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We had 19 ladies at the Ladies Book Club on Thursday, August 1st, to discuss Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. We greeted folks we hadn't seen in awhile and some stopped by the book table to see if there were any books that interested them, or to drop off some books they'd finished reading. Peg Tabor started the meeting and shared some news. She was asked to be a guest speaker at the Cat Crazy club next week at the Odell Recreation Center because of the book she wrote, Dori's Story, about the cat that lives at All Booked Up, the book store where Peg used to work. How exciting! She also said that one of our guest speakers in December, Mark Newhouse, was featured in the Village Neighbors magazine. He is an award-winning author of children's books, but he's also the son of a Holocaust survivors and he wrote The Devil's Bookkeepers: Book 1: The Noose, based on true events as told by family members and events described in the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto (Yale University Press, 1984). He has a sequel coming out the middle of this month, The Devil's Bookkeepers: Book 2: The Noose Tightens.
Peg will be putting out the ballot with books suggested for next year's reading soon, so email your suggestions to her (click on link for email address) ASAP. Some books have already been suggested, so she's already working on it. Turning to our Christmas plans, since we were worried about the cost of lunch at Nancy Lopez, she got more information. Lunch will be about $20 and in October she should know the three things we can choose from, and since we four authors speaking and have so far to go, she has moved the time to 12:30 p.m. She also reviewed the four guest authors who will be with us in December (see Books We'll Be Reading in 2019).
Some movies from books we've read are coming. She loved The Art of Racing in the Rain and can't wait to see the movie, opening locally in a week. We didn't discuss The Goldfinch, but many of us read it. It's due out in September. And, Little Fires Everywhere will be made into a mini-series on Hulu, set to premier in 2020. With those announcements, Peg asked how much we've collected for our Books for Children fund? Joyce Tisovec reported that as of our last meeting, members have donated $422, and she thanked everyone who increased their donation because we weren't meeting in July and some were going away. With that, Peg turned the meeting over to Sunny Wilt, our discussion leader for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
Sunny started with notes about the author, an American lawyer and social justice activist, and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, he has challenged bias against the poor and minorities, especially children, and has helped achieve U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or to life imprisonment without parole. He has also assisted in cases that saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty and developed community-based reform litigation to improve the administration of criminal justice. Stevenson also initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors the names of each of the over 4,000 African Americans lynched in the 12 Southern states (1877 to 1950) and argues that the history of slavery and lynchings has influenced the high rate of death sentences in the South, which is disproportionately applied to minorities.
Stevenson was born in 1959 to a working-class family, was the second of three children, and was the great-grandson of slaves. His mother worked at Dover Air Force Base and his father worked at the General Foods plant in Dover. When he was 16, his 86-year old grandfather was murdered by teenage marauders wanting to steal is black & white TV. Instead of becoming bitter over this trauma, he moved on to become a lawyer, receiving a full scholarship to Harvard and graduating in 1985 with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a JD from the School of Law, and joined the clinical faculty at New York University School of Law in 1998. Being born 5 years after the Brown vs Board of Education case and enduring the indignities of the Jim Crow years, he had grown up with segregation. He spent his first classroom years at a "colored" elementary school. By the time he entered the second grade, his school was formally desegregated, but the old rules still applied: black kids played separately from white kids, and black kids and their parents continued to use the back door at the doctor's or dentist's office, while whites entered through the front, etc. His father grew up in the area and accepted it, but his mother was from Philadelphia and railed against it and became a civil rights activist.
While in high school, Stevenson played on the soccer and baseball teams, served as president of the student body, won American Legion public speaking contests, earned straight A's and won a scholarship to Eastern University in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1981 and receiving a full scholarship to Harvard. While at Harvard, he also earned a Master's in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. During law school, as part of a class on race and poverty litigation with Elizabeth Bartholet, he worked for Stephen Bright's Southern Center for Human Rights that represents death-row inmates throughout the South as an intern. He had found his career calling. He moved to Atlanta and joined the Center full-time and was appointed to run the Alabama operation, a resource center and death-penalty defense organization that was funded by Congress. After Republicans gained control in 1994, it eliminated funding for death-penalty defense for lower income people. Stevenson converted the Center and founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery and was awarded a MacArthur grant in 1995, putting all the money toward supporting the center. Stevenson's work since has earned him 40 honorary doctoral degrees, including degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford University. He is the author of this critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, which Time Magazine listed one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction for 2014 and has been awarded several honors, including the American Library Association's Carnegie Medal for best nonfiction book of 2015 and a 2015 NAACP Image Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government.
