A novel of the civil rights struggle

August 5, 2010

Fifty years after its publication, Megan Behrent takes a look at what Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird has to say about racism.

AS NEW debates erupt about racism, provoked by the bigotry of the Tea Partiers and the rush to judgment about Shirley Sherrod, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being celebrated around the country with festivals, re-enactments, book clubs and even "mocktails."

While the celebrations are in part a commercial gimmick to sell more books, they're also a testament to the lasting legacy of a novel that is among the most read (and most loved) books of 20th century American literature. Lee's only novel earned her a Pulitzer Prize, has sold over 30 million copies, is taught in 75 percent of U.S. high schools, and has been titled "our national novel" by Oprah.

According to the BBC, its appeal goes beyond borders, beating the Bible (although not Pride and Prejudice) to come in fifth in a British poll for World Book Day. Among British librarians, it was the number one book they would recommend.

Narrated by Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, an articulate 6-year-old, Mockingbird covers two years in Maycomb, Ala.--from 1933 to 1935. Dismissed by some as simply a children's book, the novel is far more than a simple coming-of-age story in the old South. For Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill (based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote), growing up means being increasingly at war with the world of the Jim Crow South.

Cover image: The cover of the first edition of <i>To Kill a Mockingbird</i>, published in 1960
The cover of the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960

It's as an anti-racist novel of the civil rights movement, with its deep commitment to social justice and full equality--this is what earned it such a wide appeal. While the limits of the novel's politics have often, with good reason, been the focus of debate among scholars and critics, it's because it stands against racism and for social justice that Mockingbird is listed second among "books that have made a difference" to one's life, according to ABC News.

Set in the 1930s and published in 1960, the novel straddles both periods and can best be understood, as Patrick Chura argues in the article "Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmett Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird" in the Southern Literary Journal, "as an amalgam or cross-historical montage."

Through her depiction of the fictional town of Maycomb during the 1930s, Harper Lee exposes the poverty and class inequalities that plague the town, while introducing the reader to the segregated world of the Jim Crow South. Published just five years after the Montgomery bus boycott and the brutal murder of Emmett Till, it's clearly a novel inspired by the civil rights movement despite being set 30 years earlier.

While Lee has stated that no one trial provided the inspiration for the trial of Tom Robinson that dominates the second half of the novel, it's clear that two cases in particular left their mark on the novel. In 1931, in Scottsboro, Ala., nine men ranging in ages from 12 to 19 were arrested and falsely accused of rape and assault. A lynch mob of hundreds gathered around the prison, forcing the National Guard to intervene.

Over the next decade, the "Scottsboro Boys," as they became known, were national symbols of criminal injustice in the segregated South. An all-white jury convicted all nine men, with no due process and virtually no defense. Their case would later be taken up by the Communist Party, which helped bring it to national attention, mobilizing a campaign that put the Southern criminal justice system itself on trial.

In 1955, Emmett Till's brutal murder became a lightning rod in the nascent civil rights movement as a symbol of the barbarism of Southern "justice." Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was tortured and murdered while visiting Mississippi for the alleged "crime" of whistling at a white woman.

The trial of the two men responsible for his murder made front-page national news, as an all-white jury took just 67 minutes to exonerate Till's murderers. The foreman noted, "It would have been a quicker decision...if we hadn't stopped to drink a bottle of pop."

Both cases galvanized a generation of activists and provided the political impetus for Harper Lee's novel. In Mockingbird, Tom Robinson's trial doesn't spark a mass movement, but it nonetheless leaves an indelible print on the children's changing consciousnesses, making it impossible for them to ever see their town--a microcosm of the South as whole--the same way again.

THE FIRST half of the novel chronicles the adventures of Scout as the town and its social relations are introduced. The oppressive weight of Southern society and the alienation it produces are most clearly expressed through the unforgettable character of Boo Radley, the juvenile rebel turned adult recluse, one of the novel's "mockingbirds," who is the object of the children's fascination.

Maycomb is a segregated Southern town where racism is unquestioned, poverty is everywhere, and one's last name determines one's place in a narrow-minded society. Being a Haverford "is synonymous with being jackass"; being a Cunningham means you're poor, but refuse to take charity (i.e. the "good" poor); and being a Ewell means you don't bathe, don't go to school and do as little as possible except for signing relief checks (i.e. the "bad" poor).

And yet, one of the novel's strengths is that it refuses to let its characters remain one-dimensional. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it," Atticus Finch is fond of saying to his children, and, throughout the novel, we're provided with glimpses of characters, particularly Maycomb's poorest residents, as more than just their name and caste in a society that seems to see nothing else.

Negotiating these borders is a minefield for the young children as the narrative sets out to tell the coming-of-age story of young Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout). But the second half of the novel gives Mockingbird its enduring legacy as the idiosyncrasies of small town life under Jim Crow dissipate to expose the utter barbarism and brutality which form the underpinnings of these "pastoral scenes of the gallant South" that Billie Holliday ironically sings of in the famous anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit."

The turning point of the novel is the arrest of Tom Robinson, an innocent Black man who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Atticus Finch is appointed to defend him, which he does, despite repeated warnings and admonitions. Atticus and his family come under attack by almost all of Maycomb's white society, and it becomes a struggle to even keep his client alive long enough to make it into the courtroom.

