Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy” author, lawyer and activist speaks at App State

Emily Broyles, Reporter

The common reading program at App State picks a different book every year for incoming students to read and connect with on personal and discussion-based levels.  This year’s program brings a well-known face to App State’s campus.

Bryan Stevenson, author of this year’s common reading book, “Just Mercy,” came to App State Sept. 17. Stevenson discussed themes of the book with students and faculty and hosted a book signing.

“Just Mercy” tells of Stevenson’s accounts with people who were wrongfully convicted or harshly sentenced throughout his career. The main storyline follows Stevenson and Walter McMillian, a black man immediately sentenced to death in 1987 for a murder he did not commit. 

Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the founder of The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration located in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson founded the museum through another organization he founded– The Equal Justice Initiative.

“Stevenson’s the biggest figure we’ve ever had, to put it quite bluntly,” said Don Presnell, director of the common reading program. 

Presnell said that while Stevenson is a prominent figure in law and education, that wasn’t the purpose of bringing him to campus.

“We really want a good, all-around book that speaks to daily life, to the world in which we live, issues that we’re all connected to and negotiate and experience,” Presnell said.

 Martha McCaughey, sociology professor and former common reading program director, said the book selection is not based on what the committee thinks students want, but what they think first-year college students need to hear.

“We really try to choose a book that we think a broad variety of students will find provocative and interesting,” McCaughey said. “It’s not about getting them to approve of the ideas in the book as much as it’s about reading a book that is compelling to read, that presents an interesting, smart point of view.”

McCaughey said she is excited to have Stevenson represent not only his book, but his many accomplishments and accolades outside of “Just Mercy.”

“To me, the big deal about him was that when we tried to book him for Sept. 17, (his representatives) finally locked down that date, but they said, ‘Just so you know, it’s always possible that he’s going to have to reschedule if he ends up having to argue a case at the Supreme Court,’” McCaughey said.

McCaughey said Stevenson is a perfect example of App State’s mission to use education for a purpose other than self-gain.

“He could have gone on to become a wealthy lawyer who just got to live in a nice house and drive nice cars,” McCaughey said. “He has really dedicated himself to improving society in ways that are admirable.”

Stevenson now adds theater to his resume as “Just Mercy” is set to hit movie screens in December. The movie adaptation will star Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson and Jaime Foxx.

“Even back in August at welcome weekend, most of my students didn’t know there was a movie,” Presnell said. “We only get Stevenson for one night, for one hour. That’s going to be incredible.”

McCaughey said the opportunity to host Stevenson is one of the things that makes not only the common reading program different, but what makes App State different.

“Just getting to hear from people, that, I think, is a real cool privilege of getting to be at Appalachian State,” McCaughey said. “We bring people like this to campus and you get exposed to some pretty amazing people.”