, Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela”.
Brian Stevenson went to Alabama as a young lawyer in1983 even as he was still earning his law degree at Harvard. There he went on to establish the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). To this day, that project has challenged an incredibly cruel and pervasively racist “justice system” at its very heart in the deep South, as well as before the US Supreme Court. (It’s that system from which Jeff Sessions emerges as Donald Trump’s Attorney General-select.)
Stevenson and EJI focused on death penalty cases, of which there are so many in Alabama and other southern states. Death rows are loaded with victims who never stood a chance before Jim Crow courts and customary “legal” procedures. Thousands were condemned to years of cruel and destructive punishment as they faced eventual execution.
Despite the odds, Stevenson and his EJI coworkers made significant headway, saving some victims from prison and death, winning Supreme Court judgments against application of the death penalty to juveniles and to mentally disabled. They continually broadened their legal battle, for example successfully defending poor women charged astoundingly with “murder” after a miscarriage.
As my son liked to say when he gave a book report in grade school: "if you want to know more, read the book."
But I still want to say what struck me most about Brian Stevenson himself.
I’m in awe. I’ve known many people selflessly devoted to a just cause. But from his very first case, Brian was completely engaged with the human being he was defending. However important the cause or the issue at stake, it was the human connection that would never be diminished for him. He was as one with the person in trouble; he sought out and linked up with the family, sensed and responded to changing health and emotional problems.
Yes, I’ve known people as active and devoted to a just cause as Brian Stevenson — not very many. Also. a few of these good people might be less than exemplary in their relationships and attitudes toward others. But, although I’ve never met Brian, I think I may never have known anyone with a deeper sense of humanity.
If there are such, I think the guy is a saint.