Classic book changed minds & hearts of many

Harper Lee dared to speak a truth that some people weren't ready to acknowledge, but the book's message wasn't necessarily for everyone.

Harper Lee dared to speak a truth that some people weren’t ready to acknowledge, but the book’s message wasn’t necessarily for everyone.

During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white man, precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott. Federal troops were dispatched to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce court-ordered integration of its public schools. From Emmett Till to lunch counter sit-ins to Freedom Riders, Americans found it increasingly difficult to ignore the societal upheaval surrounding the racial inequality of the late 1950s.

It was in this simmering atmosphere that Harper Lee penned To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, before the apex of the Civil Rights era, it received wide critical and popular acclaim. In 1961, Miss Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and watched as her novel was made into an Academy Award winning film.

Told from the perspective of six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, readers discovered an innocent yet wise voice that provided insight into the racial tensions that pervaded the South. While some decried it as a children’s book, most recognized it for what is was: A tale of children becoming increasingly aware of the workings – and inequities – of Jim Crow.

Mississippi native Tricia Walker is a Grammy winning singer/songwriter and director of the Delta Music Institute (Delta State University) in Cleveland, Mississippi. She remembers seeing the movie and reading the book during the 1960s.

“It was a very ‘familiar’ scenario, as my father was an attorney in our small town, and our town, Fayette, was in the news regarding the Civil Rights Movement,” she recalled. “The context of the young white children being cared for by an African-American woman was very common in my time and place, and it was difficult for a teenager coming of age to understand the ‘unwritten rules’ around the social mores of the time, particularly having been brought up in the church and being taught the Gospel. The tension and violence over race just didn’t make sense. I had been taught the old Sunday school song, ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children…red and yellow, black and white,’ and what I was seeing in my hometown just didn’t make good sense. I think it clearly held a mirror up in front of us as Southerners, and being told through the eyes of a child, full of innocence and wonder, it was hard to not be moved or shamed or hopefully, changed.”

Harper Lee dared to speak a truth that some people weren’t ready to acknowledge, but the book’s message wasn’t necessarily for everyone. While some white Southerners found a nonthreatening way to think differently about race, it was virtually ignored by African Americans.  In the PBS documentary for the “American Masters” series, Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, Civil Rights activist and Ambassador Andrew Young noted, “There was too much horror around me at the time for me to absorb more. We were aware of the harshness and brutality of segregation.”

However, for most white readers, it was an eye-opening introduction to segregation and prejudice. The novel (and film) gave the Civil Rights Movement context. “T’o Kill a Mockingbird sort of gave the background of that,” Young said, “but it also gave us hope that justice could prevail.”

In the years since its initial publication, TKOM has sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into 40 different languages, continuing to provide that context – and so much more – for generations of readers.
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Story by Rosemary Capanna for Pennsylvania Bridges

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