SUBJECTS — U.S. 1945 – Present; Diversity: African-American and the Civil Rights Movement; the Law & Alabama; Civics;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Role Model; Human Rights; Justice; Surviving;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Fairness
AGE — 13+
PG-13, 2019, 2 hrs 17 minutes. Available from Amazon.com.
Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
This film tells the story of attorney Bryan Stevenson, focusing on his efforts to save two men from Alabama’s “Yellow Mama” electric chair. Walter McMillian and Herbert Richardson were condemned to die due to a toxic combination of sloppy investigations, prosecutorial misconduct, racism, and poor representation. “Based on a true story,” Just Mercy is a faithful portrayal of events as they actually occurred.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
Destin Daniel Cretton
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Just Mercy shows an African American lawyer fighting injustice in the U.S. legal system. Bryan Stevenson is a male role model. He is aided by a white woman whose sense of fairness is outraged by inequities in the cases of men on Alabama’s death row. The film illustrates serious problems with the death penalty in the U.S.: wrongful convictions and harsh sentencing sometimes tainted by racial prejudice and inequities of wealth, and occasionally exacerbated by sloppy investigation or prosecutorial misconduct. It is an excellent supplement for units on the American criminal justice system, capital punishment, and racism in modern America.
This Learning Guide also contains materials to assist teachers in discussions of race in the United States.
Watch this movie with your children. Afterwards, discuss not only the trauma suffered by Mr. McMillian and his family, but the meaning of the wrongful conviction to black people living in Southwestern Alabama. They knew McMillian was innocent and that they, too, could be wrongfully convicted and put on death row for a crime they didn’t commit. This film provides a basis for a discussion of the pros and cons of the death penalty (see Discussion Question #1).
Parents who would like to start or continue a discussion about racism can review the materials in the Thoughts About Discussions of Racism in America section. Mr. Stevenson’s statements quoted in this Guide, his four-minute appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show, and his 40-minute speech at Stanford University in 2017 provide interesting insights.
The differences between the story told by Just Mercy and what actually occurred are minor. The filmmakers moved a few events involving Mr. Stevenson into the story of his efforts for Mr. McMillian and Mr. Richardson. These include the traffic stop and the strip search.
The movie focuses on Mr. Stevenson’s efforts for two death row inmates. Each exemplifies a different problem with the application of the death penalty in the U.S.
Wrongful Convictions: The investigation and conviction of Walter McMillian demonstrates the problem of erroneous convictions in a justice system in which one out of every nine people on death row have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Mr. McMillian’s wrongful conviction was caused by a number of factors working together. These included: (1) false testimony by career criminals who were given various incentives to testify, including a reduced sentence or relief from prosecution for other crimes and reward money; (2) deficiencies in the Sheriff’s investigation of the crime; (3) the prosecution’s misconduct in failing to comply with its obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense; and (4) deficient trial preparation by Mr. McMillian’s atorneys, in that order. In addition, as is often true for black or brown defendants, racism played a role in the conviction. Mr. McMillian was targeted, in part, because he had an adulterous affair with a white woman. This was particularly disturbing to Southern racists who are incensed by the idea of sexual relations between whites and blacks. In addition, the fact that the victim was young, pretty, middle class, and white helped increase the pressure on the sheriff’s office to find a perpetrator and on the prosecution to secure a conviction.
The McMillian family hired two competent black attorneys experienced in murder trials, paying them $17,000. (Earley 185 – 190; 214 & 215) However, these lawyers made substantial mistakes at the trial. McMillian’s relatives and neighbors truthfully told the jury that at the time of the murder McMillian was at home miles away from the crime scene; his relatives were hosting a fish fry to support their church. However, as a result of the attorneys’ failure to properly prepare them to testify, these witnesses made mistakes on the stand, allowing the prosecution to impeach what would otherwise have been a winning alibi defense. (Earley 245 & 246) In addition, McMillian’s trial attorneys didn’t catch some of the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. However, the key problem suffered by the defense was the illegal failure of the prosecution to disclose to McMillian’s attorneys important exculpatory evidence in the files of the Sheriff’s office. For a description of the trial, see Earley pp. 225 – 257.
