Loyola’s common text for first year undergraduates is Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, a gripping narrative of his work as a defense attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Through the book, Stevenson tells numerous stories of racial injustice in the American criminal justice system, the central one being the arrest, wrongful conviction, imprisonment on death row, and eventual release of Walter McMillian, an African-American accused of murdering a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. Students heard a panel of experts discuss the various themes of the book, then engaged in their first college level text discussions in their 16 person, Messina course sections with their professors, Evergreen student leaders, and Messina administrative mentors. Eighty students, a record number, wrote their reactions to the book for an essay contest. Check out a sample of their insights from the three award winners:
In order to do so, however, Stevenson did not get close to the McMillian case; he got close to Walter. Despite the uncertainty surrounding Walter’s future, and the possibility of another heartbreak, Stevenson went all in. He got close, investing in every aspect of Walter’s life through countless visits and hours of getting to know the man behind the case. Now, the two men’s lives are so intertwined that it is impossible to tell either of their stories without also mentioning the other.
Getting close is not something that will ever be easy to do. It requires the added effort of understanding another’s point of view and offering compassion to console and heal others. It will never be convenient. It requires setting aside previously assigned priorities to allocate attention towards becoming knowledgeable, embracing that which one does not know. Stevenson’s account provides multiple real world examples of how we, as incoming “Ignatian Citizens” can live up to this calling.
We should not be running our justice system on the foundation of punishment but instead through the idea of rehabilitation. Education is essential and it must be used both in and out of the prison cells in order to derail hate and bigotry—evils which propagate hopelessness. For even as I write, those evils march down the streets in white robes and with swastikas, obliterating the hope for a more progressive nation with every step they take.
As Mr. Stevenson notes at the end of his book, “With more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million American with criminal records, there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.”
Join the intellectual conversation through Common Text events: including hearing Bryan Stevenson speak on Monday, March 19 at 6 pm, and check out opportunities to volunteer at the Center for Community Service and Justice.
~ Amanda M. Thomas, interim vice president for academic affairs