Justyce McAllister, a black seventeen-year-old boy, goes to rescue his very drunk ex-girlfriend, Melo Taylor, from trying to drive herself home at 3:00 a.m. Responding to a call from Melo’s concerned friend Jessa, Justyce walks a mile from his best friend Manny Rivers’s house to help. Manny thinks that the beautiful, light-skinned Melo is bad news. As Justyce struggles to get Melo into her Mercedes-Benz, she spills the contents of her purse and throws up on Justyce’s hoodie. He has to pick her up to put her in the back seat of her car, where she immediately falls asleep. When the police arrive, Justyce tries to make it appear that Melo wasn’t planning to drive herself home. But Officer Castillo misreads the situation. He grabs Justyce, handcuffs him, pushes him to the ground, hits him, and swears at him. Officer Castillo assumes that because Justyce is black and wearing a hoodie and Melo is beautiful and looks white that Justyce is trying to take advantage of a girl who has accidentally locked her keys in her car.
In an experiment to incorporate the teachings Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into his life, Justyce writes letters to Dr. King, to whom he refers simply as “Martin.” In his first letter dated August 25, he introduces himself and talks about the night he was arrested. Justyce is a senior with a full scholarship at Braselton Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, where he’s captain of the debate team and ranked fourth in his class. Justyce grew up in a rough neighborhood but now has plans to go to an Ivy League college, get a law degree, and have a career in public policy.
Justyce expresses his anger that Officer Castillo wouldn’t release him from his handcuffs even after Melo’s parents arrived. He adds that Officer Castillo insisted that Justyce is an adult and wouldn’t call Justyce’s mother. Justyce explains that he was finally released with the help of Mrs. Friedman, a lawyer and the mother of his friend and debate partner, Sarah-Jane, or SJ. In his letter, Justyce reflects on the unfairness of the situation he was in and the assumptions made about him as a young black man. He thinks about Shemar Carson, a black seventeen-year-old with a promising future who was shot and killed by a white policeman in Nevada. Justyce is now even more aware of the inequality between whites and blacks.
Justyce and Manny hang out in Manny’s basement, where they play video games and talk. Emmanuel “Manny” Rivers is black, wealthy, good-looking, and captain of the Braselton Prep basketball team. They talk about the incident with Officer Castillo and the fact that Melo and Justyce have gotten back together. Manny calls the relationship toxic, pointing out that Melo cheated on Justyce and has now gotten Justyce in trouble with the police. Dr. Rivers, Manny’s psychologist mother, invites Justyce to dinner. She then gets a call from Manny’s aunt, who tells her that Manny’s cousin has been charged with killing a police officer.
On his way to his Societal Evolution class, Justyce thinks about the news that a Nevada grand jury has decided not to indict the policeman who killed Shemar Carson and that Manny’s cousin, Quan Banks confessed to killing Officer Castillo, the same officer who arrested Justyce. Quan and Justyce grew up in the same neighborhood, and they played together as kids before Quan got involved in a gang.
In class, Dr. Jarius “Doc” Dray, the teacher and debate team advisor, warns Justyce that the class discussion may be emotionally difficult. Doc asks the class to examine the claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. Manny’s friend since kindergarten, a white boy named Jared Christensen, and SJ, the class valedictorian, who is white and Jewish, dominate the conversation. Jared claims that America is now color-blind and that all American citizens have full rights and equal opportunities. He uses Manny’s successful parents as an example. SJ pushes back on Jared’s assertions, using Shemar Carson as an example of the unfair treatment of blacks in America. Throughout the discussion, Justyce and Manny stay mostly quiet.
Justyce overhears Jared, Manny, and their white friends Kyle Berkeley, Tyler Clepp, and Blake Benson discuss the conversation from Societal Evolution. Jared feels angry that Doc suggested that racial equality doesn’t exist in America. The boys talk disrespectfully about SJ and Melo’s interest in Justyce, and Jared comments on Justyce’s lack of money. Jared returns to his assertion that America is color-blind and racial equality exists. He then recalls reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in blackface for an eighth-grade play. The boys raise their Perrier bottles to equality.
