Reflections on Just Mercy and Social Injustice

February 6, 2020 by

I just got back from watching the new film Just Mercy. It’s 11:00 p.m., but I am too unsettled to even think about going to bed. First reaction is anger. Not an epiphany on social injustice. Just anger and frustration. It’s not an overly dramatized movie. It’s real to life. And that is what makes it so utterly disturbing.

As I watched the reenactment of Herbert Richardson’s final hours and his execution, I was shaken by the inability of all present to stop what was occurring. Richardson, weeping in his cell, shaved by a guard, led to the waiting cell, waiting, led to the chair, fastened in, waiting. Bryan Stevenson, his lawyer, receiving the denial for a stay, arriving at the prison to fulfill his promise to Richardson that he would be there, sitting down and looking through the glass at Richardson in the chair. The young guard sickened by the sight of the chair, and yet strapping Richardson into it. And the others who turned on “The Old Rugged Cross,” Richardson’s requested song, those who led him down the hall, who stood by to record the imminent death of the physically healthy man sitting in front of them, the inmates banging on their cells with spoons or whatever they could find so that the clanging of metal on metal would reach Richardson in the chair and let him know he was not alone. The one who flipped the switch to activate the electrical current that killed Richardson.


Photo: Arun Sharma

Not one stopped the course of the action. Not one of them could. It was a sickening inevitability. Sure, it was a reenactment, a dramatization, but one that was true to life, or rather true to death, of what has happened hundreds of times in this country’s recent history. And will probably keep happening. Inevitable.

Unless. Stevenson didn’t allow his overwhelming feeling of inevitability to paralyze him. Rather it motivated him, goading him on to fight for the eventually successful exoneration of Walter McMillian, and more than 140 other wrongfully convicted people sitting on death row. And that generated my second reaction: how can I change this? Me, a protected white young woman who has never had to live in fear of being the target of such sickening injustice. I’m not someone who could secure a law degree from Harvard as Stevenson did. But I can’t let myself be washed along by the inevitability, because that equals complicity.

Love is hard, dirty, and real. And dangerous. Love opens you up to heartbreak, repeatedly.

Stevenson fought the injustice, but he didn’t simply sail in like “The Good Guy,” deliver justice, secure freedom, and then leave. No, he got in, he got involved. He did not deal with clients, he dealt with hurting people and their hurting families. And he made that hurting his own. That’s true love, true mercy, and true justice. Love is hard, dirty, and real. And dangerous. Love opens you up to heartbreak, repeatedly. And for Stevenson, it also nearly cost him his life, repeatedly. And yet he refused to back down in the name of justice.


Photo: Sergio Souza

When he was sitting by the river, knowing he failed to save Richardson, and fearing that he has failed McMillian too, his grief made me think of the song by one of my favorite artists, Jason Gray, called “If You Want to Love Someone”:

If you want to love someone
Search their soul for where it’s broken
Find the cracks and pour your heart in
If you want to love someone.

That’s true love, sharing the pain of another’s broken heart. So, while I can’t fight legal battles like Stevenson did, and I don’t have the musical talent that Gray does to advocate for hardcore, hard-won love, I do have the ability to live that true love and hurt with the people who are hurting at the hands of social injustice, like my friend who has been on death row in Pennsylvania longer than he has been out of prison, like my coworker at my after-school workplace in Pittsburgh, who has never known a man who loves her but has only been abused and taken advantage of and now lives in fear of letting anyone near her heart again. I will never know what either of them has endured and suffered, but I can pour my heart into the cracks they open up to me in their pain. It’s going to hurt, but I believe what Gray sings in “Love Will Have the Final Word”:

Sorrow may close the chapter,
But the story will end with laughter…
Love will always have the final word.

About the author


Sheyann McPherson

Sheyann McPherson studies History and English Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, and lives at Pittsburgh House.

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