Many have been looking for something to “do” during this time in which many of our black brothers and sisters are hurting and protesting about racial injustice. One thing that you can do to start with is to read good books, as well as watch good videos. Below are a few recommendations:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This well-written and powerful book weaves in some stunning statistics about the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., while telling the heart-breaking story of Walter McMillian (and many others) from thirty years of his work.
His story began in 1983 as a 23-year old student at Harvard Law School working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). SPDC’s mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. When he finished his internship, he was committed to helping the death row prisoners he had met. He returned to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments.
His time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system. This is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
He writes that there are more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, with an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records. Other statistics about the U.S. prison system that I highlighted from the book were:
• We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
• One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.
• By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons had served in the military.
• Convincing empirical evidence that the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty.
• By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children—thirteen or fourteen years of age—were black or Latino.
• Over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness.
• Most women on death row are awaiting execution for a family crime involving an allegation of child abuse or domestic violence involving a male partner.
• The number of women sent to prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, a rate of increase 1.5 times higher than the rate for men.
• Most incarcerated women—nearly two-thirds—are in prison for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes or property crimes.
• Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”—the business interests that capitalize on prison construction—made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem.
• We are the only country in the world that imposes life imprisonment without parole sentences on children.
• Lethal injection had become the most common method for the sanctioned killing of people in virtually every death state. But questions about the painlessness and efficacy of lethal injection were emerging.
After graduating from law school, Stevenson went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. He writes about McMillian’s case, which taught him about the system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.
Stevenson tells us that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. He states that the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
The EJI opened in 1989, dedicated to providing free, quality legal services to condemned men and women on death row in Alabama. He writes of developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice. The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power.
He writes of the realization of his life being full of brokenness. He worked in a broken system of justice. His clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger.
In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. He began to understand that he didn’t do what he did because it was required or necessary or important. He did it because he was broken too.
He writes that you can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. He states that there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. He writes that when you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise.
He writes of EJI’s work – in trying to stop the death penalty, to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment, to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted, to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice, to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need, to help people who are mentally ill, to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons, to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities, to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system, to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice.
He writes that the power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.
He writes of important victories EJI has won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The number of death row prisoners in Alabama for whom EJI had won relief reached one hundred at the time of the writing of this book. He believes that much of our worst thinking about justice is steeped in the myths of racial difference that still plague us.
There is some hope, however. He shares the following statistics:
• By 2010, the number of annual executions fell to less than half the number in 1999.
• Alabama’s death-sentencing rate had also dropped from the late 1990s, but it was still the highest in the country.
• For the first time in close to forty years, the country’s prison population did not increase in 2011. In 2012, the country saw the first decline in its prison population in decades.
This book will make you angry, and yet hopeful for the work that EJI is doing. Well-written and powerful, reading this book will be well worth your time. You may find yourself asking what you can do to help.
The book was made into a film in 2019. Although not as good as the book, the film is still worth seeing. Here’s my review.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life, Freedom, and Justice by Anthony Ray Hinton
I first became aware of aware of Bryan Stevenson and the work on the Equal Justice Institute through Stevenson’s excellent book Just Mercy. Stevenson tells us that Anthony Ray Hinton was released from prison after spending nearly thirty years in solitary confinement on Alabama’s death row. Hinton is one of the longest-serving condemned prisoners facing execution in America to be proved innocent and released. Stevenson tells us that no one that he has represented has inspired him more than Hinton. Hinton tells his both heart-breaking and inspiring story in this book. It includes themes of survival, justice, perseverance, and forgiveness.
Hinton writes that he was working the night shift in a locked warehouse when the manager at a Quincy’s restaurant fifteen miles away was abducted, robbed, and shot. Hinton was mistakenly identified. The police claimed an old .38 caliber pistol owned by his mother was the weapon used. The State of Alabama claimed this gun was not only used in the Quincy’s robbery and attempted murder but also two other murders in the area where restaurant managers had been robbed at closing time, forced into coolers, and then murdered. Hinton was arrested and charged with the murders.
Hinton was extremely close to his mother and his best friend Lester. They never doubted his innocence.
