Out of the Zoo: “Just Mercy”

Just MercyAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the film Just Mercy. –JF

The best movie theater in the world is in Plainwell, Michigan. I might be a little biased, but I have yet to find a movie theater that can beat M-89 Cinema’s $2.50 ticket price for morning showings and $5 price in the evenings. M-89 even has popcorn buckets that you can refill for free on Thursdays and for just a few cents the rest of the week. Whenever I’m home on breaks from college I try to see as many movies as I can–over winter recess I went to M-89 four times. I saw Star Wars, Little Women, and Frozen II (twice).

I’ve found only one movie theater in Pennsylvania so far that’s cheaper than M-89, and that’s the one we have on campus at Messiah College. Every week there’s a different “Lost Film” (usually a movie that’s been in theaters for a while, but hasn’t yet been released on DVD) playing there for Messiah students to watch for free. This past weekend, hundreds of students flocked to Boyer 136 to see Just Mercy, a film that tells the story of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, a “nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.”

Anthony Ray Hinton, himself freed by the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, plugged Just Mercy a few times throughout his lecture at Messiah a couple weeks ago (read about it here). Inspired by Hinton’s lecture and determined to learn more about the EJI, I made plans with a few of my friends (most of them fellow history majors) to go see it Friday night. Parmer Cinema was packed. Those who couldn’t find an empty seat sat in the front below the screen, or leaned on the walls next to the side aisles. We all sat together for the next two hours, often in tears, and watched our nation’s all-too-recent history play out before us on the screen.

I left Parmer Cinema that night with the urge to do something. I’ve seen Hinton speak, and I’ve seen Just Mercy, so what now? Is there something, anything, I can do to help those wronged by the criminal justice system? I know men are still unfairly placed on death row across the nation (one such man is scheduled to be executed in Alabama tomorrow), but what can I do about it? I’m not a lawyer like Bryan Stevenson and I don’t plan on becoming one, so I know I cannot personally free innocent convicts from death row. I am not a millionaire with the ability to donate thousands of dollars to the Equal Justice Initiative, nor am I a legislator with the power to enact criminal justice reform.

I may not be a lawyer or a millionaire or a legislator, but there is still plenty for me to do. Because I am a historian, I can uncover stories like those of Anthony Ray Hinton and Walter McMillan. Because I am a future teacher, I can then share those stories with young people and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Because I am a United States citizen, I can vote for lawmakers who will protect the vulnerable members of society from injustice. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I can pray and trust that one day, whether in this world or the next, all wrongs will be put right. Indeed, there is plenty of work to do. 

If you do nothing else, please go see Just Mercy. It will open your eyes.

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

Hinton_Photo

Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

Two New Sites Dedicated to the History of Lynching Open in Montgomery, Alabama

Lynching

April 26, 2018 marks the opening of two public history sites in Montgomery, Alabama:  The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  Both sites are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal services to prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.  You can learn more about Stevenson here.  He is perhaps best known for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here is a round-up of articles devoted to the grand openings of these two sites:

NPR

Washington Post

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

The Conversation

VOX

Time

Montgomery Advertiser

CBS News

A Monument to Lynching in America

EKI

I am glad to see Christianity Today tackling this issue.  Some of you are familiar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Imitative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. I had a chance to visit EJI this summer.  Stevenson was also the Messiah College commencement speaker in May 2017.  He is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

EJI is a fascinating and moving place that combines the history of lynching in America with the reform of the criminal justice system as it relates to death row inmates.  I wrote about my visit here.

When I was in Montgomery I learned about EJI’s plans to build a monument to lynching in America.  D.L. Mayfield writes about it in Christianity Today’s September 2017 cover story.

Here is a taste:

Stevenson became enamored with the idea of creating spaces for truth telling. “We don’t have many places in our country where you can have an honest experience with our history of slavery, and there are no spaces where you can have an honest experience with lynchings and racial terror,” he said. (There are outliers in unexpected places, such as a memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring three black members of a traveling circus who were lynched there in 1920.)

So Stevenson decided to make one. Next summer, EJI will unveil a memorial where visitors will be confronted with large tablets hanging from a square structure, visual reminders of more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. The visual—so many markers engraved with so many names—will transform a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, Alabama, into a place of mourning and remembrance, a place to lament and perhaps even to corporately confess.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice, as it will be called, will also encompass a field spreading next to the main structure. In that field, each hanging tablet will have an identical twin resting on the ground, invoking an eerie similarity to headstones. These markers will be for the counties themselves to collect. Stevenson dreams of groups journeying to Montgomery, collecting their rightful part of lynching history, and displaying it prominently back in their towns and cities. If people from a particular locale choose not to claim their piece, it will sit in stark relief on that Montgomery hilltop, a conspicuous token of unowned sin.

Read the entire piece here.