‘Just Mercy’ and Reconciliation:
A review of Bryan Stevenson's new book for young adults, and a visit to the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park
One of the central tenants of Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy,” which brings to light injustice in our system of mass incarceration, is that everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve done. And yet, when it comes to people in prison, a lot of times that is the only thing people see about them. He argues that no rapist is JUST a rapist; no murderer is JUST a murderer, etc.
Maybe this is a difficult idea to accept, but “Just Mercy” makes its point by sharing heartbreaking stories of men sentenced to execution for things they didn’t do, previously traumatized children sent to adult prisons where they suffer sexual and other forms of abuse, mentally unstable individuals imprisoned in inhumane conditions, etc. In all these cases, Stevenson reminds readers that everyone has a backstory that we don’t read about in the media–and at the same time, points out glaring issues of injustice that poor people and people of color face when it comes to our criminal “justice” system. (This reminds me of what a staff member at the Parent Child Center of Tulsa said about some of their adult clients–all we see is someone who wronged their child; we don’t see the trials they may have encountered themselves as children, or their regret, or their hopes, etc.)
I first read Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” a few years ago; but I’m bringing it up now because TulsaKids recently received a copy of “Just Mercy: A True Story of The Fight for Justice,” which is the former book adapted for a Young Adult audience.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” Stevenson, a lawyer, has been fighting against the death penalty and for the rights of juveniles tried and sentenced as adults for decades.
According to his bio at EJI.org, “Under [Stevenson’s] leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Mr. Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America, including major projects to educate communities about slavery, lynching and racial segregation.”
Both the original “Just Mercy” and the Young Adult version chronicle these efforts, including hard-won victories and tragic defeats.
Since it’s been a while since I read the first “Just Mercy,” I don’t know exactly how it compares with the YA version, but I’d guess that the YA version is more story-based. Every other chapter takes you deeper into the story of Walter McMillian, an African-American man condemned to death row on a murder charge, despite the fact that multiple eye witnesses were with him elsewhere at the time of the murder. The only case the prosecution made against McMillian was based on coerced false testimony of other criminals (long story short, law enforcement officials were having trouble solving the murder mystery and ended up arresting an innocent man so they could save face). Walter McMillian was on death row for years, and it is so maddening how many times Stevenson had to appeal his case despite the lack of evidence–and the mounds of evidence proving his innocence. By the time (spoiler alert), McMillian is finally declared innocent and released from prison, the damage has been done, and although he tries to remain optimistic and begin a new life for himself, his story ends too quickly.
In between McMillian’s story, Stevenson focuses on other issues in the criminal justice system, including juvenile defendents, the mass incarceration of women, and the mentally ill. As seen in his bio, Stevenson and other members of the Equal Justice Initiative have had several important victories in the fight for justice, but there is still a long way to go.
I recommend this book to any young adult (or adult, for that matter), who wants to gain a deeper perspective on the criminal justice system and to understand why a blanket prejudice against incarcerated people is short-sighted and unjust. If you don’t have time to read the book, you can watch Stevenson’s Ted Talk, “We Need to Talk About Injustice,” here:
This also seemed like an appropriate time to talk about the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which memorializes the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (read more about how to commemorate the Centennial in this article from TulsaKids’ September issue) and is named after Oklahoman, historian, author, professor and Presidential Medal of Freedom-recipient John Hope Franklin (purchase Franklin’s autobiography here).
I finally visited the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park a few weeks ago, and am ashamed that I had not done so sooner. The main impetus for this visit was the fact that I was writing a “Travel to Tulsa” article for MetroFamily Magazine, and the Reconciliation Park was one of the six places I featured because addressing the Race Riot is such an important part of understanding our city–despite the fact that, as I said, I’d never been there.
So I took Joss one Sunday morning, and it was indeed a meditative, powerful experience (not so much for Joss, although he enjoyed running around the small box-hedge maze). When you walk in, the first thing you see is a three-sided sculpture commemoriating the riot with forms of “Hostility,” “Humiliation,” and “Hope.”
