When it came out in 1960 I was fourteen. In those days before the Civil Rights Movement it was an explosive novel. A couple of years later I read it in high school and I fell in love with Atticus Finch, Scout, and Jem.
I railed at the injustice of Tom Robinson’s death and admired the deeply felt and simply rendered lessons of a small town, white attorney who was quite realistic about living in an imperfect world. Two years ago, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, was re-released at its fifty-year mark. I re-read it then and was reminded of all that is violent, dark, explosive, and ugly in the history of race relations in America. But I also marveled at the many scenes of decency and social justice. A particularly iconic scene that stays with the reader is the night the lynch mob planned to storm the jail and kill Tom Robinson. But Jean Louise shamed them with her innocence. Through the eyes of children what is right or wrong is so simple and unchanging.
On Saturday night The NBC Nightly News program mentioned that the film of To Kill a Mockingbirdis now fifty years old, coming out originally in 1962. So I watched it for the fifth or sixth time. Rarely does a film live up to a book but this is an exception.
President Obama recorded a preface to the film and stated that it reminded us of the values we share and the timelessness of human decency.
In our never-ending struggle to treat all people based on their character rather than their skin color, the lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird still hold true. I must admit that when Atticus Finch left that courtroom and the entire balcony stood up, I was once again moved to tears. As the minister said to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise. Stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Of course neither the book nor the film has a happy ending. That seldom happens in realistic books or films about this subject and period in American History. But even so, To Kill a Mockingbird—whether novel or film—reminds us that a society’s decency and moral character is judged by how it treats its poorest, its outcasts, its mockingbirds.
It is fifty years later and we still don’t seem to get the message that we’re all in this together.