Sunny said that she was shocked the first time she read Just Mercy, but actually cried when she read it a second time while preparing for this discussion, especially reading about the children and women (miscarriage being labeled abortion, which was against the law). The book had been recommended to her by a friend and she recommended it to us, but it broke her heart to the point that she had to build a wall around her emotions to get through it. Linda Roth was shocked and saddened. It made Kathy Morey angry; people are supposed to trust law enforcement, yet it was so bigoted and so much hatred is tolerated. It made Mary Dooley ashamed, and recalling DOJ's Bill Barr, who just announced that he was reversing the ban against the death penalty in federal cases and was reinstating it, made her even more ashamed. Many shared her feelings and were shocked at the timing... while we were reading this particular book. The book didn't affect Joyce as much as some of us since she's lived in Atlanta, so she was familiar with many of these injustices and knew that prejudice is alive and well, adding that as of 1995, the Klan was active while she was living there. She was shocked when Lorraine Harris, one of our guest authors in December 2017, said that a woman called the police because a black man was on her street. It was Lorraine's husband. That reminded us of the incident when Bryan Stevenson was listening to music in his car before going into his apartment and a neighbor called the police. That brought to mind other reports of similar outrageous behaviors like calling the police because a black family was having a picnic in the park, a little black girl was selling lemonade on her street, etc. Joan Puleo was disgusted and infuriated at all the hatred and hateful people, even here in The Villages. We thought The Villages was the friendliest hometown in America. Why is that? Someone suggested that we are still in the deep South. Others reminded us that residents of The Villages come from all over and they bring their attitudes and prejudices with them. Sad, isn't it? Someone exclaimed, "And we're supposed to be Christians!"
Linda commented that the book is so well written and she felt like she was reading about real people. We agreed with her. Sue Laluk was struck by the prison guard with the confederate flag on his truck and the belligerent attitude, who was in the courtroom when the prisoner's history was discussed. The guard realized that he had the same background and same hard life as the prisoner, but while the guard was always angry, the prisoner was still good hearted and kind in spite of everything. It changed him and he became civil to the prisoner. She also thought the book was effective in that it reminded us that no one is as bad as their worst moment; everyone has bad moments, but one bad minute in a kid's (or anyone's) life shouldn't define them or ruin their entire life. And, everyone deserves appropriate representation. Peg added that there is no respect when people are treated like animals, and the way those children in prison were treated was child abuse. Man's inhumanity toward others and other creatures never ceases to astonish her. More agreement from us. Joan was reminded of a statement made by presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, that people of color get triple disrespect, and that it shames her that people are judged and treated differently based on their age, color, money and privilege. Marty Boswell told a story about when she was a foster parent and some of the children she cared for were black. People would follow her around the store as she shopped because she had two black babies with her, making sure she didn't steal anything. Mary said that the year that Obama was running, she was working to register people at Marion Market. She was there to register everyone — republican, democrat or independent... black, white or brown. Ten different men said something to her, but one man really had her shaken. He started screaming at her that we couldn't have a black man in the white house and that she should be ashamed of herself. The experience stayed with her for a long time and she never worked Marion Market again.
One of the book questions was about capital punishment. Sunny asked whether anything in the book surprised us or challenged our beliefs about it? Do we really deserve to kill, and what is the effect on the person who does it? She thought about the process of killing someone, and that reminded some of the Tom Hanks movie, The Green Mile, an example of that. Most of us didn't think the book changed our opinions on capital punishment, but it did bring aspects of the justice system into focus that are very unjust. People are supposed to be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but that wasn't the case in the book. People are supposed to be judged by a jury of their peers, yet blacks were weeded out of the jury pool even when the law was changed to include them. Some other examples were mentioned. Kathy thought that the law was about vengeance, not justice. Joan quipped that our justice system should be named Department of Vengeance, not the Department of Justice.
The topic of private prisons came up. Thinking of the prisoners who were found innocent years after being locked up, Joyce commented that there was no rehabilitation program to help transition prisoners who had been incarcerated for a long time... to teach them skills so they can get a job, counsel them, and help transition them back into society. They were just let go. Just knowing they had been in prison, many employers wouldn't even hire them, and even if they did, the jobs probably wouldn't pay very much, so they turn to crime just to survive. Some of us thought there had been a movement years ago to provide that, but many prisons dropped them. Why was that? Well, those programs cost money, providing for prisoners is not high on taxpayer's priorities, and budgets are tight. Also, a lot of government-run prisons were privatized and their goal became to make a profit. In Just Mercy, judges had an interest in keeping private prisons full, receiving money for every person sent there, often for minor infractions. There was even an incentive for communities, providing jobs during the prison's construction and within the prison once it's built. According to Stevenson, between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened every 10 days in the U.S.
Of course, there was much more discussed than what is recalled here. Sunny summed up Just Mercy. There are two trains of thought about penalty. One says that the court should only consider the evidence and mete out justice. The other is that the court should look at more than just evidence; it should examine the evidence in context and what came before. Justice and mercy are not competing; they are compatible. It was an excellent discussion, with many opinions and observations expressed, and the personal antidotes brought points home in a personal way. The discussion continued even after the meeting ended.
We'll be reading Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik for September's meeting. Mary Dooley will be leading the discussion. To see what else we'll be reading, see Books for 2019.
See you in September, and keep on reading....