Book Review: Real Atticus Finch is black
October 1, 2016
"Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson
It was tough on many readers last year when Harper Lee's prequel of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published. "Go Set a Watchman" made people revisit their hero, Atticus Finch, in a new and disturbing light. Some people refused to read the book because they didn't want their perception of the powerful fictional character to change. Something very personal was going on.
Scout had shared a man with a potent moral force that shaped white identity. We held kinship with this character, who represents justice and perhaps, subconsciously, vanquished much of white guilt. While Atticus' status fell to bigot, and the media kept tallying the injustices toward black Americans at the hands of the police, you couldn't deny the racial bias toward blacks was not something of the past.
Bryan Stevenson grew up in a poor, segregated part of Delaware. He graduated from Harvard Law School, then traveled south to Alabama to pursue civil rights law. A man whose great-grandparents had been slaves began using the law to free people from wrongful or excessive punishment. Stevenson made the struggle personal, living and advocating for the social justice of African Americans.
Stevenson's memoir, "Just Mercy," takes us back to Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a fictional story about a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Stevenson's memoir carries an all-too-familiar narrative thread about a black man, Walter McMillan, who was falsely accused of murdering a white woman, and the cruelty, unfairness and racial bias that ensued.
Law enforcement chose to target McMillan, despite credible alibis. Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr. (his real name) placed McMillan on death row before the case even went to trial. The memoir moves quickly, and, because the injustices are so blatant, it is easy to become a champion for Stevenson and his clients.
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This isn't the first time the story of McMillan has been told. "60 Minutes" brought this miscarriage of justice to the masses in the 1990s. McMillan's ultimate release after six years on death row made the front page of the New York Times. Stevenson's services were in high demand in more places than just the heart of Dixie.
Stevenson argued against the death penalty and life sentences without parole for children. He took the case of Evan Miller (who committed a crime at age 14 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole) all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing successfully that Miller's Eighth Amendment rights had been violated. Stevenson represents those most in need. He has taken on another disturbing theme of our age, the injustice involving the incarceration of the mentally ill, with limited success.
Against tremendous odds and through approximately 30 years, Stevenson has won relief for many of the condemned and helped exonerate a number of innocent people. He has argued five times before the Supreme Court. Among his honors are a MacArthur genius grant and honorary degrees from Yale, Penn and Georgetown. The memoir is not self-aggrandizing, but more of a call to action. Portions are tough to read, but there is always a thread of progress and hope.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has referred to Stevenson as, "America's Nelson Mandela." Stevenson's TED talk is said to have received the longest standing ovation ever given to a presenter. I feel comfortable saying that, in the American heart, Stevenson can replace the hole that was left by Atticus Finch.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
Michelle Dover is circulation services manager at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.