The Mockingbird Turns 50
This past Sunday, July 11, marked the 50th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird. I think I was 10 or 11 when I first read Harper Lee’s novel, the only book she ever wrote, (as far as we know) and to this day, I can remember the sensations I had while reading it: the overwhelming feelings of heartbreak, of shame and outrage, and, in the end, of love and acceptance. The characters were so real and so vivid to me as a naïve kid growing up in Oklahoma and Texas that I felt as though they had become close personal friends. Some now deride the book as simple and one dimensional — one critic called the heroic Atticus Finch “a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams” — but the book, and the nobility of Atticus, meant a lot to me. In fact, as soon as I finished it, I started it all over again. It was some years later when I saw the movie, which came out in 1962 starring Gregory Peck. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite movies, too.
When I tell people about my love of To Kill a Mockingbird, some of them seem surprised. They assume I’d be drawn to something that’s more modern, I suppose. A couple of people have gone so far as to mention that America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote the novel about Scout Finch and her father, Atticus — a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape in 1930’s Alabama. They say that a black man is now president of the United States. There are no more fights over civil rights like there were in the Jim Crow era.
Well, it is a different time, and in many ways we have made great progress, but in some ways we have so very far to go. Racism still exists in this country, and it probably always will. Fear, ignorance and injustice — the main themes I saw in this book — are as prevalent today as they were decades ago.
That is why this book is so important to me. I think it is a rare masterpiece that taps into who we are and the way we live. Even the minor characters – Jem, Calpernia, Tom Robinson, and of course the mysterious Boo Radley from next door — teach us unforgettable lessons about what it means to be a true and unique human being.
This summer, I recommend that you put a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in the hands of your children, and I encourage you to read the book yourself if you haven’t done so. More than 30 million copies, 40 different languages and 50 years later, this story is as inspiring as ever. It lets us ask the questions we always need to ask: Do we constantly injure those who are harmless? Victimize those who have done nothing? Prey on the innocent? How far have we come, and how much further do we need to go?
My friend, Oprah Winfrey, has called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel.” I couldn’t agree more. As the great Atticus says, “Remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” — an innocent creature that never harms another creature but only sings out of happiness.