When I was a sophomore in college (1955), I took a course in English Romantic Poetry. When we were introduced to the romantic hero, our teacher gave us a standard definition, i.e., someone who rejects establishment norms and conventions and may be rejected by society but carries on because of some compulsion to follow his/her own moral system. As an assignment over the weekend, she asked us to think about whether there was anyone currently alive in this country who fit that definition. Significantly enough, I was watching some national news on the sorority’s black and white TV that weekend and saw a national clip about a young black preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was being interviewed by one of the big national TV stations and I was impressed by his clear statements about what he and his group were doing by employing nonviolent strategies to win wider acceptance of black people in the South. The clip included scenes of white people shouting nasty, violent things at this man and his followers, while white police stood by to prevent them from marching peacefully. It suddenly occurred to me that I was watching someone who fit my professor’s definition of romantic hero perfectly.
The following Monday in class, when we were asked to share any names that might have occurred to us about living heroes, I naively said “My choice is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” The professor thanked me and quickly moved to the next student. What usually happened when that class ended was I and three classmates went off to the student cafeteria to have coffee and talk about what we’d learned about romantic that day. I noticed that my group was very quiet as we made our way, but didn’t think much about it until they did not join me at our usual table but went off to another one far away, leaving me alone and puzzled. Though I asked them next class what was the problem, I never got a straight answer and we never again processed our responses to Byron or Shelley or Keats. As my own racial consciousness found language, I came to realize that I had committed a particular sin when I suggested that a “Negro” could possible qualify for status as a hero of any kind. I became what is known as a “race traitor,” i.e., a white person who “sides” with a black person, thereby rejecting the dominant view of blacks.
I remain seriously grateful for the confluence of my poetry class assignment and my seeing/hearing Dr. King for the first time, and I remain even surer that he really does embody what those 19th century English poets thought of as heroic. Were I taking that class today and were I given that assignment, however, I would know the name I would offer: Bryan Stevenson, the black lawyer/justice worker in Montgomery, Alabama, who helps prisoners living under unacceptable conditions (often solitary confinement or consignment to death row). He is also the force behind the recent opening of the memorial remembering lynching of black people in this country. Reading about his commitment to this justice work, beginning when he was mostly working out of his car and alone, amazes me. He never seems exhausted, though he says he feels that way at the end of some very long days. But his personal exhaustion doesn’t prevent him from taking on yet one more case of a prisoner who knows s/he is innocent of the crime for which s/he is serving extended and cruel sentences. And his absolute passion to get the lynching memorial and adjacent museum built takes on the quality of Herculean feats in the face of individual and institutional resistance.
When I first heard about his book, Just Mercy, I was drawn to the double meaning of the title. On one hand, Stevenson was asking that we humans “only” extend mercy and things will get better. On the other hand, he is suggesting that there are different kinds of mercy, one of which has to do with justice. His accounts of trying to overturn blatantly false convictions of blacks, the poor, and children have been met by granite walls thrown up by Alabama lawyers, prison officials, judges, sheriffs and other putative law enforcement officials. Yet Bryan Stevenson keeps expecting and asking for “just mercy.” When he gets it, I can feel his jubilation, just as I can feel his deep disappointment in his profession and his country when he doesn’t. Yet he persists and it is that very persistence that lifts him to the top of my list of heroes.
If I could ask Bryan Stevenson one question it would be this: From what source do you draw your faith and strength so that you can continue no matter how many virulently prejudiced roadblocks are laid in your path?