It is also important to note that Mr. McMillian’s conviction was not simply a matter of the white-controlled justice system rolling over an indigent black defendant. First, there were two African Americans on the jury that convicted McMillian. (Earley, p. 226.) Verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous. Just one of the black jurors could have hung the jury. Second, there were a number of African Americans who cooperated with the prosecution. The false testimony of Ralph Myers, a white career criminal and the primary witness against McMillian, was given crucial support by false testimony from a black man who lied to obtain preferential treatment on a burglary charge, relief from about $500 in fines, and a $5,000 reward. (Earley pp. 229 & 303 – 307) The investigative team included a black detective from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the highly regarded investigative arm of the State of Alabama. (Stevenson p. 122) Third, McMillian was represented by retained counsel of substantial experience who, despite some mistakes at the trial, mounted a spirited defense of Mr. McMillian.
Overly-Harsh Punishment: Another problem with capital punishment is its application in cases in which a long prison sentence would be more appropriate. Stevenson argued convincingly that Herbert Richardson’s punishment should have been far less draconian than death in the electric chair. Mr. Richardson had served in combat during the Vietnam war in which he experienced horrific situations in battle. He returned home with PTSD. Richardson became obsessed with a woman who rejected him. He planted a bomb on her porch with the intention of saving her from the device, thus becoming her hero, and getting back into her good graces.
Clearly, Mr. Richardson suffered from disordered thinking – and he also had very bad luck. Tragically, the woman’s 10-year-old niece, found the bomb and not knowing what it was, picked it up and shook it. She died in the ensuing explosion. Richardson was poor and his court-appointed lawyer was allocated only $1,000 for the entire defense. The lawyer did not introduce any mitigating evidence during Richardson’s trial. The jury and judge did not know of Richardson’s wartime experiences and their effect on him. He was condemned to die and ultimately was executed in Alabama’s Yellow Mama electric chair. (Stevenson, pages 74 – 91.)
Teachers should note that the argument by the character of Bryan Stevenson on the motion to dismiss the charges against Mr. McMillian is not realistic. A competent attorney will focus first on the facts of the case. Only after a full description of the circumstances would the lawyer start to talk about the general themes
For more about Mr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, click here. In addition to his legal work, Bryan Stevenson is spearheading a movement to establish memorials to victims of lynching and racial violence. See The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
A behind-the-scenes hero of Mr. Stevenson’s work is Eva Ansley, the co-founder and still Operations Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Ms. Ansley manages the operation on a day-to-day basis.
The scene in which Mr. Stevenson goes to Holman Prison for the first time and passes a gang of convicts in chains working on the prison grounds is meant to remind viewers of the chain gangs that were used in many Southern states. Most states eliminated chain gangs by 1955 but there were a few holdouts. Alabama began using them again in 1995 but within a year the practice was stopped due to a lawsuit.
Thoughts About Discussions of Racism in America – Understanding the Meaning of Black Lives Matter
This Learning Guide is being written in the early summer of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. What follows are some thoughts that might assist teachers in discussions with their classes.
Why should a person not be a racist? Some say that they are not racist in order to be fair to others — they contend that it is unfair to treat people of another race differently than people of one’s own race. While this is undoubtedly true, and it is certainly important to treat people fairly, recognizing people’s rights and, more broadly, fully including them within the circle of moral concern, is more fundamental than just being fair. The idea of not being racist in order to be fair accepts the concept that there is an US and a THEM and a difference between US and THEM, that through compliance with a moral duty, we ignore. However, recognizing our unity with other human beings is more fundamental than the fulfillment of a duty to be fair to others.
In addition, such an attitude implicitly acknowledges the “otherness” of the different race. There is danger there. The concept of “the other” has been the justification of much pain and death throughout history. The Nazis classified Jews, Slavs, the Roma, political opponents, the very religious, and the handicapped as the “other” and felt justified in killing twelve million people – roughly six million Jews and six million “others.” In the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu called the Tutsi “cockroaches” as they slaughtered men, women, and children with machetes, in the hundreds of thousands. Thus, even when coupled with a recognition of the moral obligation to be fair, the implicit acceptance that a race of human beings are “others” is problematic.
A better reason to reject the superficial classification of race, arises from an understanding of the equivalence of all races in their humanity, that is a recognition that: “WE ARE THEM” and “THEY ARE US;” that we are all equivalent in our humanity. Thus, being free of racism is a celebration of being human rather than an ethical obligation.