Later, in his September 18 letter to Martin, Justyce reflects on visiting his mother and telling her that he doesn’t know how he fits at his school. While Justyce was put in handcuffs for no wrongdoing, his white classmates get away with illegal behavior. Justyce’s mother tells him that he has to be a fighter and make a place for himself in the world. Justyce struggles to understand why Manny spends time with white friends who disrespect black people and yet believe equality exists between the races.
For a Halloween party, Jared proposes he, Kyle, Tyler, Blake, Manny, and Justyce go as the Equality Brigade, dressing as stereotypes to prove that there is racial equality in America. Justyce dresses as “the Thug,” Manny as “the Token Black Guy,” Jared as the “Yuppie/Politician,” Tyler as “the Surfer Dude,” Kyle as “the Redneck”, and Blake as “the Klansman.”
Despite not wanting to spend time with Jared and his white friends, Justyce thinks about Dr. King’s vision of an integrated society and decides to go along. At the party, the boys from Braselton Prep run into the Black Jihad, Quan’s gang from Justyce’s neighborhood. A member of the Black Jihad punches Blake for his Klansman outfit and questions Manny and Justyce for hanging out with these white boys, who don’t respect them. Trey, one of the Black Jihad, says that Manny and Justyce need to be connected to whites to be successful. This encounter makes Manny and Justyce even more aware of their difficult situation.
In his November 1 letter to Martin, Justyce writes about his middle-of-the-night conversation with SJ in which they discuss the Halloween party and how Justyce doesn’t know where he fits in. Justyce explains that he doesn’t identify with the black gang from his neighborhood but that he also doesn’t fit with Jared and his crew, who have racist views. To make something of his life, Justyce believes he needs the help of whites, but he also doesn’t want to turn his back on black people. Justyce shares that his conversation with SJ made him realize how much he likes her. But he knows his mother will disapprove of his dating a white girl.
In Chapter 6, Justyce finds out he’s been accepted to Yale and calls to share the happy news with SJ, who will be attending Columbia, only an hour and a half from Yale. The next day at school, SJ jumps into Justyce’s arms in a big celebratory hug. Seeing SJ and Justyce together, Melo gets possessive and flirtatiously expresses interest in spending time with Justyce. Attracted by her beauty, Justyce agrees.
Manny congratulates Justyce for getting into Yale. Jared responds to the news by proposing that Doc’s class discuss affirmative action, which Jared considers unfair and the reason why he was deferred from Yale. Jared insists on comparing his academic success with Justyce’s. SJ and Manny come to Justyce’s defense, and SJ points out the advantages that students at Braselton have preparing for college in comparison to poor black students. She explains that low self-esteem can lead a student to underperform on standardized tests. Jared dismisses the advantage his wealthy parents gave him. He says that once in college, he will question the qualifications of minority students.
In his December 13 letter to Martin, Justyce talks about visiting his mother to share his college news and running into some of the Black Jihad. Hearing Justyce has gotten into Yale, Trey, one of the gang members, asserts that white people don’t want black people to be successful. Justyce feels frustrated by Jared underestimating him and Trey trying to pull him down. He worries students at Yale will doubt he has earned his place there. He also notes the difference between SJ, who celebrates his successes, and Melo, who causes him trouble.
While Manny and Justyce hang out in Manny’s basement, Manny asks what’s going on between Justyce and SJ. Manny assumes they are a couple and insists that SJ is the perfect girl for Justyce. But Justyce says they are only spending time together to prep for the debate, and he confesses that his mother would be unhappy if he dated a white girl. Justyce also admits to spending time with Melo again. Manny thinks Justyce is choosing the wrong girl and says Justyce isn’t acting like Dr. King when he discriminates against SJ for the color of her skin. Manny then talks about being afraid of black girls because the only ones he knows are his cousins, whom he describes as acting “ghetto.” Manny’s parents want him to go to Morehouse, the historically black male college, and Manny worries about going from a white prep school to a black college.
Chapter 9 opens on the morning of the state debate tournaments. Justyce and Melo have broken up again. When Justyce sees SJ, he tells her she looks nice. Since this is their final debate, Justyce worries he won’t have a reason to spend time with SJ after the event. For the advanced pairs argumentation, they argue against racial profiling, a topic SJ suggested. After the debate, Justyce and SJ stand with their arms wrapped around each other, waiting for their scores. Justyce and SJ argued their points so well that they win and become the state champions.
