One Book, One Region author Bryan Stevenson speaks Monday at Conn College
Ever bigger and better, the 14th season of the One Book, One Region reading program closes Monday when Bryan Stevenson, author of this year’s selection, “Just Mercy,” appears in Palmer Auditorium on the New London campus of Connecticut College.
The event caps six months of gatherings at libraries, civic organizations, schools and book clubs across southeastern Connecticut. Thousands of readers, crossing all demographic lines, read and discussed “Just Mercy” — an impassioned memoir about an idealistic young attorney and his experiences with poverty, racial discrimination and the criminal justice system. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Stevenson, who grew up poor in Delaware, moved to the South, co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative, and began representing poor clients.
“I’ve been so appreciative of the response to the book that people want to understand the issues of mass incarceration and punishment,” says Stevenson, speaking by phone earlier this week from his law office in Montgomery, Alabama. “I’m still practicing full time and that challenges how often I can get out, but I appreciated the (One Book, One Region) honor and the opportunity to connect with people who’ve shown interest.”
Part of the vivid effectiveness of the book is Stevenson’s eloquence in taking readers behind the scenes in prisons and courtrooms. Indeed, a focus on the case of a death row inmate named Walter McMillian, convicted of killing a young white woman in Monroe, Alabama — the same community where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” — is a stunning and compelling part of the narrative. Though he’d never previously been arrested and had six witnesses testifying to his whereabouts at the time of the slaying, McMillian was sentenced to death.
Stevenson began representing McMillian in the late ’80s and, after years, eventually got the conviction overturned and his client released.
Since the book was published in 2014, its messages, lessons and passionate arguments for reform are even more resonant in the wake of unrest and heated dialogue following the much-publicized deaths of unarmed black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and others at the hands of police officers.
“There are many of us who’ve been aware of the problems of this violence against unarmed people of color for many years,” Stevenson says. In conversation, he’s so soft-spoken and congenial it’s perhaps easy to overlook his status as recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and someone who’s argued six times before the U.S. Supreme Court. He continues, “It’s encouraging that this attention has been paid to these horrific acts. That they are harder and harder to ignore is a positive thing. But having contextualized the violence, the conversation doesn’t necessarily allow for progress and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Betty Anne Reiter, director of the Groton Public Library and chair for One Book, One Region, is passionate about the selection of “Just Mercy” for the program.
“Reports about the events in Ferguson and Baltimore, the wrongly imprisoned, the death penalty and the sentencing of juveniles are in the news every day,” Reiter says. “We wanted to start a community conversation about justice, human rights and compassion. This is our 14th One Book, One Region program and, while I’ve loved all our choices, I think it’s the most important book we’ve recommended.”
Reiter says Stevenson was honored by the selection and said he would be glad to make an appearance, particularly if he could meet with and speak to young people. In accordance, Reiter reached out to Connecticut College, thinking a collaboration would be a good fit.
Tracee Reiser, associate dean for Community Learning at the college, agreed and says officials at the school came onboard immediately.
“The college is about books and learning about contemporary issues and facilitating dialogues about the issues,” Reiser says. “‘Just Mercy’ is an extraordinary book that touches on vital areas of interest to our students, staff and faculty.”
As part of the collaboration, Conn College launched a “Winter Read” program, encouraging members of the school community to read the book over winter break. They also organized a series of programs to be held on campus, at the New London Public Library and area high schools, and in conjunction with events at the Groton Public Library.
Too, the college conceptualized a new “President’s Distinguished Lecture Series,” and Stevenson’s appearance will be the inaugural presentation of the programs.
Reiter confirms that “Just Mercy” has resonated with One Book, One Region readers in a big way. After a recent discussion at the Groton library, she says, “While I don’t think anyone would say they ‘enjoyed’ ‘Just Mercy,’ I think there was universal agreement that everyone in our country needs to read it. Many want to think we’ve solved the problems of inequality in the criminal justice system, but the book makes it clear there is much work to be done.”
In that context — and to those who suggest it’s such an overwhelming problem that there’s no clear place to start — Stevenson has clear thoughts on the matter.
“I do believe there are concrete things we can do,” he says. “End the war on drugs. It’s more a health problem than a crime problem, and focus on recovery rather than punishment. Once you commit to that, you’ll see a change in the legal process.
“Next, we can worry about people in prison who are not dangers to society — issues like property crimes or writing bad checks. Maybe don’t spend a lot more money to keep these people in jail than the crime was worth and enable them to make restitution.
“Finally, don’t put children or the mentally ill in jail. Help with the disabilities and develop relationships, and we’d see a radical difference in the way justice is done.”
If this all sounds like subject matter for another book, well, it’s occurred to Stevenson.
“My desire for change isn’t unique,” he says. “There’s a definite need to talk more about the context behind these issues — the legacy of racial inequality and how it’s undermined. I find writing about these issues cathartic.” He laughs. “Now, to just find the time ...”
IF YOU GO
Who: Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” the latest One Book, One Region selection
What: Discusses and signs copies the book as the closing event of the OBOR program and as the inaugural speaker of the Connecticut College Distinguished Lecture Series
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: Free
Info: (860) 447-1911, conncoll.edu