Unfortunately, its not quite that easy. There is a legacy of racist attitudes in society that most people absorb, to one extent or another, as they grow up. Even people who believe themselves to be free of prejudice, unconsciously absorb some of these attitudes. Getting rid of them is a process that is sometimes difficult and will take us out of our comfort zones. It is a process that takes years and can be lifelong. It has been likened to peeling an onion: you take away one layer and think you have dealt with your prejudice, only to find another aspect lurking in the next layer. You take away that layer and feel triumphant, only to discover, perhaps years later, another layer of prejudice to that you want to resolve.
Why go through this process? The reason is that when we fully realize the unity of all human beings, that “I = YOU, all of YOU,” many people will experience a step up in the level of their consciousness, an improvement in their state of being. Instinctively, most people feel good at greater connection to others and this feeling is magnified when extended to a larger group. It becomes a source of joy that when fully realized, it lasts a lifetime — it never goes away. Thus, a primary beneficiary of a person’s rejection of racism and the extension of the zone or moral concern to all people is the person him or herself.
Not only does an inclusive person who rejects racism and division have an additional source of joy in their life, but discarding racist attitudes, and recognizing that all people are within the zone of moral concern, allows us approach being the best person we can be. As we live a life of inclusion and root out the vestiges of racism we improve, perfect, and save ourselves.
Differences of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, religion or political affiliation are superficial and our common humanity is a much stronger and more important factor in any debate. There is a natural tendency in human psychology to want to have common ground with the people with whom we associate. Those ties will be strengthened by looking for deep and important similarities rather than focusing on the superficial. For example, there are nurturing people of every race. There are law-abiding people of each of these groups and lawbreakers in each of these groups. There are honest people in every group. Who would you like to be with? People of a different race who are nurturing, law-abiding, and honest or people of the same race who are not. These are some of the more profound differences, but even in less important aspects of life, race is less important than what unites us. For example, some people in each racial group love their hometown sports teams and love to attend or to watch their games. There are others who have no interest in sports. Would you rather watch a game of your favorite sport with someone who really gets into it and shares your knowledge and enthusiasm, or would you rather watch the game with someone who just doesn’t care and is bored out of his mind. If you loved the newest music craze would you want to attend a concert with a person who thought that your favorite band was just a lot of noise?
Being non-racist means that we accept all people as our brothers . . . and this naturally leads to activism, because we cannot sit idly by while our brothers are being oppressed. And this means not only that the lives of all our human brothers and sisters matter, but that it is important to emphasize that George Foreman’s life matters– that in this moment in American history — that Black Lives Matter.
And as for the police, I for one am profoundly grateful to the vast majority of policemen and women who every day put their lives on the line to protect me and my family. There are bad people about in the world and the law abiding need protection from them; we rely on the police for this. In addition, some of the police shootings of black men appear, on close and careful analysis, to have been justified or to be “suicide by cop” a problem that transcends all races and has been around for a hundred years.
However, somehow, the culture of policing has veered toward a warrior culture — or perhaps it always had aspects of that culture and as society has evolved to be less racist, that mode of policing is no longer accepted. But the killing of George Floyd clearly shows that policing in America needs reform.
A General Principle of Discussion: In any discussion of a sensitive topic, the key perspective should be the many things that unite all human beings: love of family and friends, an innate sense of justice, desire for acceptance, a desire for liberty, even a love of good food and having fun. The traits that unite us are much stronger than anything that divides us, be it race, gender, national origin, sexual preference, religious belief, or political affiliation. All of the different groups in America have made important contributions to the country. This is basic but given all the propaganda and the internet bots that focus on division, it is helpful to restate this principal.
Some Specific Thoughts:
The utter idiocy of racism is shown by the one-drop rule. Traditionally, if you had one drop of black blood in your veins — one black ancestor many years ago — you were considered black racially. The purpose of this had to have been to retain white racial purity at a time when white superiority was thought necessary to justify slavery. This false and pernicious distinction has become translated into the American society and is one of the more pernicious holdovers of slavery (on a par some would say with the electoral college and the U.S. Senate, remnants from the original design of the U.S. Constitution to protect slavery). Everyone knows “black” people whose ancestry is clearly almost entirely white, and yet society classifies them as African American. However, the better way to view people, is that they are just that, people.
