FREEDOM FIGHTER “Just Mercy” has been in theaters for six weeks, but the book it’s based on has been in the world for six years — including 188 weeks on the paperback nonfiction best-seller list, where it is now No. 1. Bryan Stevenson’s powerful memoir of fighting for the rights of wrongly convicted death row inmates has also made appearances on the hardcover nonfiction list and the young adult list, among others — despite the fact that he wasn’t sold on the idea of writing a book in the first place. (“I wasn’t persuaded a book was a good investment of my time.”)
Stevenson, who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, explains, “For the first 20 years of my career, I sought anonymity because I believed it was the most effective way I could help the people I’m trying to help. We had to be covert, going into prisons and getting people off death row; it was like running the underground railroad. But about 10 years ago, I realized we needed to get outside the courts and start talking about these issues. The criminal justice system is so insulated from review, and that lack of access has created a lack of accountability. Until we hold people accountable for so much of this unfairness and unjustness, we’re not going to get the kind of change we need.”
And so “Just Mercy” was born. Stevenson has been heartened by the response — and also surprised, despite having inherited an appreciation of the importance of the written word. He says, “My great-grandparents were enslaved in Virginia, and my great-grandfather learned to read because he believed that one day he would be free. If you were living in the 1850s, you had no basis for that belief. When emancipation came, formerly enslaved people would come to their home every night and he would stand up and read the news. My grandmother said she sat next to him because she loved the power he had to help people. She was very literate even though she didn’t have a formal education, and she gave that to my mom, who was an avid reader. We were poor; I grew up in a rural community and we didn’t have a lot of things, but my mom went into debt to buy us a World Book Encyclopedia. I remember how strange it made us feel when the other kids had things like bikes and bats and watches — and we had the World Book Encyclopedia. It was a portal to the world.”
Books are also portals for Stevenson’s incarcerated clients. He says, “Reading provides a life of the mind that would otherwise be taken away from them. For some, it’s the only way they survive.”
The post Before Michael B. Jordan Played Him in ‘Just Mercy,’ Bryan Stevenson Was a Kid Who Loved to Read appeared first on New York Times.