Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

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Student Question

In Just Mercy, how does Walter benefit from the shift from cotton to timber farming and paper mills?

Quick answer:

Walter takes advantage of the trend of cotton farming moving toward timber farming and paper mills by starting his own pulpwood business. Within a decade, although he doesn't make a huge amount of money, he's able to achieve a fair degree of independence.

Expert Answers

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By the 1950s, small cotton farming was becoming less profitable, despite the fact that white cotton farmers were able to rely on the low-paid labor of Black sharecroppers and tenants. In response to this development, the State of Alabama provided tax breaks and other incentives to help white landowners transition from cotton farming to pulp and paper milling.

Right across the Black Belt, vast swathes of land were opened up for growing pine trees, which would then be used for paper mills and other industrial purposes.

The transition from cotton to pulpwood provides Walter with an opportunity to escape a life of hardship and subjugation. Sensing which way the wind is blowing, he starts his own pulpwood business in the 1970s. He borrows some money to buy his own power saw, tractor, and pulpwood truck, all the things he needs to get his new business off the ground.

By the following decade, his business is doing quite well. Though it never earns him a ton of money, it does at least provide him with a degree of independence that he's never previously experienced. If Walter didn't have his own business, he'd be working at some unskilled job for a white business owner, just like many African Americans in the Alabama of the 1970s and 80s.

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