By Karen Abbott-Trimuel
LANSING, Ill. (February 14, 2022) – On Saturday, February 12, the Lansing Human Relations Committee (HRC) partnered with the Lansing Library to launch the commission’s first book club. In honor of Black History Month, the book of choice was Just Mercy, authored by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who has been representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the deep south since 1985.
Saturday’s book discussion was the first-ever such event hosted by the Human Relations Commission, which started in 2018. Twelve people attended the event, including three current HRC members and two Village trustees.
On October 21, 2014, Just Mercy was published and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. The book later became a movie and was released on December 25, 2019. Just Mercy is a true story written about the life of a Black man named Walter McMillian, who was falsely accused and sentenced to death for a murder of a white teenage girl in Monroeville, Alabama.
The book club started at 10:30 a.m. with the screening of the movie, which features Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian.
Book club participants seemed to be digesting a host of emotions after seeing the story played out on screen, as the movie provided a visual expression of what Walter McMillian felt and experienced during his incarceration. Though the discussion was briefly interrupted by a fire drill, once the participants came back together, Valerie McDaniels, the chairwoman of the Human Relations Commission, and Bobby Wright, HRC commissioner, opened the discussion with a welcome. McDaniels shared that she was excited to see her dream of starting a book club becoming a reality. She also expressed her excitement about choosing Just Mercy as their first book because she has always advocated for equality and justice for all people.
Valerie introduced the next item on the agenda, viewing a TED Talk video by Bryan Stevenson. The TED Talk provided the participants with more information about the author’s life, his experiences with the prison system, statistics regarding injustices, prison reform, and how racism has played and continues to play a part in the criminal justice system.
Discussion and sharing
The Lansing Village Trustee Micaela Smith kicked off the first question. Smith’s question, “Why does it annoy Stevenson that To Kill a Mockingbird is a point of pride in Monroeville?” This question led the participants to share personal experiences as children reading the famous book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and how it impacted their lives. From that question, they began sharing their feelings after viewing the movie, reading the book, and growing up in non-segregated communities. Participants also opened up about their personal experiences with racism which was not only based on the color of their skin but sex, gender, and age.
HRC Commissioner Latrice Ivy said, “After reading the book, I researched the states that prosecuted children as adults and was surprised to know that it wasn’t only southern states that prosecuted children as adults, and that disturbed me.”
Carolyn Ann Hall thanked Valerie McDaniels, “I want to thank you, Valerie. After reading the book, I feel it has saved me from some of the things I am currently dealing with, she said.
As the discussion continued, it became apparent that everyone sympathized with Walter McMillian’s story and others who are falsely incarcerated and those who are not given equal rights and protections under the laws based on the color of their skin.
Jeri Villa stated, “I have always had an innate sense of the need for justice for all people.”
By the end of the group’s time together, McDaniels felt the first book club was a success and opened the floor to choosing the next book by the end of their discussion.
- Human Relations Commission holds first meeting (November 28, 2018)
- Lansing’s Human Relations Commission evaluates Year 1 (December 6, 2019)