“Each of Us Is More Than the Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done.”

The Central Library Brown Baggers book group met virtually on February 18 to discuss Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Steveson. Our shared reading this month could not have been more timely: on Monday, February 22, Virginia officially become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. 

Just Mercy is a fast-paced informative memoir about Bryan’s intense, consequential career as he worked around the clock for the nonprofit organization he founded in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative. It is also a compilation of numerous court cases and mishandlings of justice. Chapter after chapter, Bryan throws us straight into the deep end as we meet and quickly come to know men, women, and children who find themselves in desperate need of legal help; they have been victimized by the justice system due to their race, class, mental illness, or lack of support. The book is threaded together by one lengthy and high-profile murder case. Through the dual modes of storytelling, readers become acclimated to juggling dozens of high stakes cases, persevering for years on end for the cause of a single man, and Stevenson’s own beliefs about the power of compassion and mercy. 

When considering if we “liked” the book, we acknowledged the emotional difficulty in reading such a book about brokenness. Yet phrases like “hard to read” came as swiftly as “important to read” and “learned a lot.” We pondered the pairing of sadness and depression with hope and optimism. Few found this book to be a “depressing read,” because Stevenson was so active and engaged throughout the narrative. He was not always successful in his undertakings, but he continued to move forward and never quit working. Some readers described feeling overwhelmed (in an inspired sense) by Bryan Stevenson’s absolutely tireless work and his impressive rhetoric, reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with religious and philosophical undertones. 

In discussing Just Mercy, a book that primarily dwells on the death penalty, we found it impossible to avoid confronting issues such as privatized, for-profit prison systems, mass incarceration, the lack of rehabilitation opportunities for convicts, and the disproportionate targeting and convicting of people of color. This book demanded to be felt fully and thought about. Many in our group faced personal reckonings with childhood experiences of ignorance. 

Bryan Stevenson is a unique individual: a bachelor who doesn’t plan to marry because he’s “busy doing other things” …how can we hold a candle to him? He is moving at the speed of light and actually changing the world — what can we do? Together we brainstormed options for those who want to make a difference but are also juggling family, work, and other responsibilities. 

  • Write letters and emails to government officials, agencies, and the like
  • Join committees and boards; get to know community resources and groups
  • Create initiatives within spaces you already frequent, like your book club! 
  • Education is where it all begins; never stop reading, and support educational institutions 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, March 11 at noon to discuss Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.* Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

*The Brown Baggers read Woodson’s book Brown Girl Dreaming for Same Page in March 2020, although the events were cancelled due to the pandemic. Woodson will be attending the Virginia Festival of the Book 2021, which is digital and open to all

Books Mentioned

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Just Mercy: Adapted for Young People by Bryan Stevenson


Just Mercy (2020)

13th (2016)

For Life (2020)


The Innocence Project at UVA

One comment

  1. So sorry I wasn’t able to attend the discussion. Such a wonderful book. I was glad to see the Netflix documentary “13th” was mentioned in the discussion. Learned so much from both of these sources.

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