62 Years Later, Mockingbird Still Offers Lessons

Harper Lee’s seminal novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published 62 years ago on July 11.

Somewhere between 40 million and 50 million copies of the novel have been sold. It has been translated into 40 languages. A movie version (about which Harper wrote adoringly) premiered Christmas Day 1962 and was an immediate commercial and critical success. Both film and book are considered classics and are shoo-ins for any “best of all time” charticles.

Go Set a Watchman, written by Lee and published in 2015, was originally promoted as Lee’s sequel to Mockingbird. It was later discovered to be a first draft of Mockingbird.

Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar® for his screenplay for The Social Network, and is probably best known for TV’s The West Wing, adapted Mockingbird for the stage, infusing it with an updated tone more in tune with these times.

Sorkin’s Mockingbird, with Richard Thomas (The Waltons, The Americans, Ozark) as attorney Atticus Finch, comes to The Straz Center April 11-16, as part of the 2022-23 Bank of America Broadway at The Straz season.

So, has anyone been paying attention?

Despite its status and continued popularity, the book’s simple messages seem to be ignored more and more.

Spoken by Finch:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it.”

“(R)eal courage is … when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Compassion. Courage. Conscience. Remember them?

The conscience quote brings to mind the scene from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck decides to help Jim escape slavery, even though he’s been taught all his life that slaves are property and helping a slave escape is a sin.

“I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’”

Huck’s conscience determines that he’ll help Jim even though he believes he’s damned his own soul to hell. That’s courage. His compassion insists he recognize Jim’s humanity, even as society denies it.

Don’t feel bad, Atticus. We didn’t listen to Huck, either.

In the nearly 100 years between Huck and Atticus, Jim Crow laws and lynchings let people of color know the rules were different for them. As civil rights legislation began to break down some of the law’s institutionalized racism, aggrieved whites responded with bombings, murder and kidnapping.

Six decades later and a young man poisons his mind, stocks up on firearms and kills 10 people in a grocery store for the grave offense of having skin that was a different color than his.

And even after this, TV commentators feed bogus fears by promoting racist hogwash like “the great replacement.”

Obviously, a book or movie isn’t going to eliminate racism, no matter how many copies it sells. But novels such as Huckleberry Finn and Mockingbird hold a mirror up to society.

It’s society’s duty to look in that mirror and decide if they’re proud of what they see.

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