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Hypocrisy and Incarceration in Small town U.S.A.
The Elephant in the Room
In the middle of a Monroe County Alabama sits a small town known as Monroeville, in this town, there’s an elephant. An elephant so fantastic and ostentatious it sits in the middle of town. If one was to ask a citizen of Monroeville where the elephant dwelt, they would not know. They would not know the location of this building, this elephant in the room, that stands in memoriam to their own hypocrisy. This building sits on sacred ground, center to Monroeville’s local universe, in the middle of the town. The structure is filled with the evidence necessary to prosecute people of Monroeville in a court of moral standing, on charges of hypocrisy. A fitting analogy for this building, a courthouse, that was intended as a place of justice.
Built in 1903, the Monroe county courthouse is now long retired as a courtroom and serves as the county and city museum. This museum not only contains a plethora of history on the local area, but also tells the story of Monroeville’s beloved daughter Harper Lee, the esteemed author of the book To Kill A Mockingbird. But Monroeville, the shining gem in Alabama’s back pocket, is not without its issues; some of which include a rising poverty rate of 39.4%, and rising crime rate. Despite this, Monroeville is considered the literary capital of Alabama, and as the home town of renowned author Harper Lee, whose book discusses justice for the innocent and disenfranchised. The town claims Harper Lee their prophet and To Kill a Mockingbird their ten commandments, but wholly ignores the racial and social issues they seek to mitigate and solve. Monroeville is not alone in this behavior, but it is surely guilty of the hypocrisy it is charged with, intentional or not, this town and its people are complicit in facilitating and ignoring this hypocrisy, at the expense of people’s lives; they are guilty of ignoring the elephant in the room.
Bryan Stevenson understands this hypocrisy and complicity more than anyone else. In his book Just Mercy, he describes his journey as a young lawyer and Harvard graduate. Shortly following graduation Stevenson spent a period of time with the Southern Prisoner Defense Council, whose mission is defending and protecting the innocent. It was at this time that the curious case of Monroeville’s Water McMillan crossed his desk. Mr. McMillan was a middle-aged black man, who was raised in an impoverished African American neighborhood not far from Monroeville proper. He had founded a profitable tree pulp business and was well respected in the community. He also had a wife, Minnie McMillan, and several kids. But Mr. McMillan, despite his mild nature, would become a victim of heinous injustice and accusation parallel to that of the case in To Kill a Mockingbird. Though ironically enough, Mr. McMillan, who had lived in Monroeville his whole life, had never heard of Harper Lee, or her book.
McMillan’s lack of knowledge about Ms. Lee seems shocking given how the citizens of Monroeville adore her, even Stevenson in his book mentions the town's obsession with Ms. Lee. Rightfully so as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is praised as an example of justice and progressive thinking in a time of segregation and racial strife. McMillan, however, would not have seen the evidence or example of Ms. Lee’s teachings in the people of Monroeville. Among the aforementioned issues, social and racial tensions still abound in Ms. Lee’s hometown. This includes the disproportionate incarceration rate in Monroeville of African Americans to white people, with the prison population consisting of over 94% African Americans and only 7% white. Poverty also continues to be a disproportionate issue amongst the African American and the minority community. Despite all the evident signs of endemic poverty and racism, Monroeville as a community, spent over 2.1 million dollars in 2001 to restore the Monroeville courthouse to enshrine and display the towns literary and cultural heritage. The Monroeville courthouse in not only an elephant in the room, but it also serves as a façade to the racial and societal issues that continue in spite of the towns apparent awareness, and attunement to these issues thanks to Ms. Lee’s work.
McMillan was a victim of this façade. In 1986, He was falsely charged and prosecuted based on false testimony, produced as a result of witness manipulation, and sentenced to death for the murder of Rhonda Morrison, a young white girl. Walter was but one of many who have been persecuted, falsely convicted, and unfairly sentenced on the grounds of race. According to a 2014 study of death row prison populations, it was determined that at least 4.1% of inmates were falsely convicted and according to Stevenson, those rates are perhaps much higher. The statistics are even higher for those who are black and wrongly convicted. As of 2016, over 47% of those falsely convicted and exonerated are black, meaning that more African Americans are falsely convicted in the first place.