TWM recommends showing the four-minute film clip of attorney Bryan Stevenson and actor Michael B. Jordan appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show. Click here for a partial transcript. TWM agrees that the U.S. should have, as Mr. Stevenson suggests, a period of truth and reconciliation about racial discrimination. Anyone who lived in the South during the time of Jim Crow laws (1870s to 1960s – 90 years), as did this author from 1950 to 1969, knows that the way that most whites treated blacks in that time was shameful. In addition, there was race-based discrimination throughout the rest of the country during that period. Moreover, elements of racism still exist in the U.S. On the whole and with some exceptions, life is easier in the U.S., to one degree or another, if you are white than it is if you are black.
Here’s a question for debate. The Federal government maintains a wonderful historical park at the site of the battle of Gettysburg, one of the great victories of the Union Army over Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s in its efforts to reunify the country, the federal government allowed states and people from the South to erect more than 20 statues to Confederate generals and Army of Northern Virginia units in the park. Should these statutes be removed or stay in the historical park?
Monuments to Confederate Generals and office holders were permitted by the federal government after the Civil War to help reunify the country after a bitter and, for the South, devastating conflict. However, they soon became symbols of racial oppression – which is what they are today. They should be destroyed or relegated to museums in exhibits showing examples of racial oppression.
Hundreds of Thousands White Union Soldiers Died in a Civil War that Became a Crusade to Abolish Slavery. When the Civil War began in 1861, most Northerners supported the war to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. At that time, most of Europe was in the hands of a resurgent aristocracy and the democratic promise of the French Revolution was in retreat. The U.S. was the world’s only major representative democracy. If the U.S. could not hold itself together the cause of democracy, not only in America but in the World, would have been set back for generations, if not discredited entirely. However, for the South, despite its states’ rights rhetoric, the war was always about slavery; the Confederates knew it and they said it. And, as the war progressed and the casualties mounted by the hundreds of thousands, the Union came to realize that the only justification for such a great sacrifice was the abolition of slavery. The Union death toll in the Civil War is now estimated to be 750,000, of which 40,000 were African-Americans, allowed to fight only towards the end of the war. More Union soldiers died in the Civil War than U.S. armed forces have died in all other wars combined. Hundreds of thousands of these men fought to end slavery.
While the paroxysm and the bloodletting of the Civil War have gone a long way to purge the country of the sin of slavery, there remains the need to deal with 90+ years of Jim Crow and the continuing discrimination against African Americans by some Americans and by some American institutions.
The class can read what Mr. Stevenson wrote about one aspect of living as an African American in the U.S.
Because I am black, I am automatically accused of seeing racism in every problem, and that is interesting to me because I spend most of my time desperately trying to find a way to see something other than race. . . I keep looking for a place where race isn’t an issue, where you can rule out race as being responsible for anything bad that happens to you and also discount for anything that is good. A place where you can live like any normal human being. The tragedy is that you spend a lot of time trying to deny things that are race-based because you would rather not believe it. I would rather believe that the investigators and the Monroeville community [who wrongfully condemned Walter McMillian] just made a mistake and if Walter McMillian were white, he would be in the same situation as he is in now—if Ronda Morrison had been black, that the same thing would have happened. I would think more highly of that community if that were true, but the bottom line is that I can’t convince myself that it is true, and it doesn’t help black folks or white folks to act like it is true if it is not. Earley pg. 394.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Make sure that students catch the fact that the scene at the end of the movie showing Anthony Ray Hinton being freed after 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit refers to the character in the movie who is in the cell to the right of Walter McMillian’s cell (facing out). The film shows him saying that he is thinking of asking Bryan Stevenson to represent him. He finally did. At a break in the filming teachers may want to tell students only that there is an interesting scene involving this character at the end of the film.
A wonderful “beyond the lesson” activity will be to have students watch, at home or in class, minutes 5 – 43 of Just Mercy: Race and the Criminal Justice System with Bryan Stevenson, Stanford University, June 27, 2017. Teachers can ask students to write an essay summarizing the problem of over-incarceration and then describing and evaluating several different solutions to that problem.
