Cover of "And Still I Rise"
Cover of And Still I Rise

This is the compelling story of the Stephen Lawrence case told by his mother Doreen. Stephen was an 18-year-old British teenager of Jamaican parents, who was stabbed to death by a group of white youths in a vicious, unprovoked attack, on the night of April 22, 1993, while he was waiting at a bus stop with a friend.

The book begins with the words:

Two lives ended one chilly April night thirteen years ago. One was the life of my elder son…He was murdered by a gang of violent, racist boys, and they got away with it. They remain unpunished to this day. The second life that ended was the life I thought was mine.

Doreen Lawrence’s story, for it is her story as much as it is Stephen’s, is told in a direct, conversational style that is very easy to read, and at the same time very moving.

She traces her early years in Jamaica, starting with her comfortable, protected life with loving grandparents. She  went to live with an uncaring aunt after her grandmother’s death, and then migrated to England at the age of nine to live with a distant mother with whom she was never able to establish any real relationship.

Lawrence describes her marriage, which she says made her feel “needed and valued” for the first time since her grandmother’s death and also chronicles the years before Stephen’s killing with her husband, Neville, and her three children.

But the bulk of the book, of course, is given over to Stephen’s brutal murder, and the family’s determination to get justice for him.

Even if you have been following this case, the book will probably give you a new perspective. It exposes in detail the true depth of the indifference, negligence and racism of the police force, the courage and determination it clearly took for a working-class, immigrant, black family to challenge the largely white and powerful establishment in the way they did, and the dedication of the lawyers who worked with them throughout the years.

Here are some highlights:

1.The police were not short on intelligence. There were dozens of tip-offs in the first couple of days, many repeating the same names. One man walked into the police station less than a day after the killing and named three of the killers and told the police their address.

2. The killers named were known trouble-makers who had already attacked several other people.

3. It wasn’t until three days after the murder that the police sent a photographer and a policeman to carry out surveillance of the house at which the murderers were staying. The photographer took pictures of two of the youths leaving the house with appeared to be bags of clothes. The policeman couldn’t follow them as he had no car, and couldn’t call anyone because he had no cell phone. In the meantime, the full surveillance team was shadowing a black youth suspected of “theft from the person.”

4. The Lawrences were able to meet with Nelson Mandela two weeks after the murder, and Mandela’s

Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993.
Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

public condemnation of the killing helped to raise its profile in the media.

5. While the campaign for justice was heating up, one senior police officer wrote another stating that  “…our patience is wearing thin, not only with the Lawrence family and their representatives, but also with self-appointed public and media commentators.”

6. On February 14, 1997 based on the information that came out in the inquest,  the Daily Mail took the unprecedented step of naming the five white youths as murderers in a banner headline and challenging them to sue for defamation.

7. The family initially objected to the appointment of retired Justice Sir William MacPherson to head the landmark public enquiry into the matter because of his record of being severe on immigrants and asylum-seekers. The MacPherson Report turned out to be highly critical of the police force which Sir William  accused of  “institutional racism.”

(photo credit – BBC)

8. The Lawrences’ marriage crumbled under the weight of their grief and depression.

Two of the murderers were, in January, convicted as a result of advances in forensic science, and also because of a momentous 2003 amendment to the criminal law which abolished the double jeopardy rule which stated that no one could be tried twice for the same crime. This had been one of the recommendations in the MacPherson report and was critical to the convictions as the family had mounted an unsuccessful  private prosecution against the youths.

Named for the Maya Angelou poem from which Doreen Lawrence says she draws strength, And Still I Rise is not just a good read, it is a poignant account of an ordinary woman thrust into circumstances she never would have chosen, and in the process, accomplishing extraordinary things.

Highly recommended.