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For This Year’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration, See Just Mercy

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

If you’d like to do something meaningful to mark the memory of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and in particular, the meaning and purpose of his life, see the powerful movie, Just Mercy.  It’s for parents, not our young children, and it tells the story of Bryan Stephenson, a true American hero.

The movie tells the story of Bryan Stephenson’s first case, after graduating from Harvard Law School.  He left great opportunities to get rich, and instead went to Alabama to represent people unjustly convicted and sentenced to death.  The issue at hand is the fate of very real people who did not commit a crime who find themselves falsely accused and facing execution.

The story does not take place in the era of Jim Crow, but in our era.  Reverend King helped lead the way, with LBJ and others, to end Jim Crow, an era of American oppression by color that ran for 100 years, 1865-1965.   The end of Jim Crow is worthy of celebration, and lies at the heart of the MLK Day commemoration.   We remember the lynchings, the police dogs, the denial of voting, the march in Selma, Rosa Parks, and the victories of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  And so it was a great victory.

But Just Mercy makes clear that the forces of oppression never went away in 1965.  This movie dramatically tells us just how oppression works today with crushing cruelty and ongoing loss of life and ruined communities.  Sheriff Bull Connor is gone, but Sheriff Tate remained in power in Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, until 2017!  Sheriff Tate is a compelling character in this drama. He doesn’t look like the old-time Southern sheriffs. He bristles at being called a racist. He wears friendly clothes and looks like a nice guy.  But he rules over the black community in his district to the same effect as the old-time Southern sheriffs did, he just looks a lot more modern.

And then there was Bryan Stevenson. I had the honor and privilege to hear him speak in person at a national conference on ending poverty in our cities, held in Atlanta last fall. He is a man of boundless positive energy, a brilliant mind, a deeply feeling heart.  Over the last several decades, Mr. Stevenson helped found the Equal justice initiative which has rescued over a hundred people from being executed for crimes they did not commit.

BOTTOM LINES

  1. A meaningful MLK Day to all.
  2. As we celebrate MLK Day, let us keep in mind that Reverend King was killed, not because he triumphed, but because he threatened to.  He was killed trying to reverse the forces that lock millions of people into dire poverty in America. These processes that create poverty persist to this day. The oppression of the African American community persists to this day as well.
  3. The movie Just Mercy powerfully presents many of these deep realities of our national community.
  4. I approach MLK day every year inspired by the Reverend’s hope that one day our humanity will rule our country rather than our hatred.  His life demonstrated this was a realistic goal. 

Let us take the lessons from Reverend King’s life, and in apply them to our lives today, I’m convinced the future of our national community rests on how well we achieve this.

To Your Health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

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