Why do we as a society continue to persecute those of different color and economic status, those who are generally more disenfranchised? For Monroeville, the answer is simple, Mr. McMillan had been involved in an extramarital affair with a local white woman, a taboo act for such a racially entrenched area. His somewhat successful status as a black business owner also made him a controversial figure. The boundaries McMillan pushed in an era entrenched in tradition made him a target of racial prejudice and a potential scapegoat for the unsolved murder of Ms. Morrison. For Monroeville, the prosecution of Walter McMillan, however false, was closure to this unsolved case who’s circumstances astounded and shocked the community. The fact that he was black only aided in their efforts to make him a scapegoat for this crime.
It is much the same situation for people of, minorities, and the impoverished across the U.S. Their status as economically disadvantaged or disenfranchised, poses a drain on our resources and patience as a nation, making them vulnerable to prejudice and exploitation. This is evident in the disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates for the aforementioned groups. Sadly, it is much easier for us to simply state that we are attempting to fix these issues of prejudice and exploitation than attempt to actually fix racism and poverty. As a result, we continually sweep people like Walter McMillan, whose life experiences are so contradictory to our claim of being a just nation, off to penitentiaries and county jails across the nation.
Acknowledging the Elephant
For Stevenson, the contradiction between Monroeville and the ethics of To Kill a Mockingbird were present in every effort he took to secure McMillan’s release. It was present in Stevenson’s every interaction with the Monroe County government and Monroeville’s people. One would hope that Mr. McMillan’s case would have offered Monroeville redemption, an opportunity for self-reckoning. Perhaps a chance to provide Monroeville with a better example of justice and mercy than in To Kill a Mockingbird, where the falsely accused black man is shot in the back while attempting to escape prison. However, while Mr. Stevenson would eventually secure McMillan’s release, his story ends no better than the real-life events on which To Kill a Mockingbird is based.
Many people think that the trial in Ms. Lee’s book is based on the infamous 1931 case of the Scottsboro boys, which involved the conviction of nine, young, black children for the rape of two white girls. It is more likely, however, and perhaps more reasonable, that Ms. Lee gathered her inspiration from the 1933 trial of Monroeville native, Walter Lett. Mr. Lett, a middle-aged black man, was accused of rape by a Mrs. Lowry, a white lady of local standing. At first, there were many concerns about the legitimacy of the accusation, as there were rumors that Lett was a scapegoat to hide Mrs. Lowry’s supposed extramarital affair with a local white man. Despite this Mr. Lett was still prosecuted and sentenced to death on the charges of rape. After spending months on death row awaiting his execution date, Mr. Lett was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and was sent to an asylum to criminally insane, where he died in 1937. Walter McMillan fared no better. After Stevenson secured his release, Walter was diagnosed with Schizophrenia as a result of the trauma incurred during his incarceration. He spent the remainder of his life in a mental institution.
For Monroeville, there was no redemption, and to the nation, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Walter was just another victim of the system, even after his release he suffered as a result of Monroeville’s Hypocrisy. But Monroeville is not alone, across the United States we are all guilty, in small and large towns alike, of this same hypocrisy. Monroeville’s hypocrisy is merely a microcosm, albeit an extreme one, of the larger issues of incarceration, justice, and race in the United States. Over 2.7% of the United States adult population is under some kind of correctional supervision, and as a whole, the U.S. prison population makes up 21% of the world’s total. Racial disparities continue to be an issue in incarceration with African Americans five times more likely to be arrested than a Caucasian person, and as previously mentioned more likely to be falsely accused. There are many causations, elephants in the room that contribute to this issue, some of these elephants sit in town squares others in our hearts. Whether the hypocrisy is racism or complacency, we need to acknowledge our complicity before we wash are hands of guilt, and as a result end the suffering of our fellow man. We are all guilty of this hypocrisy, we are all guilty of complacency and we have all seen the elephant in the room, but will we choose to acknowledge it?
© 2018 Jacob Ivey