Later, in his January 13 letter to Martin, Justyce talks about his failed attempt to kiss SJ after the debate. He describes her turning away coldly. Justyce feels upset and baffled about her response because he felt sure they liked each other.
Justyce isn’t sleeping well. He’s upset about SJ and the news that Tavarrius Jenkins, a sixteen-year-old black boy in Florida, has died after being shot by the police. Jenkins had stopped to help a white woman whose Lexus ran out of gas and the police confused his cell phone for a gun. Justyce goes to talk to Doc and finds SJ there, crying about the news. She looks angrily at Justyce and departs. Justyce returns to his dorm room, and Manny shows up, insisting Justyce go with him to Blake’s birthday party. While drinking alcohol in Manny’s basement before the party, Manny and Justyce talk about what happened between SJ and Justyce and about Tavarrius Jenkins.
At Blake’s party, Justyce, drunk, becomes angered by the lawn statues of black jockeys, the posters of white people in blackface, and Blake using the n-word when he asks Manny and Justyce to help him get together with a black girl. Justyce calls Blake a racist and hits both Blake and Jared. Manny tries to calm Justyce down, but Justyce then becomes angry at Manny for putting up with racist behavior from his white friends and refuses Manny’s efforts to give him a ride back to school.
In his January 19 letter to Martin, Justyce expresses frustration with Jared and Blake continually reminding him he doesn’t belong at his elitist, white school while the news reminds him that whites view him as a threat. Justyce doesn’t understand why Manny doesn’t also feel upset. Justyce reveals that Dr. King’s message isn’t helping him.
In Chapter 11, Doc visits a hungover Justyce in his dorm room after receiving a concerned phone call from Manny. Justyce confesses to Doc what happened at the party the night before and admits he messed up. Justyce explains that since being mistreated by Officer Castillo, he’s been more aware of racism and has been reading the teachings of Dr. King. He then tells Doc about his abusive, alcoholic father who suffered from PTSD after serving in the military and later died in a drunk driving accident. Justyce worries he is behaving like him. Doc tells Justyce about his own experience growing up black and trying to excel in school. He encourages Justyce to hold on to his value, continue to work hard, and earn his accomplishments despite the way people may disrespect him. Doc then leaves Justyce to sleep.
In Chapter 12, Justyce notices that Jared and Manny are missing from Societal Evolution and lunch. He sees Jared at the end of the day and notes that his face appears swollen. Manny visits Justyce’s dorm room with a taped hand and swollen lip. He tells Justyce that he has finally woken up to his friends’ racism, has quit the basketball team because he doesn’t enjoy it, and punched Jared for making a racist joke. Manny thanks Justyce for opening his eyes to what he’d been feeling around his white friends.
In his January 23 letter to Martin, Justyce relates a conversation he had with Manny and Manny’s father. In that conversation, Mr. Rivers expressed regret that he tried to protect Manny from racism rather than prepare him for it. He told the boys about the racism he encounters at work and how much harder he had to work than whites to achieve his position. Mr. Rivers observed that the world is filled with racists like Jared but that the boys have to push past this reality and do their best instead of resorting to violence. Justyce feels disheartened to learn that no matter how successful he may become he won’t escape racism.
In Chapter 13, after picking up Justyce on Saturday morning to go hiking, Manny explains how angry he feels because Jared’s father is pressing assault charges against Manny for hitting Jared. Manny decides he needs to just drive around in order to calm down. To help lighten the mood, the boys blast music as they drive. A white man in a white Suburban angrily yells at the boys to turn the music down. Manny, tired of trying to please white people, provokes the man by pretending he can’t hear and then turning the music up. The white man calls the boys the n-word. Manny responds by swearing at the man and giving him the middle finger. Justyce tries to calm Manny down and reaches to turn the volume down. Then Manny swears, and the chapter ends.
Chapter 14 consists of only three words: Bang. Bang. Bang.
Transcript from the evening news, January 26—February 1, Dear Martin
The news reports that both Justyce and Manny have been shot and that one of them died on the way to the hospital. The shooter in the white Suburban turns out to be an off-duty Atlanta police officer, Garrett Tison.