1. The fictional Herbert Richardson said, “A girl is dead because of me.” The fictional Walter McMillian responds, “That doesn’t give someone the right to kill you back.” Bryan Stevenson said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” Then again, there is part of many of us that feels that people who commit really heinous acts should be killed by the state as punishment. There are arguments both ways. Do you agree or disagree with capital punishment?
Different people will have different responses to this question. Below is a summary of the more common reasons that people give pro and con. Note that the assumptions of some of these arguments are challenged by those on the other side. Teachers may want to follow up this question with a discussion of the concept of the “social contract”, i.e, the implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits and how people sacrifice some of their right to act and individual freedom in return for state protection.
Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty
- Those who have wrongfully taken the life of another, have forfeited their own right to life.
- The punishment should fit the crime; execution is a just form of retribution, summarized as the Old Testament injunction: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
- The moral outrage of the victim’s relatives and friends, and also of the entire community of law-abiding citizens; with some notable exceptions, victims’ families generally supports capital punishment. There are, however, exceptions. Some of the relatives of the victims of the white supremacist who killed nine people on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study class at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, as an act of Christian ethics, forgave the killer. (We are not naming the killer, believing that identifying a mass murderer rewards him by playing into his desire for notoriety.)
- The death penalty has a potent deterrent effect on potentially violent offenders for whom the threat of imprisonment is not a sufficient restraint. However, this is questioned by research showing that the death penalty is less effective as a deterrent to violent behavior than the prospect of long prison terms or life imprisonment.
- With the advent of DNA testing, the risk of wrongful convictions has decreased.
- It is useful for the prosecution in plea bargains, i.e., people threatened with the death penalty will admit their guilt in return for a long sentence of life imprisonment. However, there are many problems with plea bargaining, including the fact that poor defendants with fewer resources will be more likely to enter a plea bargain than wealthy defendants with greater resources. See Learning Guide to American Violet.
- It is very costly to keep someone in prison for the remainder of their life. (On the other hand, the appeals process for capital crimes is even more expensive.)
- The modern-day death penalty is administered in a humane manner. Hanging, firing squad and electrocution have been largely replaced by lethal injection. (The response is that killing softly is still killing and still an act of extreme violence.)
Arguments Against the Death Penalty
- As emotionally satisfying as it may be to make a person who commits a particularly heinous crime pay the ultimate price, the rate of wrongful convictions is simply too high to justify imposing the final and irreversible step of execution. The argument continues that the injustice of the execution of even one wrongfully convicted person is so grave that the death penalty should never be employed. A counterargument to this is that the use of DNA evidence should greatly reduce the number of erroneous convictions. The response is that DNA evidence is not determinative in every murder investigation. So, what would be an acceptable error rate for executions? One in fifteen? One in twenty? How do you explain that to the person or to the family of the person wrongfully executed?
- The state, meaning the collective action of the people, should be an exemplar of good behavior and should not take life. By legitimizing killing, capital punishment shows a disregard for life and undercuts the idea of the sanctity of life, the very idea that it seeks to enforce.
- The death penalty is not racially neutral. More black and brown men are executed than their proportion to the population. We need to rid the legal system of all vestiges of racism, and if we cannot, we should not execute people.
- The death penalty is not “wealth neutral.” More poor people are executed than their proportion to the population. The wealth of defendants plays a role in whether they will be convicted and whether they will face the death penalty. If the death penalty cannot be administered fairly it should not be used. This is another example of the discriminatory nature of the death penalty.
- When used for non-homicide crimes, capital punishment is immoral because it is disproportionate to the harm done.
- The appeals process for death sentences is protracted, those condemned to death are often forced to endure long periods of uncertainty about their fate.
- People change over the course of their lives and many condemned criminals can become good human beings over the passage of time. For example, the judgment centers of the brains of men don’t fully mature until the age of about 26.
2. Walter McMillian was eventually freed and exonerated. Does this show that the justice system worked in his case?
A wrongful conviction is a failure of the criminal justice system. Walter McMillian was on death Row for six years; he lost almost a tenth of his life. That’s not an example of a justice system a system that works.
3. What do you take away from this story?
There is no one correct response to this question.
Questions Focusing on Race Relations Generally
4. Were the cross burnings and bombings by the Ku Klux Klan and the brutality of the people who lynched black men terrorist acts? Justify your answer.
