It has taken me several months to read the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, not because it is not an interesting read or because I couldn’t find the time. This book was difficult for me to read for any extended period because it broke my heart.
Towards the end of the book, Stevenson shares the story of one of his clients, Jimmy Dill. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the legal practice founded by Stevenson was fighting hard to get a stay of execution for Dill, and they were running out of time. They only had the case 30 days before Dill’s execution date.
Jimmy had a speech impediment, suffered from a learning disability, was a victim of physical and sexual abuse growing up, and had a long history of drug addiction.
Talking to Jimmy on the phone the last night of his life was gut-wrenching for Stevenson. As Jimmy tried to articulate his gratitude for all the work Bryan had put in trying to save his life, tears streamed down Bryan’s face.
Dill had originally been convicted of aggravated assault. The victim died a year later, and the state of Alabama changed the charges to first-degree murder.
EJI discovered that Deal had been inadequately represented by a Public Defender. The state of Alabama had made a plea offer of 20 years, but no one explained that to Dill, and when he went to trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
As Jimmy struggled with words to express his gratitude, Bryan became angry. He was angry that the circumstances of Dill’s life had broken him. He was angry at a system that is designed to kill broken people. He understood Dill had committed the crime, but he couldn’t see the sense in killing him.
Stevenson describes the despair he felt the night the state of Alabama killed Jimmy Dill. He shared how in struggling to share his heart, Dill’s humanity was reinforced. Stevenson realized in that moment his life was full of brokenness. He worked in a broken Justice System. His clients were broken by mental illness, poverty and racism. They were torn by disease, drugs, alcohol, fear, pride and anger.
Stevenson then realized his own brokenness. He understood that no one can effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.
Just Mercy was a tough read, but it also was a necessary book to read. It reinforced my commitment to stay engaged, informed and unapologetic in my attempt to speak truth to power; To be a voice for the voiceless, an advocate for those who have been beaten down under the weight of poverty, oppression and depression. To challenge a system that builds wealth and power on the backs of the poor, defenseless and weak.
As Ella Baker said, we must, “Shine the light and people will find the way.” Ella’s maternal grandmother was born in slavery, and she cut her teeth on her grandmother’s stories of slave revolts. She was a proponent of grassroots activities, versus a leader based movement, which is the philosophy of the “2017 Resistance Movement”.
Finishing this article has been tough until I joined a live stream of “The Repairers of the Breach” Watch Night Service. The speakers gave me what I needed, as they talked about this being a time where we must be willing to suffer for something greater than ourselves. They talked about hope being deeper than just optimism; real hope is willing to look despair in its face, and knowing there is a possibility of that hope being denied and even destroyed.
They talked about the necessity of shifting the moral narrative, and speaking truth to power and speaking love to hate; about going public against those looking to subvert democracy. They talked about the 325 million people in this country, where most know something is wrong, but very few have the moral courage to join this movement.
And then Dr. William Barber took the stage…. Dr. Barber read a text from the book of Ezekiel 22, written twenty-six hundred years ago. This text says, “Your politicians are like wolves, prowling and killing and taking whatever, they want. They hurt the poor, rob the widows, hurt the children, abuse the poor and the needy and they kick the immigrants around. They have no sense of justice. And your preachers cover up for them, by pretending to have received instructions from God. I looked for someone to stand in the gap, someone to protect the country from the wolves, so I wouldn’t have to destroy it.”
Dr. Barber was issuing a clarion call for a people who had ears to hear. He asked when the wolves are howling, who has the moral authority to stand in the gap and speak an inconvenient truth? Barber said when one uses public power to create public harm, that is a sin, that is a wolf move.
This call to action requires one to move from a position of prayer in the pews, to direct action, civil disobedience, voter registration and education – A march of resistance to the ballot box.
Ella Baker said over 60 years ago, “We are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”