Later, in his February 1 letter to Martin, Justyce states that Manny is dead and that he doesn’t want to write any more of these letters.
Mr. and Mrs. Rivers wait to hold Manny’s funeral until Justyce is out of the hospital and can attend, even though Justyce would prefer not to. Justyce knows from the death certificate the Manny was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Inside the church, Justyce sits with his mother. He sees SJ, who had visited him in the hospital, and Melo, who makes a scene with her crying. Justyce feels angry that Jared and his father are also present as he blames them for contributing to what happened to Manny. After the service, Justyce talks to SJ and tells her that he misses her. However, Justyce’s mother interrupts the conversation as she’s not happy with the friendly way SJ is looking at her son. In that moment, Justyce recognizes that his mother is being racist. He realizes SJ makes him feel bigger while others keep him small. Outside, the media swarm Justyce and his mother until Melo’s father, Mr. Taylor—a former professional football player—sends over his bodyguards to protect them.
A newspaper article shares the news that a Georgia grand jury has indicted Officer Garrett Tison on the shooting of Manny and Justyce. One of Tison’s neighbors and a fellow police officer defend Tison’s actions, claiming the boys are “thugs” and that there is racial bias against Tison.
In chapter 16, the owner of a local auto dealership who thinks what happened to Manny and Justyce is wrong gifts Justyce a new Honda Civic. Justyce goes to dinner at the Riverses’ home to celebrate the indictment of Officer Tison, even though he would prefer not to. Dinner is mostly quiet. Mr. and Mrs. Rivers tell Justyce that Manny’s cousin Quan, who is in juvenile detention, would like Justyce to visit him. They then present Justyce with an expensive vintage Heuer watch that belonged to Manny’s grandfather, which they had planned to give Manny on his eighteenth birthday.
Justyce visits Quan at the detention center. He feels surprised that Quan wants to see him, but he also remembers when he and Quan played together in elementary school. Quan tells Justyce that Officer Castillo, who Quan is alleged to have killed, was Officer Tison’s partner. Justyce describes his encounter with Officer Castillo the night he rescued Melo. He then asks Quan why he killed Officer Castillo.
Cautious about not incriminating himself, Quan doesn’t answer directly, but he explains that he and his other gang members protect each other and that he does what they ask of him. Quan tells Justyce that whites have no respect for black people, and he then talks about the Black Man’s Curse (BMC) and the way blacks get harsher sentences than whites. Quan encourages Justyce to join a gang. He gives Justyce Trey’s number so Justyce can meet with Martel, the Black Jihad’s leader. Deciding Dr. King’s method didn’t work, Justyce takes Trey’s number despite his reservations.
Justyce feels tempted to call Trey but visits Doc’s classroom instead. SJ arrives, upset by a photo of Justyce dressed up in the “thug” costume for Halloween being shown on the local news. The commentators paint a negative image of Justyce and try to connect the murder of Officer Castillo with Manny’s murder. Justyce talks about doubting the effectiveness of Dr. King’s teachings, especially since he was murdered. Doc observes that the way Dr. King died wouldn’t have changed the way he chose to live. Doc also explains that some white people will choose to believe that Justyce is a “thug” rather than accept the fact that a white police officer murdered a black teen without cause.
After getting off a phone call with Jared, SJ shares the surprising news that Jared feels angry about the Halloween photo of Justyce being taken out of context. Jared’s father is going to insist the entire photo be published to include Blake in his KKK costume. Justyce accuses Jared of acting like “the Great White Hope,” but Doc thinks he’s probably just trying to protect Manny’s reputation. In a moment alone, SJ apologizes to Justyce for avoiding him.
A news item reports that Mr. Rivers has been forced to step down as VP at work because his support for Justice for JAM (Justyce and Manny) has caused his company to lose important clients and large amounts of revenue.
