I recently read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in other ways in our criminal justice system.

The book’s central story is of Stevenson’s fight to get Walter MacMillian, wrongly accused of murder, off of death row and out of prison.

MacMillian was an African-American male in Alabama where, until 2000, there was a ban on interracial marriage. (In 2000, when the law was overturned, 41 percent voted to keep it.) MacMillian’s 1986 incarceration came largely as a result of an affair with a white woman.

Other facts from the book:

  • In 1987, all 40 elected district attorneys in Alabama were white, even though there were 16 majority-black counties in the state.
  • When a serious felony case went to trial, even in counties with significant black populations, it was not uncommon for prosecutors to exclude all African Americans from jury service. (In 1945, the Supreme Court upheld a Texas statute that limited the number of black jurors to exactly one per case. In most southern states, jury rolls were pulled from voting rolls, which excluded African Americans.)
  • Campaigns for judgeships focus on crime and punishment. Judges compete to be the toughest on crime. Since 1976, judges in Alabama have overridden jury sentencing verdicts in capital cases 111 times, and in 91 percent of these cases, judges replaced life verdicts from juries with death sentences.
  • Rather than sitting in the county jail as he awaited trial, Walter was put in prison, on death row.

I have never held a strong opinion about the death penalty. To me, the most compelling opposing view is the possibility of putting to death an innocent person. The MacMillian case offers a terrifying example.

After I read Just Mercy, I listened to Stevenson interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. If you want to listen to that interview, click here. In the interview, you will learn about some of the other good work Stevenson has done fighting for others who are unable to fight for themselves, including some of the stories interspersed in Just Mercy.

Stevenson’s is the kind of work I talk about when I talk about leadership in my book (“Be a Leader” is the third of the Six Simple Rules for a Better Life.)

Stevenson does a lot of public speaking. You can find TED talks he has done and countless articles about his message. He says to really change the world, there are four steps.

  1. Proximity — you have to get close to the problem. If you just read about something in the newspaper, it won’t be nearly as impactful as being directly involved in the situation. A great example of this was the way people who were living in Yonkers were changed by housing integration as portrayed in the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, which I wrote about here. Proximity helps us truly understand others and their problems. You can see this happen very quickly in Just Mercy as you read about the way Stevenson’s first encounter with a death row prisoner changed his life.
  2. Change the narrative — for example, instead of thinking we have no race problems because slavery and Jim Crow are a thing of the past, it’s important to recognize the way inequality continues to be prevalent in a land in which, according to its 240-year-old declaration of independence, “all men are created equal.”
  3. Keep hopeful — this is also exemplified by the work Stevenson and others do as part of the Equal Justice Initiative. When you are working for people on death row, hope is critical.
  4. Do uncomfortable things — Doing uncomfortable things is another necessary ingredient for change. I remember Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach telling me change and growth are nearly always accompanied by fear, uncertainty, and doubt. As I have said many times to my business colleagues during challenging times, “If it was easy, anyone could do it.”

How are you being a leader? How are you helping others? Please join the conversation with your comments…

Best regards,