CHICAGO – As America marks Banned Books Week, the ACLU of Illinois today strongly condemned a recent, secret vote by the Yorkville Board of Education to bar the inclusion of Just Mercy by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in an English course. The Board’s vote in August 2023 reversed a previous Board decision maintaining the title in the curriculum.
“Banning books is not a practice limited to other states,” said Edwin C. Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the ACLU of Illinois in criticizing the action in Yorkville. “What we are seeing in Yorkville is part of a national attempt to curb reading materials based on politics and ideology, to the detriment of students and educators. “
Just Mercy raises critical questions about mass incarceration and racial inequities in our criminal legal system through the story of a young lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, founding the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama to combat systemic racism in Alabama and across the South. It follows Stevenson’s efforts over many years to free Walter McMIllan, a Black man who served years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Yorkville High School has used the title for a number of years in one an English classes on rhetoric—the art of using language effectively and persuasively. Many Yorkville students have read the text as part of that class.
At a meeting in May, the Yorkville Board addressed a complaint from at least one parent about the inclusion of the book. After discussion with school staff and teachers, the Board voted unanimously to continue its use in the English class, while suggesting that staff identify an alternative title that could be offered if some parents object to Just Mercy. During an executive session of the Board in August, a majority reversed that decision – without public explanation – and barred the book’s use from the curriculum.
The Board’s actions have led to a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office alleging a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“The national fever to remove certain books is driven by a desire to stifle LGBTQ+ stories, voices addressing racial injustices, and others who often suppressed in our society,” added the ACLU’s Yohnka. “Yorkville should not join this movement and we hope they will heed the voices – the majority of voices – in the community who do not did not want this book removed from the curriculum by Board members not actually in the classroom.”
Since the Board acted in August to remove Just Mercy, a number of residents – led by students who have used the text at Yorkville High School --- have spoken out publicly to condemn the Board’s actions. The ACLU of Illinois encourages those community members to continue their advocacy for an inclusive curriculum.