The prosecutor was McGregor. He was able to consolidate the cases, relate them to a third, and put the death penalty on the table. Perhacs, Hinton’s court appointed attorney did a poor job in defending him, especially in selecting an expert ballistics witness who was blind in one eye. Hinton was sentenced to death by electrocution. Providentially, by sentencing him to death, he would be guaranteed an appeal and some representation by his attorney. If he had been sentenced to life, he would have had to hire an attorney to appeal.
He tells his story of growing up in segregated schools in Praco, Alabama, before being bussed to a white school in Birmingham. He had been happy in Praco, but experienced racism in Birmingham. He was the youngest of ten children.
Everyone who lived in Praco either worked in the coal mines or for the mining company in some way. His father had worked in the coal mines until he got hit in the head and had to go live in an institution. After that, his mother was in charge of the family. She made sure that they went to church. He eventually ended up working the coal mines for five years.
His weakness was women. He attended church with his mother, and prayed for forgiveness, but was back with the women on Monday.
He and his mother would later move to Burnwell, nearby Praco. He was the youngest child and it was expected that he would stay with his mother and help her out.
He got in some trouble with the law by stealing a car. He eventually turned himself in and served a few months in a work release program in 1883.
Hinton was indicted for the murders by a grand jury on November 8, 1985. He insisted on his innocence, asking to take a polygraph test, which concluded that he was telling the truth – that he was innocent.
But it only took the jury two hours to find him guilty, and just forty-five minutes to determine his punishment, death. His prison cell on death row at Holman Prison was only five feet wide and about seven feet long. He writes that no one can understand what freedom means until they don’t have it. He writes that he was afraid every single day on death row. He also found a way to find joy every single day. He learned that that fear and joy are both a choice.
It was during this time, that he turned his back on God for a few years. He felt that God had forsaken him, failed him and left him to die. He threw his Bible under his bed. He felt a darkness in himself that he had never felt before as he imagined how he would kill McGregor if given the chance.
Perhacs would be replaced by Santha Soneberg, then Alan Black and later by Bryan Stevenson. He writes that there are some people you meet and you know they are going to change your life forever. Meeting Bryan Stevenson was like that for Hinton.
He writes of fifty-four people who were executed during the time he was on death row, and the terrible smell that was in the air on death row afterwards.
He writes of getting the warden to approve a book club on death row. Only six men were allowed to participate at a time, but the books were shared widely and discussed with those on death row.
He came to a point that he could forgive McGregor, indicating that his sins were between him and God. He also forgave the rest who lied leading to his arrest and conviction. He forgives because that’s how his mother raised him, and because he has a God who forgives.
He would pass the time on death row in his imagination exotic locations, spend time with beautiful women and play championship sports.
Hinton writes that “Until we have a way of ensuring that innocent men are never executed—until we account for the racism in our courts, in our prisons, and in our sentencing—the death penalty should be abolished.”
Stevenson would work with Hinton for more than fifteen years, eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court. Hinton writes that Stevenson cared about him so much that it moved him in a way that was beyond words. He knew that Stevenson was doing everything he could to save his life. He writes that there is no way he can repay him.
His friend Lester visited him in prison every week that Hinton was in prison. Hinton writes that the world had changed, but Lester’s friendship always remained the same.
Today Hinton is grateful to be alive and grateful to be free. He is a voice for the men still on death row and for justice. He wants to end the death penalty.
He ends the book with a list of all who sit on death row as of March 2017. He writes that statistically, one out of every ten men on the list is innocent.
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
This was a difficult book to read, as it should be. In his “Foreword”, Lecrae writes that the author challenges us to take history seriously and account for it. He warns us that the account we are about to read is sobering and challenging. I would add to this that it is heart-breaking. I believe that it is an account that all Christians should read, especially Christian leaders. It is a well-researched survey of racism in America, what the author refers to as more than 300 years of race-based discrimination. The author tells us that this history of racism and the church shows that the story is worse than most imagine. He states that the stories in the book tell the tale of racial oppression. It is up to the reader to determine whether the weight of historical evidence proves that the American church has been complicit with racism. Although the entire history is essential to know, I focused on the author’s emphasis, the role of the church in racism.
