Gettysburg College believes in creating an environment that generates enthusiasm around student learning. To cultivate that experience, all first-year students participated in the 5th annual First-Year Common Reading Program. The program provides a common intellectual experience for first-year students; promotes college-level engagement through critical reading and discussion; and fosters a sense of community among first-year students, faculty and staff.
This year’s common reading was Just Mercy, a book focused on mercy, redemption, and a plea to fix a broken justice system. Authored by Attorney Bryan Stevenson, the book shares the story about a young, newly-barred lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal practice committed to protecting the wrongly condemned and convicted. Stevenson brought stories about men and women like Marsha Colby, Walter MacMillan, and Anthony Ray Hinton into living rooms around the world with his inspiring book.
As a way to bring the discussion about Just Mercy and issues of social and racial injustice to life, Gettysburg’s extended orientation program Charting Your Course (CYC) invited Anthony Ray Hinton, one of Stevenson’s clients who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row, to campus. Hinton recently released his memoir, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.
Faculty and students sat stunned and silent as they listened to Hinton’s emotional and heart-wrenching story about survival, redemption, and mercy. Having been arrested and convicted for two murders he did not commit, he spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row. “For 3 years after I was convicted, I didn’t talk to another human being because I was so filled with hate,” Hinton said.
But on April 3, 2015, Hinton exited the Jefferson County Jail, and instead of hate, he was filled with forgiveness. “I forgave so I could sleep at night,” he said. “True forgiveness is the only way to be free, and I want to be free."
A standing ovation ended the lecture, but it did not end ongoing discussions. It’s critical for Gettysburg College to build and maintain an environment that asks questions and challenges assumptions, so important conversations across campus will continue as students discuss Just Mercy, Anthony Ray Hinton’s lecture, and issues of racial and social injustice.