Format Hardcover
Publication Date 05/07/24
ISBN 9781639366750
Trim Size / Pages 6 x 9 in / 320

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Big Red's Mercy

The Shooting of Deborah Cotton and a Story of Race in America

Mark Hertsgaard

The moving story of a New Orleans woman who fought for justice and her community even amidst one of the city's darkest moments.

Mark Hertsgaard and Deborah Cotton were strangers to one another, united only by a love of jazz and New Orlean’s distinctive Second Line tradition. And then, during a Mother’s Day parade, they were thrown together when two gunmen fired into the crowd…

Deborah Cotton—known to all as Big Red—was among the most grievously injured. She is the driving force of this deeply reported parable of two of America’s most deeply rooted issues. A racial justice activist in her forties who was born to a Black father and a white mother, Cotton was one of twenty people—including the author—shot in the biggest mass shooting in the modern history of New Orleans. Once one of the largest slave ports, the city has long been a vortex of violence and racism.

From her apparent deathbed, Big Red shocked observers by urging mercy for two young Black men accused of the attack. “Racism can kill Black people even when a Black finger pulls the trigger,” she tells Hertsgaard, who, she later said, is “called” to investigate what actually happened, and why.

Charismatic, complicated, and struck down in her prime, Big Red and her heroic life will captivate readers. In the wake of the shooting, she never stopped fighting as she sought to get to the core of this uniquely American maelstrom. Big Red's Mercy is an illuminating narrative that provides a human and unflinching look at modern America.

Front cover photo credit by Linda Usdin

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven nonfiction books, including On Bended Knee:  The Press and the Reagan Presidency and Hot: Living through The Next Fifty Years on Earth.  As a journalist, Hertsgaard has from around the world for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and more. He is the co-founder and executive director of Covering Climate Now (

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Endorsements & Reviews

"The enterprising journalist Mark Herstsgaard was caught in a shooting during a jazz parade in New Orleans, and he tells the story through a woman—Deborah Cotton—who was gravely wounded and forgave. The result is a deeply layered tale of race and understanding and tension that is very much the story of a complex city but also of our nation." Walter Isaacson
Praise for Mark Hertsgaard
"Hertsgaard is the master of a kind of reporting that lets you understand possibilities and problems in a deep way. But this time, one of the places he's traveling to is the near future, and the news he brings back is equal parts scary, invigorating, and full of challenge. This is an important book."
Bill McKibben
"One of America's finest journalists confronts one of the world's most urgent problems. Hertsgaard cuts through the denial and disinformation and bravely takes aim at perhaps the greatest threat of all: apathy."
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation
"Lucid, realistic, and offers reason for hope." The Christian Science Monitor
"I know what you're thinking: The problem is so massive I can't bear to read any more about it. But you’re wrong. Mark Hertsgaard not only makes the workings of climate change clear, vivid and comprehensible but gives us some reasons for hope. A lively, personal, very human piece of reportage about an issue that will ever more be at the very center of our lives." Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
"Readable and passionate." Publishers Weekly
"Informative, vividly reported, and passionate." The San Francisco Chronicle