CONVERSATION STARTER: Community reading project hopes to inspire discussion on race

Kyle Turpin, marketing manager at Hancock County Public Library, unpacks copies of "Just Mercy," which will be distributed communitywide. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Hundreds of copies of a book titled “Just Mercy” are circulating throughout Hancock County with a major mission — to share the story with as many readers as possible over the next two months.

In fact, those who see a copy sitting around at the library, a restaurant or coffee shop are encouraged to pick it up and take it home — provided it has a bookmark that says “read me” tucked inside.

The community reading campaign is being led by members of the League of Women Voters Hancock County, who are distributing copies of “Just Mercy” as a means to spark a community conversation about race relations and the criminal justice system.

The autobiographical story, written by Bryan Stevenson, tells the story of his experiences as a young attorney fighting to exonerate people falsely accused on death row.

Donna Steele, a member of the local League of Women Voters, said the book was chosen from a list of recommendations made by League members of books they had read regarding the criminal justice system, race or a combination of the two. A list of three finalists was submitted to officials at the Hancock County Public Library, who selected “Just Mercy.”

“We feel like it’s a very important topic and a very timely topic,” said Steele, a part-time Greenfield resident who recently relocated to her home state of Alabama. “Since the conversation was happening in our country about the criminal justice system, we felt it should happen in our county, too.”

Having been raised in the South, Steele admits to growing up with certain racial prejudices that she’s been working to identify.

As a teenager growing up in 1980s Alabama, Steele said she was a bit too young to live through the most bitter racial divides of that area in the 1960s. But the state’s role in the civil rights movement –often marked by violence — left an imprint.

“It has taken me a lifetime, and I’m still working on it, to undo the remnants of inherited racism from my culture, from the media, and from a lesser degree my family,” she said.

To undo ingrained racial prejudices, Steele has immersed herself in books and movies by Black authors and producers. She hopes a community reading of “Just Mercy” can give people a glimpse into one of those gripping stories of how race impacts the criminal justice system.

“You can’t read (Black) literature and you can’t watch their TV programs without understanding there is a big racial divide in this country. It’s just the way it is. It has allowed me to become much more empathetic and caring,” she said.

“Just Mercy” tells the story of the Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit law practice the author, Stevenson, started in Montgomery, Alabama. One of his clients was Walter McMillian, a Black man who was wrongly convicted in the death of a white woman. He spent six years on death row in Alabama before an appeals court reversed his conviction.

Kyle Turpin, marketing manager at the Hancock County Public Library, was thrilled to get the library involved in the community read project.

“Whenever we can get together as a community and tackle a tough subject in an intellectually honest way, I think everyone benefits,” he said. “Community reads aren’t just about everyone reading the same book, but about the conversations that follow.”

Turpin said the library’s and the League’s missions align in the areas of inclusion and intellectual freedom. “So when they reached out to us for assistance with the ordering, processing and distribution of the books, we were happy to help,” he said.

The Hancock County Public Library provided 100 books, and the League of Women Voters purchased 250 more. About 100 copies have been distributed to local high schools.

The reception has been so positive that the League will likely purchase more, Steele said

Race relations are just half the puzzle addressed by the book, she said.

“There’s also the issue of the criminal justice system, which is not colorblind. The author of the book has devoted his life to getting innocent people off of death row. And most often those people are people of color,” she said.

The book’s theme falls in line with the focus on this year’s League of Women Voters convention, which encompasses race and the criminal justice system.

Steele said the goal of the league, a 100-year-old, politically neutral organization, is to empower and educate voters and to get more people involved in the democratic process.

“A lot of community leaders recognize the importance of what this project is and they’re supporting it,” Steele said.

Betty Tonsing, a board member of the League of Women Voters Hancock County, presents copies of "Just Mercy" to members of the business community as part of the kickoff of the community reading campaign. Accepting the books are Robb Farris of Keihin (left photo); and Sandy Alender and Mark Dudley of Team Re/Max Realty Group (right photo).
Betty Tonsing, a board member of the League of Women Voters Hancock County, presents copies of “Just Mercy” to members of the business community as part of the kickoff of the community reading campaign. Accepting the books are Robb Farris of Keihin (left photo); and Sandy Alender and Mark Dudley of Team Re/Max Realty Group (right photo).

League members were thrilled to get support for the community read project from community partners like Keihin, Ninestar Connect and the Hancock County Community Foundation, as well as the Hancock County Public Library and Fortville-Vernon Township Public Library.

To fund the community book discussion, the league sought out a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Indiana Humanities Council.

Since winning the grant, league members have been actively distributing the book throughout the county, hand-delivering copies to schools, libraries and government officials in all Hancock County municipalities.

All police chiefs, mayors, town managers, county commissioners and city and county council members were given a copy, and many high school students in the county are now reading the book as part of their English curriculum.

All three public library branches in the county will be giving away copies starting March 1.

“The point is to get people to read this book and have them pass it on to somebody else,” Steele said.

The community book initiative will culminate with a screening of the movie “Just Mercy,” based on the book, at the Ricks Centre for the Arts in Greenfield on May 6. The 2019 movie stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as MacMillian.

A panel discussion will follow the screening, including input from Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton; a retired Black police officer from Muncie; and a local pastor who spoke at peace protests around the country last year.

The League of Women Voters will also provide free streaming of the move for the three days leading up to the live screening.

Steele hopes the community discussion of “Just Mercy” will encourage participants to acknowledge the ongoing racial discord in the country, and to find ways to address it. “If you don’t admit there’s a problem you can’t fix it,” she said.