Larry Smith

A hurricane of emotions rushed over me as I sat in a dark theater watching “Just Mercy,” the movie based on the efforts of a young attorney to free an innocent man from death row. (Actually, I have watched the movie twice.) The film, which stars Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is adapted from the book of the same name, the latter of which was written by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson, who is Black, is a Harvard-trained attorney who has dedicated much of his life to fighting for people who have been wrongfully accused, unfairly sentenced or poorly represented during their court trials. Eschewing lucrative job offers after graduating from law school, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to address the systemic inequities — frequently based on race — that plague America’s criminal law system. (Note: I tend to use the phrase “criminal law system” as opposed to “criminal justice system” because our system is not just.) 

We have all heard the cliché that “justice” means “just us.” Of course, as with many clichés, there is more than a grain of truth to that lamentation. “Lady Justice” has been depicted with a blindfold since the 16th century. The blindfold is intended to connote impartiality. (Ancient Roman coins pictured Justitia holding a scale in one and a sword in the other.) However, American history — as well as contemporary society — unequivocally demonstrates race and class frequently play a major role in determining the manner in which sentences are meted out. This state of affairs compelled Stevenson to become an attorney — even though he would not even meet anyone who practiced that profession until he entered law school.

Stevenson was born in Delaware, which was technically a slave state. While Delaware is not known for the same racial violence and strict caste system as seen in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia, it has its own sordid history of Jim Crow and domestic terrorism against African Americans. (Indeed, Stevenson attended an elementary school for “colored” children — though it was desegregated while he was still quite young.) His mother’s family was from Philadelphia, which is where his grandfather was tragically stabbed to death when Stevenson was 16. This was a pivotal event in his life. He agreed with the life sentences that the murderers received. But, as Stevenson said, “I came from a world where we valued redemption over revenge.” 

After founding the EJI in Alabama, Stevenson came across a man named Walter “Johnny D” McMillian. McMillian was sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of a young white woman named Ronda Morrison. Based upon his discussions with Johnny D and his family, as well as reviewing his case, Stevenson became convinced that his sentence was a gross miscarriage of justice. Without giving away too many details of the case, it is fair to say that attempting to get a Black man exonerated from death row in Alabama in the 1980s was a fool’s errand. Fortunately, Stevenson is no fool.

In addition to his law practice and prison reform advocacy, Stevenson founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — the “cradle of the Confederacy.” The memorial sits on six acres of land formerly used for public housing. Known colloquially as “the lynching museum,” the memorial contains the remains of roughly 4,000 African Americans who were murdered by white mobs from 1877-1950. With good reason, Stevenson sees a link between those “extra-judicial” killings and the “judicial” system of today. 

As we have just finished commemorating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to recognize the fight for justice was not assassinated on April 4, 1968. Names like Stevenson, Alexander, DuVernay, Barber and Coates carry on this work. May legions of others follow in their footsteps.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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