Two theaters at Christiana Cinemark were reserved on Monday, January 20th—MLK Day—for free screenings of the newly released movie Just Mercy, which is based on the book by Delawarean Bryan Stevenson.
As a Harvard educated attorney from a poor, rural community in Sussex County, Delaware, Stevenson decided to direct his work towards social injustice within the criminal justice system, especially innocent people incarcerated on death row. This led him to establish the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and eventually create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the victims of lynching in the United States.
Sanford's Savannah Shepherd '20, is Stevenson's cousin, and he was the inspiration for her, at age 15, to form the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition. After receiving permission from Warner Brothers for the screenings, the group collaborated with EJI, the Bryan Allen Stevenson School for Excellence (BASSFE), the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, the Delaware Center for Justice, and Catalyst Missions Group to sponsor this event. Savannah and the other sponsors hoped the screening of Just Mercy
would educate the public and influence policy decisions.
Savannah commented: "I had the incredible opportunity to host a screening of Just Mercy
, in coordination with many amazing organizations, including Warner Brothers and the Equal Justice Initiative, for community members and Delaware legislators. Seeing so many people come together and have such a deep and meaningful conversation about a topic that is so important in our society today was revitalizing. Having this event on Martin Luther King Day was very important to me, as we were able to recognize the immense contributions of Dr. King and highlight the efforts of a civil rights hero of today, Bryan Stevenson."
Stevenson’s sister, Christy Taylor, acted as the emcee for the event. She introduced Cathleen Price, a senior attorney from EJI who has been with the organization for many years. In her remarks to the audience Price noted: “This movie captures the early times when EJI was just beginning its work. As an organization, we are now in a position to reflect on our work and bring witness to the efforts we make in order to bring justice to marginalized communities.” Price explained that one goal of the gathering was to bring the intensity of public engagement to EJI’s efforts. She thought that by using the art form of film, audience members would be brought closer to the issues. She explained: "When you bring people into closer proximity of issues, it helps with understanding them. The film uses a line from Bryan where he says that keeping a distance from problems was not the way to solve them. We must get closer to what we do not understand in order to find a fix."
Following the screening, audience members from both theaters gathered for a panel discussion about the movie and any other topics people wished to address. Taylor led the panel, which was comprised of Kayla Richards from the Delaware Center for Social Justice; Sherry Dorsey Walker, vice chair of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus and Representative of District 3; Cathleen Price of EJI; and Kathleen Jennings, Delaware attorney general. The initial questions focused on follow-up to some of the central characters in the movie and what happened to them after their release from prison. One key point was that the incarcerations take a toll on the victims, along with their families, friends, and communities. It is not just one person who is affected by wrongful decisions. The panel then moved on to more general questions about the criminal justice system and how to make social reforms.
Given that this program took place on the national day of remembrance for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it seemed fitting for the panel to remind the audience of two key quotes. The first, from Dr. King: “True peace is not the absence of attention, it is the presence of justice,” and from Bryan Stevenson: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice.”
To that end, each panelist left the audience with a “take away” for moving forward. People were reminded to remain hopeful and to be willing to work hard for a brighter, better future. They were encouraged to leave the theater with the courage to fight the necessary battles in order to improve the criminal justice system. This means staying informed, working with legislators to pass meaningful bills, voting, and serving on juries.
Former Sanford Administrative Assistant Dottie Andrews was among those in attendance. She shared: "I am so glad that on all days, this is the day that I saw the powerful movie Just Mercy
and learned so much about the work being done to correct injustices in our criminal justice system. It just seems right to be here as we honor Dr. King. Thank goodness there are people like Stevenson, and now his impressive cousin Savannah, who are willing to tackle these important issues. I will be reflecting on both the movie and the ideas shared by the panel and will work harder to understand the extent of the problems we face as a society, especially with wrongful incarceration."
Taylor concluded: “We must think of the future and of our young people. Savannah is a great example of a person who was moved and used that feeling to take action. We must all live boldly and know when right is wrong.”