Continue on, and you see a beautiful, circular garden surrounding a narrow, 25-foot tower, “The Tower of Reconciliation.” According to jhfcenter.org, this “tower depicts the history of the African American struggle from Africa to America – from the migration of slaves with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, the slave labor experience in the Territories, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry that won the Battle of Honey Springs – to statehood, the immigration of free blacks into Oklahoma, and the all-black towns and Greenwood. It honors Buck C. Franklin (prominent black attorney and Dr. Franklin’s father) and other early Tulsa black leaders.”
Circling the Tower of Reconciliation are stone monuments that give a history of African Americans in Oklahoma and Tulsa, from initial migration, to the creation of Black Wall Street, to the Tulsa Race Riot and to future hope.
If you haven’t been, I recommend a visit–they also offer docent-led tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (sign up here), which would probably be very helpful in gaining a greater appreciation for and understanding of the park.
For those interested in pursuing reconciliation and celebrating diversity in Tulsa, you may be interested in the following events (If you know of others, please share them in the comments!):
Thumbs Up for One Tulsa
- When: Saturday, Sept. 15, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
- Where: Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford Ave.
Facebook Event Description:
“Search for ‘North Tulsa’ on Google, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter and the results are all negative. This distorts our city’s perception. It also buries the positive work that individuals and organizations are doing in North Tulsa to make our city better.
We can use social media to change this. Please join us at the Rudisill Regional Library on Sept. 15th, at 9am. We’ll bring coffee. Let’s start working on celebrating the people, places, and things that are great about North Tulsa. Let’s change the conversation.
Bring a laptop, and bring your list of people, places, and things that make North Tulsa great.”
918 Day Tulsa
- When: Saturday, Sept. 15, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. (Scavenger Hunt); Tuesday, Sept. 18 (Official 918 Day)
- Where: Tulsa
“The City of Tulsa will host a variety of events celebrating Tulsa’s diversity and growth throughout the city on 918 Day Tulsa, Sept. 18.
The launch of 918 Day Tulsa is part of the Resilient Tulsa Strategy, which focuses on increasing social cohesion while engaging residents to come together and celebrate the Tulsa community through family-friendly activities.
The Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity is coordinating a scavenger hunt on Sept. 15 and 918 Day deals will be available at many Tulsa businesses on Sept. 18 for 918 Day.
“918 Day and the Scavenger Hunt are great opportunities to bring Tulsans together from across neighborhoods and backgrounds to experience our city in its entirety,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “I encourage Tulsans to join me in celebrating 918 Day.”
Saturday, Sept. 15 – 918 Day Tulsa Scavenger Hunt
Tulsa Trivia at its best! Test your knowledge of Tulsa in a citywide scavenger hunt. Groups of four will team up and receive clues to locations throughout Tulsa. Many sites will offer a special surprise and local cuisine from mobile food trucks. The winning team will be announced by Mayor Bynum on 918 Day, Sept. 18 and receive a grab-bag of Tulsa treasures and a lunch with Mayor Bynum and Chief Resilience Officer DeVon Douglass.
Registration is required for the Scavenger Hunt. To register, you will need a team name and a group of four. To register, visit: https://
The Scavenger Hunt will begin at 9 a.m. and end at noon on Sat., Sept. 15. Participants must report to the McKeon Center for Creativity, 910 S. Boston Ave. at 9 a.m. to check-in and receive their clues.
Tuesday, Sept. 18 – 918 Day Tulsa Activities and Discounts
- To celebrate 918 Day in style, Mayor G.T. Bynum is attempting a 24-hour Tour of Tulsa. Beginning at midnight on Sept. 18, each hour, Mayor Bynum will be travelling to various Tulsa destinations throughout the city and detailing his trip on social media. You can follow the Mayor’s Tour of Tulsa on Facebook (Mayor GT Bynum) and Twitter (@gtbynum).
- The City of Tulsa partnered with Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) to offer a themed arts competition for TPS high schools to create a poster showing What Does Your Tulsa Look Like. The winners of the art contest will be announced on 918 Day, Sept. 18 at the student’s winning school.
- Tulsa businesses from across the city are taking part in 918 Day by providing discounts on food, services and products. The 918 Day Deals list will be available beginning next week on the Resilient Tulsa Facebook page.
If you are a business and would like to participate in 918 Day discounts, email: ADebose@cityoftulsa.org
Learn more about 918 Day Tulsa by visiting: www.cityoftulsa.org/
- When: Saturday, Sept. 22, 5-10 p.m.
