Just Mercy (OBOC 2021-2022)

Explanatory Notes

Laura McBride’s lesson ideas for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

One of my basic principles is to make my courses as rich as they can possibly be. I want every lesson to include music and history and poetry and every other form of human endeavor that I can sandwich in. I want my lessons to be like poems, dense and filled with images, operating at both a logical and an intuitive level. I want my students to feel things.


I organize my course by weekly themes: from non-human consciousness to happiness to baseball. For these lessons, I have chosen three excerpts from Just Mercy, attached each one to a theme, and then provided theme-related suggestions for supporting materials one might use.


I use small and large groups, and move students around often. Students read before they come to class, and bring a reading response to share. If different students have been assigned different reading materials, the first small group session will be to share that information. I also prepare thematic questions, which we might discuss as a whole or in groups. My students follow up a discussion class by writing an academic essay on the subject, so another small group session might give students a chance to brainstorm different ways to approach the academic essay prompt. Musical selections and poems are played aloud, with an accompanying video if I can find an appropriate one.


There is always more material than we can cover, and I just let it be that way. Sometimes we speed through a lot, sometimes we stop and spend all of our time in one place. My goal is not content. I am teaching writing. And I want their brains to fire on many levels.


The books listed are available through the CSN library. Or contact me, and I will share.


One Book, One College 2021/22

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer who has spent more than three decades working with death row inmates and juveniles serving time in adult prison. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice “dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need.”


Just Mercy is organized around the story of Walter McMillian, who was condemned to die by the State of Alabama in 1986. He spent six years on death row before the Equal Justice Initiative was able to prove his innocence. Stevenson intersperses the developments in McMillian’s case with short narratives of other clients.


The materials below are designed to work with three of these short narratives. The movie version of Just Mercy, which is available through the CSN library and will likely be shown on all three campuses, focuses on McMillian’s story.

Weekly Theme One: SUFFERING

Just Mercy excerpt (pp. 151-154): Ian’s story


Ian was tried as an adult and convicted of attempted murder when he was 14 years old. Initially placed in solitary confinement to protect him from older inmates, he ultimately spent eighteen years there.

Suggested ancillary materials:


Excerpt from All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein (chapters 11, 12)

Gerda Weissmann Klein (1924-) is a Polish American writer and human rights activist. She is a Holocaust survivor whose memoir All But My Life was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her testimony is part of the permanent exhibit of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Klein spent nearly two years in a German concentration camp as a teenager, and was one of just 120 young women (out of 4,000) who survived a four-month death march as the war ended. These chapters tell her story of that march.


Excerpt from What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché (pp.88-93)

Carolyn Forché (1950-) is an American poet and human rights activist. Her memoir What You Have Heard Is True was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. In this short passage, she describes two days she spent with a rural doctor in El Salvador. Forché was young, naive, and only moderately competent in Spanish. I selected this reading for the detailed way that she describes the suffering the doctor has seen, and the way Forché contrasts this experience with time she had spent in American clinics.


Excerpt from Wade In the Water by Arthur C. Jones (pp 1-2, 18-19, 29-30)

In these short excerpts from Wade in the Water, Arthur C. Jones discusses the significance of the spirituals "Motherless Child" and "Were You There." Jones points out that the spirituals were born from the intense suffering experienced by American slaves. Jones is an emeritus professor of clinical psychology at the University of Denver and the founder of the Spirituals Project, dedicated to the revitalization of songs sung by African Americans in slavery.


Here are two renditions of each of these spirituals, sung by four different American musicians.

Marion Williams (1927-1994) was an American gospel singer and a member of the Ward Singers. She was honored by the Kennedy Center and as a MacArthur Foundation "Genius." Here she is singing "Were You There?"

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), the "Queen of Gospel," was an American singer active in the Civil Rights movement. She sings "Were You There?"

O.V. Wright (1939-1980) was an American Blues and Soul singer. Here he sings "Motherless Child"

Prince (1958-2016), an American singer, songwriter, record producer, dancer, and guitar virtuoso, singing his version of "Motherless Child"


Suggested discussion questions:

1. Is there value in suffering? Would you choose deep suffering yourself, in order to experience that value?

2. Is warfare justified? When? Who should decide that a war may be waged?

3. Do people have a responsibility to the poor and the sick? What are the limits to this responsibility?


Suggested academic essay prompt:

Is there any value in suffering? If so, does that make suffering good? If there is no value in suffering, why is it such a large part of our human experience?

Weekly Theme Two: JUSTICE

Just Mercy excerpt (pp. 74-91): J.M. Herbert’s story


JM Herbert was a Vietnam veteran who accidentally killed a child when he made a bomb to try and impress a former girlfriend. He was sentenced to death and executed. Stevenson became his lawyer near the end of his life.


Suggested ancillary materials:


"My First Theology Lesson" by Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch (1950-) is an American poet. In this poem, a child (the poet) listens as his grandfather and other older Jewish men discuss the Holocaust, concluding that God must have withdrawn from the world because not a single worthy human could be found.