The author focus is primarily on Protestant churches, and when he talks about the “Religious Right”, he focuses on those white evangelicals that align with the Republican party. The book focuses on prominent figures, precipitous events, and well-known turning points in American history. He writes that, historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. Even if only a small portion of Christians committed the most notorious acts of racism, many more white Christians can be described as complicit in creating and sustaining a racist society. Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past, but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today. The book is a call to abandon complicit Christianity and move toward courageous Christianity. The author tells us that it is time to practice courageous Christianity.
The book takes us through America’s history from early days of European contact with indigenous peoples and the first days of African slavery in North America to the current day. The author looks at reformed/evangelical heroes such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., evangelist Billy Graham, the “Religious Right”, “Black Lives Matter”, and President Donald Trump. He offers this sobering statement “An honest assessment of racism should acknowledge that racism never fully goes away; it just adapts to changing times and contexts.”
After providing the historical survey, the author shares practical ways to address the current state of racial injustice in America. These ways include:
• Increase awareness of the issues and people involved.
• Develop interracial relationships.
• Take down Confederate monuments.
• Learn from the Black Church.
• New seminaries.
• Freedom schools and pilgrimages.
• Make Juneteenth a national holiday.
• Participate in today’s civil rights movement.
Overall, this is an excellent book. I did think that the author was perhaps a little difficult on Billy Graham, understanding that Graham’s focus as an evangelist was to preach the gospel, rather than being a civil rights activist (not that we can’t be both). I was also a little surprised that he didn’t mention Lecrae loosening his ties with white evangelicalism in 2017, and John Piper’s response, or Propaganda’s song “Precious Puritans”. This is an important book and one I highly recommend.
Here are 20 of my favorite quotes from the book:
1. The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.
2. Race is a social construct. There is no biological basis for the superiority or inferiority of any human being based on the amount of melanin in her or his skin.
3. (Thomas) Jefferson, as with so many of his day, did not consider black people equal to white people. Few political leaders assumed the noble words of the declaration applied to the enslaved.
4. (Jonathan) Edwards and (George) Whitefield represent a supposedly moderate and widespread view of slavery. Both accepted the spiritual equality of black and white people. Both preached the message of salvation to all. Yet their concern for African slaves did not extend to advocating for physical emancipation.
5. Harsh though it may sound, the facts of history nevertheless bear out this truth: there would be no black church without racism in the white church.
6. The divide between white and black Christians in America was not generally one of doctrine. More often than not, the issue that divided Christians along racial lines related to the unequal treatment of African-descended people in white church contexts.
7. Segregation and inequality defined most of American Christianity—even in an age of great revivals.
8. Throughout the conflict (Civil War), Christians of both the Union and Confederate forces believed that God was on their side.
9. Christians in the South believed the Bible approved of slavery since the Bible never clearly condemned slavery and even provided instructions for its regulation.
10. It should give every citizen and Christian in America pause to consider how strongly ingrained the support for slavery in our country was,
11. The KKK interspersed Christianity with racism to create a nationalistic form of religion that excluded all but American-born, Protestant white men and women.
12. Many white Christians failed to unequivocally condemn lynching and other acts of racial terror. Doing so poisoned the American legal system and made Christian churches complicit in racism for generations.
13. While some Christians spoke out and denounced these lynchings (just as some Christians called for abolition), the majority stance of the American church was avoidance, turning a blind eye to the practice.
14. Compromised Christianity transcends regions. Bigotry obeys no boundaries. This is why Christians in every part of America have a moral and spiritual obligation to fight against the church’s complicity with racism.
15. Precious few Christians publicly aligned themselves with the struggle for black freedom in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who did participate faced backlash from their families, friends, and fellow Christians.
16. The responses of (Martin Luther) King and (Billy) Graham to the Civil Rights Act, and their participation or lack thereof in achieving its passage, illustrates the gulf between the approaches taken by Christian activists and Christian moderates.
17. The Christian church of the mid-twentieth century often served to reinforce racism rather than oppose it.
18. Since the 1970s, Christian complicity in racism has become more difficult to discern. It is hidden, but that does not mean it no longer exists.
19. Christians have a responsibility to, at the very least, consider how the political connections between theologically conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics.
20. Christian complicity with racism does not always require specific acts of bigotry. Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.
The Color of Compromise Video Study is a 12-part video series that compliments the book. It is available free on Amazon Prime Video.
What books or videos would you recommend?