In Chapter 19, Mr. and Mrs. Rivers tell Justyce that they have decided to move. Feeling alone, Justyce goes to visit Martel, the leader of the Black Jihad, thinking Martel will understand how he feels. Still, Justyce decides not to drive his new car there or wear his expensive new watch. Outside the gang’s house, the gang members give Justyce a hard time. Once inside, Justyce notices all the African relics and Martel’s African dress. Justyce tells Martel about his feeling racially profiled, missing Manny, and his failed Dr. King experiment. At first, Justyce feels good talking with Martel, who speaks with pride about their African heritage. But then he’s reminded of the gang’s violence when he sees a sawed-off shotgun. Trey enters the room to show them a news report on his cell phone in which Blake Benson claims Justyce assaulted him. Justyce departs quickly after Brad, one of the Black Jihad, says that Justyce is just like them.
In chapter 20, Justyce impulsively drives over to SJ’s house, where her parents warmly greet him. SJ and Justyce talk up in her bedroom. He tells her about his visit to Quan and Martel and how he almost joined a gang. SJ hugs Justyce as he cries. She then asks him if he likes her, and she confesses to having liked him since tenth grade. Justyce admits he does like her, confessing he hadn’t told her before because his mother would disapprove. However, Justyce declares that he doesn’t care what his mother thinks anymore, and he asks SJ out. SJ tells Justyce that seeing him in the hospital was the worst moment in her life. The news reports an arson at Officer Tison’s home, which injured his wife. Three teens in the area are apprehended.
The police approach Justyce and his mother after the Braselton Prep graduation. Justyce’s mother tries to protect her son from the questions the police want to ask him about the Tison fire, but Justyce agrees to be treated as an adult and answer their questions. The police tell Justyce three teens have been arrested in connection to the fire and that two of them, Trey Filly and Bradley Mathers of the Black Jihad, named Justyce as an accomplice. Justyce confesses to seeing Trey and Bradley within the past two months but not on the night of the fire. Justyce’s mother tries to provide an alibi for Justyce, but he tells the police the truth that he was at his girlfriend SJ’s house to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary.
After SJ and her parents confirm this alibi, Justyce drives his mother home. Justyce’s mother reveals she’s unhappy to learn that he was in contact with the Black Jihad and is now dating a white girl. Justyce tells his mother that he is in love with SJ and that she brings out the best in him. His mother worries his having a white girlfriend will make his life more difficult.
Chapter 22 opens with Justyce on the witness stand testifying about Manny’s murder. After the district attorney, Mr. Rentzen, finishes questioning Justyce, the defense attorney begins asking her tough line of questions. She looks to paint a picture of Manny and Justyce as violent and volatile because of the fights they got in with Jared and Blake. She also cites the Atlanta noise ordinance and the fact that Manny turned the car music up when Tison asked him to turn it down. Finally, she references Quan Banks, who killed Tison’s partner, Officer Castillo. She notes that the gang the Black Jihad set fire to Tison’s house and that Justyce had recently visited this gang.
A news item reports that the jury finds Tison guilty of two misdemeanors but doesn’t reach a verdict about the murder charge. Another trial will be scheduled.
Two days after the verdict, Justyce and SJ, now dating, spend time together at SJ’s house and anticipate leaving together for college. Justyce gets messages from District Attorney Rentzen, which he ignores. Mr. Rentzen then reaches Mrs. Friedman, who enters the room and delivers the news that Garrett Tison is dead.
The news report suggests that Tison was murdered in prison after threats had been made on his life.
On August 25, while at Yale, Justyce writes another letter to Martin in which he asks himself what he was trying to accomplish by trying to be like Martin. Justyce feels like he’s failed at trying to get more respect, be more acceptable, and stay out of trouble. He describes his new college roommate, Roosevelt Carothers, and notes how Roosevelt acts negatively toward him. Aware that he is one of the few black students at Yale, Justyce wonders when white people will stop looking at him as though he’s inferior. Justyce decides to stop asking what Martin would do and recognizes that he needs to figure out who Justyce is and what Justyce believes. He then leaves with SJ to help her settle in at Columbia.
Four months later, Justyce visits Manny’s grave and finds Jared already there. Jared and Justyce talk about how much they miss Manny, about their Yale roommates, and about their intended majors. Justyce has decided to pursue civil rights law, and Jared is considering a minor in African American Studies. When Jared asks about SJ, Justyce expresses his hopes for their future together. Before leaving, Justyce and Jared express genuine interest in spending more time with each other.