- Where: Guthrie Green, 111 E. M.B. Brady
The free multi-cultural festival will celebrate the rich culture of the Americas with live music, dance performances, outdoor art gallery, food trucks, tequila garden, art market, and much more!
Festival Americas will open from 5-10 p.m. and will feature an assortment of Latin musical and dance styles with a special presentation from Grammy Award-Winning Mariachi Group, Flor De Toloache!
Native American Day Celebration
- When: Monday, Oct. 8, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
- Where: Guthrie Green, 111 E. M.B. Brady St.
Facebook Event Description:
“Come join us for the 2nd Annual Native American Day Celebration in Tulsa! Parade will begin at 11:30 followed by exhibition dancing and speeches from local community leaders and guest speakers. Artist and vendor booths will be available along with food trucks.
A showing of the Cherokee film Nanyehi will begin at 7:30.
Event is free and open to the public.”
2018 Dinner of Reconciliation
- When: Thursday, Nov. 15, 6:30-9 p.m.
- Where: Greenwood Cultural Center, 322 N. Greenwood Ave.
Facebook Event Description:
“Join us for the 2018 Dinner of Reconciliation.
This year’s Keynote Speaker will be Eli Saslow – Pulitzer Prize Winner, Journalist, and Author.
Reception: 6:30 PM
Dinner/Program: 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Tickets are $25 for Adults and $15 for Children K-12.
Deadline to register for the Dinner is November 9, 2018.
To register go to https://www.jhfcenter.org/dinner-registration”
The ORBIT Intiative
“The Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust is excited to announce a new community project called the ORBIT Initiative, launching this month with the goal of bringing together all ages and cultures under the banner of performing arts.
This major endeavor of The Tulsa Performing Arts Center (TPAC), the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust (TPACT), and community partners seeks to engage the people of Tulsa by making them creators and not just spectators. Working deeply with community partner organizations in all urban and suburban areas, ORBIT invites members of diverse communities to participate in workshops, take classes, attend performances at The TPAC, and, most importantly, to join in the creation of ambitious works of participatory theater.
“I am hopeful that this program will help blur the social and racial lines that have been drawn in our city, bringing together people that otherwise never would have the chance to interact and create something together,” said Mark Frie, Tulsa PAC director.
The goal of ORBIT is to deliberately blur the lines between professional artists and community members, creating theater that is not only for the people, but by and of the people as well. ORBIT aims to restore and build community by connecting people through theater-both performing it and experiencing it-and reminding us that we’re all in this together.
“In conjunction with our Resilient Tulsa strategy, ORBIT is expanding educational arts programs and classes in all parts of the city to bring communities together through the arts,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “I can’t say enough about Mark Frie and his team for leading this endeavor that will bring Tulsans from all walks of life together to build a stronger Tulsa.”
For the next 10 months, community partners across Tulsa will host monthly classes FOR FREE for anyone wishing to learn more about theatre, performing arts, movement, dance, voice and more. Next June, the classes will gather at the Tulsa PAC and put on a full-stage production of “The Tempest,” complete with professional actors, directors and staff—with all performances free and open to the public.
“The Orbit Initiative was designed to bring people together–people from across the city–to fellowship together, to learn together, to move together and to perform together,” said Jeremy Stevens, education and development coordinator for Tulsa PAC. “The theatre is a place of possibility where the boundaries that separate us from each other can fall away.”
The classes will culminate in June of 2019 when the patrons put on a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in the Chapman Music Hall. The production will be free to the public. Theatre Tulsa artistic director Sara Phoenix will direct the show, with consultation from Tony-winning actress Faith Prince.
The Orbit Initiative is an affiliate of the Public Works program, originating from The Public Theater in New York City.
To register for classes, patrons may contact any of the community partners (listed below). For more information, please call 918-596-7119 or visit the official ORBIT Facebook page atfacebook.com/
Dennis R. Neill Equality Center (918.743.4297) | Greenwood Cultural Center (918.596.1020)
Reed Park Community Center (918.591.4307) | Ellen Ochoa Elementary (918.357.4330)
Hicks Park Community Center (918.669.6355)”