TWM submits that these perpetrators are properly classified as terrorists. Cross burnings and bombings are criminal acts that were used to intimidate and terrorize African Americans in service of the political or social objectives of the perpetrators. The goal of preserving “the Southern heritage” is insufficient to justify these acts. To the extent that the Southern way of life depended on racism, discrimination, and the economic subjugation of black Americans, the “Southern heritage” was contrary to basic American ideals and not worth saving. Justifications of protecting racial purity or preserving white domination are likewise unethical. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “terrorist” to mean “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” In light of that definition, the KKK and the people who lynched black men were, indeed, terrorists. [Note to teachers: One of our favorite films on the KKK is Spike Lee’s hilarious BlackkKlansman.]
5. Do you agree that monuments to Confederate generals or Confederate officeholders should be taken down and replaced with memorials to the black and brown men and women who were lynched or deprived of their rights?”
[Note: Teachers may want to tell the class that the Federal government maintains a wonderful park at the site of the battle of Gettysburg, one of the great victories of the Union Army over Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The memorials at the park include a beautiful equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government allowed states and people from the South to erect are more than 20 statues to Confederates in the park. The goal of these statues was to allow the country to unite after the bitter divisions of a civil war that wreaked havoc on many parts of the South. Remember Sherman’s march to the sea. The important point is that these statues are in a historical park.]
The essential purpose of the Confederacy was to preserve slavery and statues to Confederation generals and office-holders were celebrations of that oppression. They were reminders that the white power structure in the South honored and continued that oppression. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam stated upon ordering the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from in front of the Virginia State House, “. . . it was wrong then, and it is wrong now.” TWM suggests that there may be parts of Southern heritage that are beneficial, but reverence for the Confederacy and the rebellion against the U.S. government, which in its essence was to protect slavery, is wrong. The doctrine of white supremacy was designed to justify slavery, and after the Civil War, the continued economic oppression of blacks. Monuments to Confederate heroes are wrong as a matter of fact and divisive. It is contrary to the basic American belief that people should be judged on their merits and not on the color of their skin, their country of origin, their religion, or their sexual orientation.
6. Mr. Stevenson has a project of establishing museums and putting up memorials to victims of lynchings and other racist acts. Is this a good idea?
TWM’s position is that: The museums and memorials to the victims of racist terrorism does two things: 1) it honors black Americans and victims of racism; 2) it reminds all Americans that, as a society, the country has committed grave errors in the past and that we must be on our guard not commit grave errors again; and 3) it reminds the racists that may still be among us that their views are in the minority and discouraged.
7. Should Walter have forgiven the law enforcement officials who wrongfully convicted and imprisoned him?
Often, forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven. Carrying around a tremendous burden of anger or hate is bad for anyone. People can still forgive and take steps to make sure the offender is not in a position to repeat his offenses. Nor should forgiveness stop the fight against injustice. If the offender is likely to hurt someone else our obligations to the next victim requires taking steps to prevent that. Forgiveness is a mental state of withdrawing condemnation and anger. As Bryan Stevenson stated, we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
8. Why does Walter McMillian put his hands on the top of the steering wheel of his truck when the sheriff stops him?
Walter puts his hands on the steering wheel so that the sheriff will be able to see his hands and not fear that Walter is reaching for a gun. This is a good practice for anyoe stopped by the police, white or black. Traffic stops are known to be particularly dangerous for police officers.
Role Model for a Fully Actualized Human Being – Male or Female
1. Do you think that Bryan Stevenson is a role model for young people male and female?
The argument for this proposition is that Mr. Stevenson, with his degree from Harvard Law School, could have made a lot of money as an attorney working in a big law firm. He chose instead to make much less money to seek justice for people who were wrongfully convicted or whose sentences were unjustly harsh. Finding success in his legal career, Mr. Stevenson did not stop there. His newest project is to build museums and memorials to victims of racism to contribute to what he believes is a necessary truth and reconciliation process. Our society is better off for Mr. Stevenson and the way that he has has lived his life.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
1. What happens to a society that does not embrace the concept of fairness?
Suggested Response: Fairness means protection and support for those who obey the rules and just consequences for those who break the rules. Societies without fairness breed a culture of impugnity in which the strong oppress the weak, there are great disparities between rich and poor, and the well-connected take advantage of the less-well-connected, etc. In societies with a culture of impugnity, the social order breaks down.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
The discussion questions can be modified and used as essay prompts. Additional essay prompts are:
1. Research and write a short biography of Bryan Stevenson. Use at least four independent and substantive sources.
2.Research the different arguments pro and con about whether the U.S. should retain capital punishment. State and justify your conclusion.
