I happened to look up at that moment, in order to let my thought settle, and, like on other flights, I let my eyes skim the tray tables in front of me...to see what people might be viewing on their devices or via the seatback screens.
You know this already because you follow pop culture and media more than I do, but yes, I saw a preview for Just Mercy on someone’s screen. I was instantly hooked. Yes! It’s been adapted! Yes! I have a new reason to go to the theater!
I wasn’t able to finish the book in time to see the movie over Christmas vacation. It’s a dense, troubling read. It demands patience, just as the cases Mr. Stevenson faces demand infinite patience and fortitude. But over President’s Day weekend, my husband and I snuck away to a little town in Maine for a couple of nights, and we saw it in the theater then. Not exactly a romantic choice, but wow, I was impressed with how they focused the main storyline to stand out on screen.
“Some of that was exaggerated, right?” my husband asked me, having not yet read the book.
“No,” I shook my head. “They softened it. The book showed things are so much worse than the movie makes them out to be.”
And yet, the movie was still too much to swallow. When I told one white person what we went to see, she shrunk back from wanting to discuss it. My sister shared that when she saw it in Boston, she and her friend were the only two white people in a packed audience of African-Americans.
We both wondered whether the movie would reach a broader audience than the book, the way I had hoped. Or was this another case where people shrink back from hard things?
When I finished the book, I felt inadequate to respond in any meaningful way. I am not a lawyer. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to the cause (although the Equal Justice Initiative’s website has a donate button where you can very easily give). I mean, who am I to help change how children and others are falsely accused and wrongly sentenced?
Then my son got pulled off the bus.
“Okay, what happened?” The vice principal grilled two kindergarteners and my first-grader. While their school bus was still parked in front of the school at the end of the school day recently, their bus driver noticed that someone had removed some tape from a seatback, tape that had probably been holding the seat together. “Who pulled the tape off the seat?”
“I don’t know,” my son responded, “[Sam] got on the bus after me, and I didn’t do it. So it must have been [Mike].”
“Sam” and my son were dismissed to reboard the bus for the ride home. “Mike” was given a talking to.
Only, “Mike” said he didn’t do it either. His mother texted me, saying he was in tears over the incident.
Now, when the bus reached me that afternoon, all four of my children bounded down the steps with versions of what had happened, and the whole short scene took about an hour to piece together. I still have no idea who removed the tape from the seatback, but I also knew this: my son falsely accused someone else.
“Did you see [Mike] remove the tape?” I asked him.
“No,” he admitted.
So we had a little chat.
I know the truth is out there. Did someone rip the tape off and then run and hide in the back of the bus? Did the tape fall off on its own because of the humidity or because it was old and losing its grip?
I wanted to believe my son that he had nothing to do with it. I needed to know he would tell me the truth.
And I needed him to understand that searching for the truth doesn’t mean finding someone to blame.
It was a small step, but I felt in that moment like I’d learned something from Bryan Stevenson. My son apologized to “Mike”, and we went about our afternoon.
Some of you might remember I’m attempting (along with a friend) to read through the Bible this year. Well, when I got to Leviticus recently, I was struck by this verse:
“If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.” (Leviticus 5:1)
I wondered if there was a parallel between this verse and our current call to stand up to injustice, to prevent false accusations and “give people their truth back.” (Quote from movie adaptation of Just Mercy)
Most of us aren’t lawyers. But I know we all can be teachers. Only God knows how we will be used to give people their truth back. From where we sit, we can only keep our eyes open for the chance to do that.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.