Before social justice activist, lawyer, and award-winning author Bryan Stevenson ever arrived at Emory University, his presence was strongly felt on campus. His book Just Mercy was this year’s selection for Emory’s Common Reading Program; Emory sponsored numerous trips to The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both of which Stevenson founded; and Stevenson and Just Mercy were topics of discussion in many Emory classes, a fact that I can personally attest to. So, when the date was finally set for him to come to campus, the entire University was in great anticipation.
Anthony Ray Hinton
with Mariah Doze and Julianna Nikodym
Stevenson arrived on campus on Friday, October 26th. His first appearance was at a reception held before the talk he and his former client Anthony Ray Hinton were set to give at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at 7 p.m. that evening. It was at this reception that I had the honor of meeting Stevenson and Hinton in person. Of the two, I met Hinton first. Hinton is the impressive author of a powerful book titled The Sun Does Shine, which Oprah Winfrey picked for her book club. The book details Hinton’s approximately 30-year stay on death row after he was convicted of a crime he did not commit. Initially, I was nervous to meet such an incredible man, but his warmth and kind disposition immediately put me at ease. As we conversed, he began telling me about his book, and I asked him how long it took him to write it. Hinton explained that the writing process was drawn out due to the fact that he was forced to confront some painful memories. Despite such hardships, Hinton was finally able to finish writing his book, which was published in March of this year.
As my conversation with Hinton dwindled down, I was introduced to Stevenson. I was equally nervous to meet Stevenson as I was Hinton, however, again, I was put at ease due to Stevenson's humble and approachable demeanor. I had just recently finished reading Just Mercy, and I was thrilled to be able to ask Stevenson the questions that had come to me while reading the book. In one chapter of the book, Stevenson describes his interaction with a young boy who was put in an adult prison for killing his abusive stepfather after he seriously injured the boy’s mother. The boy was gang raped on his first night in the adult prison and Stevenson tells of their touching interaction in which the young boy cries on Stevenson’s shoulder. As a reader, I was incredibly sorrowful and troubled by this account. I can only imagine how much more sorrowful and troubled Stevenson must have been having actually lived through the experience. Many similarly tragic stories are outlined in Stevenson's book. Therefore, I asked Stevenson how he coped with the emotional trauma that often comes with doing his work. Stevenson replied that he confides in his clients and that they confide in him. Together, they are able to hold each other up during the lows and celebrate with one another during the highs. From their interactions at the reception and at the talk—the hugs, smiles, and laughs—I could tell that this was true of Stevenson and Hinton. It was clear that they shared a very special friendship.
“beat the drum of justice…”
After the reception, Hinton, Stevenson, and all guests made their way to Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church to hear Stevenson and Hinton speak. When the talk finally began, there appeared not to be an empty seat in the entire church. During the first half of the talk, Hinton stole the show with his humor. Sometimes we are guilty of defining people solely based on their circumstances, but Hinton’s vibrant personality made that hard to do. Surely, no one in the audience simply saw Hinton as merely an exoneree or as a victim. Hinton showed himself to be an animated man with an impactful story to tell. Despite the tragedies he faced, he advocated for forgiveness during the talk. He claimed that he forgave not for the people that hurt him, but he did so for himself and for his own healing. In the second half of the talk, Stevenson took the opportunity to say his piece. He spoke of his inspirations for founding The Legacy Museum and he asserted that he did so because he felt it was necessary to disrupt the narrative of white supremacy. He wanted Americans to come to terms with America’s first lie: that African-descended people are not fully human. This lie, he claimed, has been the justification for the oppression of Black people and other people of color. As Stevenson concluded the talk, he looked out into the crowd and exclaimed how was excited he was to see so many people interested in a talk about social justice. Then, he left us with a charge: to take action against injustice. As I stood up to clap at the conclusion of the talk, I accepted Stevenson’s charge. I am determined now more than ever to continue in my pursuit of a career in civil and human rights law, so that I can, in the words of Stevenson, “beat the drum for justice” just as Stevenson and Hinton have.
—Mariah Doze, Managing Print Editor