BLACK MAN SENTENCED TO DEATH ROW. Now read that sentence again, but read it slowly. That one sentence may fly right above some heads, and it might resonate questions within others. The point is, few really ask why. Why are these men sentenced to death row? Are they truly guilty for their crimes? In a town like Montgomery, Alabama, little to no evidence needs to be found for a black man to be sentenced to Death Row. During the 1980s, a man by the name of Walter McMillan was wrongly convicted and sentenced to Death Row for the murder of a white, 18 year old girl. There are some who feel the need to change this corrupt system. “The first time I visited Death Row,I wasn’t expecting to meet someone the same age as me…from a neighborhood just like ours coulda been me”(Just Mercy, 2019). As portrayed in the film based upon this case “Just Mercy,” a recent Harvard Graduate by the name of Bryan Stevenson makes it his goal to reverse the decision, prove Walter’s innocence.Through his work, the film spotlights the internal (or rather, institutional, structural, or systematic) racism that is going on within Montogomery, Alabama.
A young man, in his senior year of college was just trying to find an interesting internship to fulfill his graduation requirements. Bryan Stevenson dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Being from Virginia, he didn’t feel that Alabama would feel much different from home, it was just the summer. As Bryan took on a new job, filling in as a public defender for men who were on death row, all of them being black, he met Walter. Walter was known as being a hard working, loving, family man. The people in his part of town (rural,lower income) knew him as a righteous man. Yet, there was a rumor that Walter had a white mistress in the town, so the people of Montgomery found any way to return the pain. Once he faced an all white trial, he was convicted with a statement from a white man, who was also facing death row. This shows how corrupt the legal system was during this time. This all white part of town, with an all white jury, a white judge, white officers, and a statement from another white man was all it took to sentence a black man to death. This reminds me of the early stages of slavery. Each region of North America at the time had their own set of rules or “slave codes.” These were codes that the white men would live by, showing little to no rights for black slaves at the time. In our course text, it states that “Any slave who shall be guilty of homicide . . . any slave who shall raise an insurrection on his province . . . any slave who is out of his plantation without a white man . . . shall suffer death”(Freedom On My Mind, 82). This just shows that from the beginning, all it takes in the legal system is the word of a white man and he automatically has complete power over a black man. Dating back to as early as 1740, black men lived in this society where they were powerless. They were pawns for white men, who could pick them up and play with them anyway, as long as it led to their advantage.
In today’s society, the justice system is just another form of enslavement. In this corrupt system, prisoners are mostly being black and brown. The film, Just mercy is highlighting how different colored people are treated within this system. Michelle Alexander wrote that, “The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the sudden and mass incarceration of African Americans do not match with the crime rates from the last 30 years.”(War on Drugs/New Jim Crow) What is crazy about this statement, is that I did not find this shocking. Any common person would be able to tell that African Americans are more likely to be accused and arrested for crimes than most races.
In the movie, Bryan spotlights this racism within Montgomery and his entire life plans change. “I came out of law school with grand ideas in my mind about how to change the world . . .Hope allows us to push for word, even when the truth is distorted by the people in power. It allows us to stand when they tell us to sit down, and to speak when they say be quiet”(Just Mercy, 2019). As Bryan overcomes this case, eventually setting Walter McMillan free, it proves that black people refuse to be held down by the injustices of white suppressors. This isn’t the only case that shows that some black men are wrongfully exonerated. A few years ago, in 2014, a man by the name of Glenn Ford finally got the charges dropped after serving 30 years in Death Row. His case is similar, as he is found for the murder of a white woman with a white jury, judge, etc.
“Just Mercy” was not created to automatically flip the legal system, yet it was made for people to realize that this is built into our society. It takes the people of the society to acknowledge that the foundation that we have lived on for so long is corrupt. African American History is the whole, as just Mercy fits within, showing just one case that spotlights the institutional racism and oppression of African Americans in North America. In order for this society to change, the truth must be faced. All of the truth, from all perspectives. Bryan Stevenson states, “Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice; that the character of our nation isn’t reflected on how we treat the rich and the privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored, and condemned”(Just Mercy, 2019). This film summarizes the basis of this class, to put out the perspectives of the poor, disfavored, and condemned.
Alexander, Michelle. “The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow.” Race, Poverty & the Environment, vol. 17, no. 1, 2010, pp. 75–77. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41554723. Accessed 11 May 2020
White, Deborah G., Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2017. Print.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption. 2019. FIlm.