To the Editor:
“Finality, not fairness” ended Herbert Richardson’s life: an all-white jury condemned him to death despite the obvious psychological trauma he suffered during the Vietnam War. His end had approached certainty, but his final hours on Aug. 18, 1989, were spent in confusion.
Minutes before his execution, Herbert turned to Bryan Stevenson and said: “More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last 14 hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.”
Herbert’s story passes between 20 freshmen discussing Just Mercy. I’m standing opposite President Dell’Omo in his living room, and we’re listening as their passion flares from racism and the death penalty to Ferguson.
Conversations like these are well and good, but a poor substitute for action. Recent incidents of violence on the Lawrenceville campus initially provoked hysteria, but instead of lending to collaborative efforts to find solutions, these emotions pointed fingers and then faded into nothingness.
Only worse than misapplication is apathy: Last year, during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, support at Rider was nonexistent. Select conversations such as these may be loud, but in terms of action, Rider has been silent.
In closing, President Dell’Omo posed a final question: “If you could ask Bryan Stevenson anything, what would it be?”
Herbert spent 11 years on death row, yet rampant complacency in the justice system prevented action on his case. Why is our reflex not to act? Are we ignorant, afraid, or just not self-aware? Suddenly, I feel just as confused as he was.
I think of him as I respond: “What can we do, as college students, to improve the world for others?”
When Emma Sulkowicz’s sexual assault at Columbia University was met with silence, she responded not with words, but by carrying her mattress. Thousands of students around the country noticed, and together they started a conversation. Alongside administrators, they pushed for comprehensive policies that would further prevent such violence on college campuses.
Emma and her supporters share a commonality with Stevenson. In many of his cases, the road to justice was obstructed by decades of deep-rooted inequality and nonintervention. But his response was not anger; it was concrete, persistent action.
We as a community must come to two understandings: that our conversations need to be oriented toward solutions, not complaints; and that when these important conversations are not present, our responsibility is to act until they form.
At Herbert’s request, the hymn “Old Rugged Cross” played as he approached the electric chair. The song describes a weathered cross upon a hill as an “emblem of suff’ring and shame;” yet instead of running from it, we are called to embrace it. Rider is not short of problems, but they’ll only be resolved if we reach out and unite against them.
I encourage everyone to listen to Stevenson’s words, both in person and on paper. Yet remember: Just Mercy teaches us that it’s not the first few steps up the hill that matter, it’s the last few that carry us over.
If anything, Just Mercy reaches out to the Rider community and says: Carry together that old rugged cross, even if it’s a mattress.
Junior English and finance double major
Printed in the 10/14/15 issue.