Just Mercy shares shocking similarities to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in that both are based in the town of Monroeville, Alabama and show a black man wrongfully convicted of a violent crime by an angry white community. However, the Mockingbird Trial took place in the 1930s and Walter McMillian’s case happened in the 1980s. The original trial shocked the Monroeville community after Atticus was able to prove Tom Robinson’s innocence and he was still convicted as guilty and sent to jail. While in jail awaiting execution for his wrongful conviction the guards shot him 17 times in the back stating he attempted to escape.

Nearly 50 years later an almost identical case transpires where Walter McMillian is wrongfully convicted of murder and is waiting on death row for his date. What has changed in those 50 years follows in the wake of To Kill a Mockingbird, there are people who testify against previous false testimonies, there is a DA who eventually agrees all charges need to be dropped, and there is a new generation who sees men like Walter as a person. Progress is slow and takes generations to grow into full blow change, but Walters story shows that very change taking place. The community of Monroeville remember how horrid it was that a man was wrongfully convicted and want things right. There is a young guard in the prison who sees Walter as a human and lets him have pictures of his family when he is in solitary confinement. There’s a young new District Attorney who struggles to protect himself from the “old guard” police force and serve justice to a man he knows was wrongfully convicted of murder. There’s a community of family and friends who 50 years ago would have been lynched if they testified coming out still in fear to testify against this unjust case. All of these are the ripples of change that the original Mockingbird case set forth for this small town and for the nation as a whole.

There is a new generation of lawyers, guards, family, and friends who grew up on the equality and justice Atticus Finch tried to grant to Tom Robinson, and not the hate and prejudice that leads to his death. These few are the ones who worked their way into the corrupt Monroeville justice system and are helping make sure it doesn’t repeat itself again and again. These points play off my earlier post about how the coming of age story is imparted onto us as we read To Kill a Mockingbird early on in middle and high-school. The work this book did, the seed it planted, is growing and has grown with everyone who knows of it. Much like Scout, the people in this movie are new to a case like this but not completely foreign to it – and they know from one very smart girl and her brave father just how to handle it.

Justice Served Vs Justice Due

While watching Just Mercy, I found issue with the continuous defense of historical justice in contrast to the justice that was actually due. This movie takes place in the same town of Monroeville, Alabama that the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on. In this true story by Bryan Stevenson, this same town that had the unlawful case against Tom Robinson had, not 50 years later, an almost identical case made against Walter McMillian. The issue of justice served and justice due comes when the District Attorney in this movie, Tommy Chapman, states that he knows that Walter is guilty because he was convicted by a jury. The defense of this “justice” is what sets both Tom and Walter into the same boat. They are both going to be convicted just because the jury believes they did it. There is no need for evidence, proof, or legit testimony. All that is needed is a jury that believes they have the right man.

Justice due is what should have happened. It is a battle in a courtroom where things are fair– where the convicted are not “guilty from the moment you born” as Walter McMillian puts it. Justice due would be a town learning from their racist past and not allowing it to repeat again. In this movie it can almost seem like the town feels like they have already found justice and dont need to go looking for more. They have already had their landmark case where the community was wrong and a man was wrongfully convicted, and rather than admit their relapse and reopen the case they defend the justice already served. Yet, there was  no such thing as justice when there had yet to have been a man released from death row in the state of Alabama, when one in nine death row cases have been proven innocent and released, and when the word of one white felon outweighed the voices of two dozen law-abiding black witnesses. Justice was not served by the first jury that convicted Walter and a retrial is the only way any justice can be given.

Human life is one of the most valuable things known to us. So why then is our justice system so ready to sentence someone to death rather than defend against a retrial? Even the slimmest chance that someone can be saved from wrongful execution is more valuable than any social, historical, or legal reasoning in opposition of a retrial.

This Coming of Age Imparted Onto Us

No matter how we read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird the story always at its core is a coming of age story for Scout and Jem. This trial was a grueling development in the children’s life and as such has shaped them by the end. Scout’s development is what interests me most as it revolves around her self discovery in a sense. She discovers who she is in the scale of race, class, and even as a woman. This trial has taught Scout of the distinctions and separations in all of these areas. She finally can see she is not only a white person, but a comparatively wealthy, white, female. This comes as a fulfilling ending to the novel as we have seen it grow through her actions with Boo and the gifts he brings, the contrast she finds between herself and Mayella, and the distinction between her family and that of the Ewells. All of these are major points that guide Scout into realizing who she is in this world.