3. Watch minutes 5 – 43 of Just Mercy: Race and the Criminal Justice System with Bryan Stevenson, Stanford University, June 27, 2017, summarize the problems caused by over-incarceration in the U.S. and then describe and evaluate solutions to this problem.
4. Mr. Stevenson has said,
We haven’t done in this country what other countries have done which is try to engage in a reckoning, in a truth and reconciliation process. In South Africa outside of their constitutional court there are “symblems and embols” designed to make sure that no one forgets the injustice of apartheid. But in this country we haven’t talked about slavery. We haven’t talked about the native genocide. We don’t talk about lynching. We haven’t created the kind of memorialization symbols that are designed to make sure that we are truthful and honest about this history. You start talking about race and people get nervous. And that has to change and that is why I am hoping that we will have an era of truth and justice in this country. And we shouldn’t fear it because I just think there is something better waiting for us in America. [Bryan Stevenson on The Ellen Degeneres Show, June 8, 2020.]
Research the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. What type of truth and reconciliation process do you think might work in the U.S.?
5 . Many scholars believe that Germany has confronted the evil of the Holocaust by admitting its wrongdoing, teaching its children about it, establishing memorials to the victims of the Nazis, and paying reparations. They contrast it to modern-day Japan which has had trouble admitting the atrocities committed by the Empire of Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Write an essay on the lessons Americans can learn from the experiences of Germany and Japan in dealing with the history of its treatment of African Americans.
6. How do you think that our society should respond to the centuries of black slavery and the ninety years of “Jim Crow” oppression and economic deprivation suffered by African Americans? Should we just try to end racist and discriminatory practices right now and go on from here? Should there be some type of financial compensation such as outright payment or free tuition at any university or trade school? Should there be increased social services available to African American families? What about the problem of poor whites who have suffered from social, cultural, and educational deprivation for generations? Research some of the solutions suggested by others, evaluate them, and come up with your own solution.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7, and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.
Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening:
Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
BRIDGES TO READING
For high school level readers, the last five chapters of Mr. Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy are an excellent supplement to the film. The first eleven chapters deal primarily with the Walter McMillian case and the movie hews closely to what is described in the book. Chapters 12 – 16 discuss some of Mr. Stevenson’s other legal work and what happened to Mr. McMillian after he was released from death row. (The book, Just Mercy was a New York Times bestseller and one of Time magazine’s 10 Best Books of Non-Fiction in 2014.)
In addition, Pete Early’s book, Circumstantial Evidence is a great description of petty criminal life in Southwestern Alabama and the prosecution, conviction, and ultimate exoneration of Walter McMillian
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- The False Arrest of Walter McMillian Interview with Bryan Stevenson August 5, 2016;
- True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality (HBO, 2019) pool incident through minute 5 – set up to talk about race
- Remarks of Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia on his Announcement of the Removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee – June 4, 2020
- Arguments for and Against Capital Punishment: Encyclopedia Britannica Accessed 6/9/20
- Just Mercy: Race and the Criminal Justice System with Bryan Stevenson, Stanford University, June 27, 2017
- Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests By Isaac Chotiner New Yorker Magazine, June 1, 2020
- New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll by Guy Gugliotta NY Times, April 2, 2012
- Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War, National Archives, Education Resources, accessed June 24, 2020
This Guide was written by James A. Frieden and published on Jun 26, 2020.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU:
Selected Awards & Cast
Using the Movie in the Classroom
Thoughts About Discussions of Racism in America
Assignments and Projects
CCSS Anchor Standards
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
The Character of Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy — “I’m in law school cause I just want to help people. I just haven’t figured out the best way to do that yet. Honestly, this internship has been the best experience so far.”
Watch a 3-minute clip from his appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:
“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.
I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.
So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much. From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021
Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.
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