Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

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How did Alabama's economic policies disadvantage its African American population?

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Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is based on the writer’s experiences practicing law in the south in the years following his graduation from Harvard Law School. In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Walter McMillian, who is the nonfiction book’s central protagonist. Through McMillian, Stevenson illustrates a series of injustices embedded in state and federal legislature as well as historical activities of the Supreme Court.

McMillian was a prisoner in Monroeville, Alabama, where the writer encountered the unfortunate circumstance that over 100 prisoners were on death row. Furthermore, the state had no public defenders’ office, meaning that these inmates were on death row without access to legal counsel.

In the first chapter of Just Mercy, Stevenson explains that Alabama had economic laws that discriminated against blacks. By the 1950s, the cotton farming of the plantation era was becoming less profitable. To replace this industry, the state helped white landowners transition to timber farming. State lawmakers provided tax incentives for pulp and paper mills that were a boon only to white landowners. As a result, black people’s conditions worsened, and poverty persisted along racial lines even after the post-Civil War’s Great Migration. Those blacks who remained in the racist and impoverished Alabama were often forced to work at unskilled jobs for white bosses.

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