This is a simple poem that addresses very difficult questions. It wrestles with the problem of how to understand a world with such intense suffering, much of it created by the deliberate actions of human beings. My First Theology Lesson


"San Lorenzo" (19 July 1943) sung by Francesco de Gregoria

This is a song/video about the Allied bombing of Rome on July 19, 1943. The neighborhood known as San Lorenzo was largely destroyed and 1,500 people died. The song ends with the words "Today mercy is dead but one fine day it will be reborn, and then someone will do something: maybe he will marry." I love that unexpected "maybe he will marry." Shakespeare's comedies often end with a wedding because it is a ritual filled with hope for the future.

Francesco de Gregori (1951-) is an Italian singer-songwriter.


An interview with Ben Ferencz, Nuremburg prosecutor

Ben Ferencz (1920-) is an American lawyer who was the chief prosecutor for the US at one of the 12 trials held at Nuremberg. At 27 years old, Ferencz successfully prosecuted an elite group of Nazi officers who had killed more than a million Jewish civilians in their own villages. He turned 100 years old on March 11, 2020, so CBS re-aired this interview with him at age 97.

Ferencz was born in Romania and came to the US as a young child. His immigrant parents were poor and they spoke Yiddish. He is petite, less than five feet tall. Despite the horrors that he witnessed as a soldier during and after World War II, and a lifetime dedicated to creating an international system for addressing crimes against humanity, he is hopeful. He says "The world is changing. We're on a roll. We're moving forward."

When I listen to this video, I think about all the things that might have kept Ferencz from being powerful: he was poor, he was an immigrant, he did not speak English with his parents, he was small, he was Jewish, he experienced deep trauma. But look who he turned out to be. 

Ben Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, turns 100


Suggested discussion questions:


1. Have you or your family experienced injustice?

2. What is the purpose of punishment?

3. Stevenson begins his book with a quotation from Reinhold Neibuhr. “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” What does this mean to you? Is love a part of justice?


Suggested academic essay prompt:


Make an argument for or against Stevenson's claim that our criminal justice system treats people better "if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent."


Just Mercy excerpt (pp. 115-126): Charlie’s story


When Charlie was 13, he shot and killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend, after discovering her unconscious body. He was sent to jail to await trial, where he was repeatedly raped by inmates. After he served his prison term, he was adopted by an older couple who had heard his story.

Suggested ancillary materials:


"A Third Way" by Desmond Tutu

In this essay, Desmond Tutu (1931-) – recipient of a Nobel Peace prize, Anglican bishop, and human rights advocate – explains why South Africans sought restorative justice (the "third way") in the wake of a half-century of Apartheid rule.

South Africa was formed after World War 2, and its constitution created a legal system in which White people had greater civil, political, economic, and educational rights than Black people did. Though Whites were only ten percent of the population, they legally controlled the courts, the schools, the businesses, and the government. This constitutional system was called Apartheid.

In 1990, South Africa avoided civil war after decades of brutal struggle when the White president FW de Klerk declared an end to Apartheid and agreed to share power with Black leader Nelson Mandela, who was then elected president in 1994. The story of South Africa is complex but this reading describes the extraordinary way the new government addressed the crimes that had been committed against the Black population.

It was not possible to bring the perpetrators of those crimes to justice and it was inconceivable to expect people simply to forget what had been done to them. So, drawing on the tribal values of Ubuntu, Archbishop Tutu created a public forum in which those who had been harmed could tell their stories, and those who were accused could say they were sorry. It was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"What is Restorative Justice?"

The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation is an international organization founded in 1996 that is active in 135 countries. Here is their description of restorative justice based on its core values: INTRODUCTION TO RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

And here is their description of what restorative justice is: What Is Restorative Justice?


Excerpts from Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered (pp. 7-9, 20-31)

Danielle Sered is the founding director of Common Justice, a non-profit organization committed to addressing violent crime without relying on mass incarceration. Many people accept the concept of restorative justice for non-violent or "victimless" crimes, but accept incarceration for violent crime. In the book Until We Reckon, Sered claims that we need to look at crime and punishment in a radically different way.

In the first excerpt, Sered argues that mass incarceration does not make Americans safer.

In the second, she argues that the needs of victims should be at the center of the criminal justice system.



"Apology Line" from This American Life

In 1981, a New York artist named Allan Bridge created a telephone answering service for people who wanted to apologize. He believed that the act of apologizing helped people who had done something wrong move forward. The line ran for 14 years, until Bridge died in 1995, and is considered one of the world's first interactive communities - well before the Internet made such communities common.

Here is a radio clip from a This American Life segment about the "Apology Line." It's worth straining to hear these voices. This American Life - "The Apology Project"

"Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke (1931-1964) was an American songwriter, singer, and civil rights activist. His music paved the way for other singers such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. Here is "A Change is Gonna Come," set to images from various 20th century protest movements. Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come (Official Lyric Video)


Suggested discussion questions:


1. If the harm is permanent and irredeemable, is an apology sufficient?

2. If you had to choose , would you prioritize self-reliance or community more?


Suggested academic essay prompt:


Do you think it would be good for Americans to adopt more principles of restorative justice in our criminal justice system? If not, why do you think a punishment-oriented system is better?