Next common reading book is ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson

By Beverly Makhani, Office of Undergraduate Education

just-mercyPULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University first-year students in Pullman will use the book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson as their 2015-16 common reading book.

Selected by the WSU provost from three committee-nominated titles, the book “addresses the important social issue of criminal justice and its interaction with racial discrimination in our country,” said Dan Bernardo, provost and executive vice president. “The book is well written by someone who will continue to be a relevant social justice figure for years to come.”

Author likened to Atticus Finch, Nelson Mandela

Published in October 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, the book is nonfiction and written in the first person. Author Stevenson is an attorney who, the book jacket says, has “won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the U.S. Supreme Court and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color.”

He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and a professor of law at New York University School of Law.

Author John Grisham likens Stevenson to Atticus Finch, the heroic fictional lawyer in Harper Lee’s classic novel of the American South, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Interestingly, one of the central cases profiled in “Just Mercy” concerns the fate of an African American defendant unjustly accused of murder in the same town where Lee’s novel is set.

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that “Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s (Nelson) Mandela … We need to wake up. And that is why we need a Mandela in this country.”

Behind the title

Stevenson calls for compassion in the pursuit of justice: “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth… (it) is justice,” he writes in the introduction to his book.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” he continues. “An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community….I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

Selected from top three of 25 nominations

A total of 25 books were nominated in October and November by the WSU community to be the next common reading. Members of the selection committee, chaired by Susan Poch, co-director of the common reading program, read and discussed all of them. The committee settled on three finalists.

The other finalists are, “Salt, Fat, Sugar: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” by Michael Moss and “Ready Player One,” by Ernest Cline. The complete list of nominations is on the Common Reading website,

Used in classrooms and beyond

“Just Mercy” will be the ninth book in as many years that first-year students will use in classes across all disciplines to inspire academic discussions with professors and peers. Two semesters of robust programming will enhance topics from the book and will include faculty and guest expert lectures, film showings and activities with campus partners.

“I hope ‘Just Mercy’ serves as a constructive and motivating book for the multitude of classes which employ it during the freshman experience,” Bernardo said.

Limited desk copies may be available

Poch’s co-director, Karen Weathermon, anticipates that examination copies of the book will be available by the end of the semester for faculty who want to consider using “Just Mercy” in their classes or programs next year. More information on how to request a copy will be announced.