I find it to be no coincidence that this novel has become a common middle and high school required reading. I can remember vividly reading this in my 7th grade ENGL classes! What this books does well is impart this coming of age onto us the reader. Reading this novel was a defining event for me and many others as we grew up. The awkward silences when vulgarities were used, the sideways glances between students when hearing of Dill’s tragic family life, or the shadow that engulfs a middle school classroom hearing that Tom Robinson was shot 17 times in his back…

These are emotional events that Scout had to face and we, the reader, must face with her. This novel forces young readers to grow with it as they read it. It allows readers to follow Scout’s path and come to the conclusion of who they are. It can highlight the class, race, and gender privilege at an early age and allow us to begin understanding these concepts so that we can know ourselves. Once we know ourselves we can begin growing and fixing our prejudices, using our privilege for fairness and equality, and reconciling our innocent past with the gritty future after what we learn from reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Graves of a Household

One group of victims shown in the Long Night’s Journey into Day film are a group of mothers who all have shared in the pain of losing their child to violence of South Africa’s police. Not only was the story of these mothers heart wrenching in its own right but in the larger context of the sheer number of similar stories all taking place around the same time is unfathomable and deeply distressing. The day-in-day-out, for lack of a better term, hell of life takes it toll. There is one thing that these mothers have though; the truth. Above all else they were able to get the truth and know that their boys were not really the “terrorists” the media portrayed them as. This reminded me of the importance of the truth – no matter how bitter, hard to swallow, or fresh the wound is the the truth set these mothers on a path to freedom. Immediately following their reaction to the videotape of their children one mother was seen being much chipper and happier. When asked if she was feeling okay she replied “[o]h, yes, very much better, because now I know so much more.” In this instance knowing more does help even if it is of this traumatic magnitude.

Hearing the stories of these mothers reminded me of a Romanticism poet by the name of Felicia Hemans. Hemans’ poem “The Graves of a Household” speaks volumes to the inverse scenario that these mothers could have faced had they never known the truth. A life of misery and want and wait for the children they raised to come home — never to know where or if they are alive. These five stanzas stand to highlight what I am writing about:

The same fond mother bent at night
O’er each fair sleeping brow;
She had each folded flower in sight,–
Where are those dreamers now?

One, midst the forests of the west,
By a dark stream is laid,–
The Indian knows his place of rest,
Far in the cedar shade.

The sea, the blue lone sea, hath one,
He lies where pearls lie deep;
He was the lov’d of all, yet none
O’er his low bed may weep.

One sleeps where southern vines are drest
Above the noble slain:
He wrapt his colours round his breast,
On a blood-red field of Spain.

And one–o’er her the myrtle showers
Its leaves, by soft winds fann’d;
She faded midst Italian flowers,–
The last of that bright band.

The truth these mother found was sharp, jagged, and painful. But it was a truth that most others do not ever have the opportunity to find. The TRC helped bring this truth to light, to set the record straight on who these mothers children were, and to bring the mothers some closure. It is not a good outcome, there cannot be a good outcome to something as violent and brutal as Apartheid. But it was a better outcome for these mothers than the mother in Hemans’ poem — a life of wanting, waiting, and wondering that never frees the mind.

Presentation Versus Representation

In hindsight, the historical context from which I analyzed the US Declaration of Independence is quite lacking in comparison to the literary perspective. The most prominent thing that I kept coming back to was the emptiness of the wording used. Phrases such as “one people,” all men are created equal,” and “powers from the consent of the governed.” I see all of these as merely a presentation; they do not truly represent the “one people” of the US. These were written down to provide a sense of unification, equality, and shared power — in reality they are far from that. This entire document is put on as a sort of act to show power in writing rather than in action. While this document was written and published no actions were made to ensure what was said was enforced. This declaration presents representation where there is none to be found.

Going back to the second phrase I quoted, “all men are created equal,” there enslaved West Africans who would have disagreed. Calling upon the erasure poem “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith, there is a line from this poem that reads “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. –taked Captive — on the high Seas — to bear–” (Smith). The irony being that this is the exact words of the Declaration the founding fathers wrote. Yet they could not see that they too were the same as they they enslaved. In my opinion, it was an insult to write such a phrase as “all men are created equal” as a presentation to the world how just the US is, while in reality, when it comes time to represent what they wrote, such justice is merely spilled ink.

Smith, Tracy K. “Declaration.” Poetry Foundation, Graywolf Press, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147468/declaration-5b5a286052461.