By Sarrah Peters, News Editor
Yesterday, Sept. 1, author Bryan Stevenson addressed the crowd of college students, high school students, Gadsden Public Library officials, community leaders and more at Gadsden State Community College’s Wallace Hall as part of the Gadsden Reads program.
Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption was chosen as the focus of Gadsden Reads. Gadsden reads is a literary movement allowing the Gadsden community as a whole to read the same book and participate in events and discussions on the book’s topic.
Just Mercy is a nonfiction piece that details the case of Walter McMillian, who was unjustly sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson uses the narrative to demonstrate the flaws that exist in the criminal justice system and death penalty. The injustice that McMillian faces makes readers think about what mercy means to them. The experience led Stevenson to create the Equal Justice Initiative.
Gadsden Public Library Director Amanda Jackson introduced Stevenson.
“Choosing a book for a community-wide reading event is a daunting task,” said Jackson. “Will people particpate? Will it impact our lives in meaningful ways? Will the program matter after all the events are done?”
“The moment I finished Just Mercy, I realized that Gadsden Reads had found the book,” she said. “The book that would open our eyes, break our hearts and change our community in ways that we could not even yet begin to fathom.”
Stevenson said that he wanted to spend this time talking about how he thinks we need to “change the world, create a better society, a better Gadsden, a better Etowah County, a better Alabama, a better America.” He said that he believes that it is possible.
“We do need to change the world,” said Stevenson. “We have some problems we need to address.”
He went on to state some facts about incarceration rates.
The number of people in prisons and jails in America has increased from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Seventy million Americans have faced criminal arrests, making it difficult to get loans and jobs.
There has been a 646 percent increase in women imprisoned. Seventy percent of women imprisoned are single parents, disrupting the lives of the children in the families.
He went on to say that poor and minority communities have disproportionally been targeted by these problems.
The consequeces are severe. Today in Alabama nearly 30 percent of black males have permanently lost the right to vote as a result of a criminal conviction.
“I really want to talk about what I think we have to do to if we want to change the world,” said Stevenson. “There are four things that I want to share with you.”
The first thing Stevenson listed is getting closer to the part of the community that is suffering.
“I don’t think we can actually change the world from a distance,” he said.
Stevenson shared an experience from his own life to illustrate this point. He talked about being dissatisfied with graduate school, in both law and public policy. He ended up taking a course that required him to intern with a human rights organization that defended people on death row. One of his first assignments was to meet with a death row inmate to explain he wasn’t at risk of execution within the next year. Young and nervous, he apologized before delivering his message.The man asked him to repeat it a couple times and thanked him profusely. He hadn’t let his family come visit out of fear that he would have an execution date. Now, they could visit.
“I couldn’t believe how even in my ignorance being proximate could have an impact on the quality of someone’s life,” said Stevenson.
The same age, they talked for three hours. The guards came in to roughly remove the man. Stevenson told the guards it was his fault it took so long, with no effect. As the man was removed he calmly told Stevenson not to worry and just return to visit, before breaking into the hymn “Higher Ground.” The experience changed Stevenson’s life, setting him on the course to defend those on death row.
“If we get proximate to the things we care about, the issues we care about, we can change the world,” he said.
The second thing required to change the world is to “change the narratives that sustain the problems that we care about.”
Stevenson went on to discuss how policies based on narratives based on fear and anger have worsened the incarceration issue. He explained that the “War on Drugs” that began in the 1970s used narratives to turn drug addiction into a crime, while alcoholism was viewed as a health issue.
A new policy has allowed younger and younger children to be tried as adults, with the narrative that some children aren’t mentally children.
Stevenson said that people use narratives of fear and anger to justify extreme behavior in instances of oppresion. To change the world, we must change the narrative.
Stevenson said that changing the narrative requires talking about difficult things, like race, and things we don’t talk about, like the Native American genocide and slavery. He encourages communities to “deal honestly with history,” like other countries do with the tragedies that happen there. He warned against romanticizing the past.
The third thing Stevenson advised was to stay hopeful.
He warned the crowd, and the college students particularly, that there will be things that will make them feel hopeless. It is important not to give in, or you will not feel as if you can make a difference.
“Hope is what will get you to do things that can’t be done,” said Stevenson.
The last thing Stevenson said that was necessary to change the world is a willingness to do things that are uncomfortable.
He said that is hard because humans like comfort. He shared the unfortunate tale of a case he lost as an example, explaining how it made him question why he does what he does.
Stevenson’s lecture was concluded with a standing ovation.
Jackson somberly closed the program, thanking everyone for coming and being a part of the community.
“I look forward to tomorrow, and the day after, and the week after, and the year after, and what we can do together,” said Jackson.
The Gadsden Public Library kicked off the Gadsden Reads program on August 1. As part of the program, the library has held a book discussion, a historical lecture on the 1906 lynching of Bunk Richardson and a panel on the displacement homes and businesses of the 6th Street community for redevelopment.
Additional Gadsden Reads programs will be held throughout September and the beginning of October.On Sept. 8 at 12:30 p.m., Alabama Senator Hank Sanders, author of Death of a Fat Man, will speak at Gadsden City High School Auditorium. On Sept. 15 at 12 p.m., a panel will be held at the Meadows Learning Resource Center to discuss mental health and the justice system. On Sept, 22 at 12 p.m., a book discussion will be held at the Gadsden Public Library. On Oct. 3, at 10 a.m., civil rights author Tim Wise will speak at Gadsden City High School Auditorium.