Just like the Scottsboro Boys case, many of Maycomb's citizens would prefer to skip the formalities of a trial and organize a lynch mob to perform the execution instead. The court case is decided from the beginning, despite Atticus' efforts and all the evidence that clearly demonstrates that Tom Robinson is innocent. The trial is only for show, as the all-white, male jury hands down a guilty verdict. Like the cases that inspired it, the novel makes clear that there's no such thing as a fair trial in the Jim Crow South.

For Scout, the trial exposes even further the complete hypocrisy of the world she lives in. It's no wonder that Scout so vehemently rebels against becoming a "lady" when these paragons of etiquette and manners espouse the most vicious racism.

The contradictions of the world she live in become shockingly clear to her in a class discussion about Hitler and Nazis, as her teacher explains, "That's the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy, and Germany is a dictatorship...Over here, we don't believe in persecuting anybody"--a statement whose irony escapes Miss Gates, but is abundantly apparent to 8-year-old Scout who overheard her teacher making racist comments at the courthouse after Tom's trial.

"How can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?" she asks her brother. The novel leaves this question unanswered.

AND YET, there are no winners in this travesty of justice.

Lee is perhaps at her best in depicting Mayella Ewell, as she resists caricature while providing a stark window into the misery of her life. Living in squalor behind the town's garbage dump, 19-year-old Mayella is charged with taking care of her seven brothers and sisters while her abusive father drinks away the little money they have before coming home to physically and sexually abuse her.

The "six brilliant red geraniums" in broken "slop jars" which she lovingly cares for are symbols of her attempt to find some beauty in the midst of the horror. Described by Scout as "the loneliest person in the world," Mayella's desperation seethes beneath her hostility on the stand as she misinterprets any form of politeness as mocking her.

This desperation is at the root of her false accusation of Tom Robinson in the first place. It's her desire for Tom, the only person who has ever been nice to her, that leads to her false accusation in a world where such a desire is a threat to the entire system.

Even Tom feels sorry for Mayella--an expression of empathy and kindness that earns him nothing but the ire of the Ewells and the rest of Maycomb, and ultimately costs him his life. The possibility for connection and shared empathy between characters like Mayella and Tom is made impossible by the racism of Jim Crow South. In this sense, the novel echoes Frederick Douglass' statement, "They divided both to conquer each."

While Mayella's character is in many ways despicable, Harper Lee's multifaceted depiction of her shows that racism isn't inevitable, nor does it benefit poor, white families like the Ewells, who are reviled and disdained by the town, despite their race. The fact that the vast majority of the town side with the racist lynch mob, despite their revulsion for the Ewells, says as much if not more about the town's elite as it does its poor.

Thinking about Mayella, I can't help being reminded of Ruby Bates, one of the Scottsboro Boys' accusers, who recanted her accusation after the original trial and became a key activist in their defense. While Mayella herself never changes, other characters do. We learn later that the verdict would have been reached much earlier had it not been for one holdout--one of the Cunninghams who was part of a lynch mob the night before the trial began, but changed his position because of his experience that night.

And, of course, the children themselves are profoundly transformed by their experience of the trial, as the racist underpinnings, the barbarism and hypocrisy of their society is laid bare. In these moments, we can see what author Chimamanda Adichie recently described in the Guardian as Lee's "fiercely progressive ink, in which there is nothing inevitable about racism and its very foundation is open to question."

WHEN IT comes to the depiction of Black characters, however, Harper Lee seems to flounder. She fails to give characters such as Tom Robinson, his wife and Calpurnia the same depth. In this regard, the novel most cedes ground to charges of paternalism and racism. As one writer explains, "It's been argued that the principled depiction of Atticus Finch...comes at the expense of one-dimensional, even offensive representations of black characters."

As one of the most challenged books of the 21st century (often by the right), Mockingbird has also been attacked by progressives who argue, as Akin Ajayi did recently in the Guardian, that it "represents institutionalized racism in the guise of good literature."

In particular, Tom Robinson--whose name reflects his role as one of the "songbirds" in the novel--is given little agency or depth. He's an innocent victim with whom we are meant to sympathize, but who never has much of a voice of his own, nor is he allowed to express anger, a reaction that under the circumstances is more than justified. His one independent action in the novel is after the trial when, "tired of taking white men's chances," he decides to "take his own," and attempts to escape from prison--only to be shot.

The comparison with the mockingbird or song bird--a symbol of innocence in the novel--can be seen as somewhat condescending as it denies him any agency or potential for political struggle or resistance. It's a "crime to kill a mockingbird" we're told, because all they do is sing and bring joy. One can't help wonder whether an angry Tom Robinson who fought back against his accusers would be worthy of the same empathy, or Atticus' rigorous defense.

For all of Atticus' moral righteousness, his willingness to defy racists in his town and risk both his and his children's lives in pursuit of justice, it's hard to imagine him defending, for example, Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright's Native Son, who as a result of the brutal racism and dehumanization he has experienced his entire life does kill, at least in part for fear of succumbing to Robinson's fate. Or Toni Morrison's Sethe who in Beloved kills her own daughter to prevent her from being returned to slavery.

In this sense, the title itself underscores the limits of the novel in which the struggle against racism is primarily figured as a moral one. Political struggle and resistance are not an option.

For this reason, critics like the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell lambaste the book, arguing that Atticus' "hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform." The moral code that he espouses motivates his rejection of racism, but it too often also means "understanding" racists like the horrid Mrs. Dubose, to the point that he tells Scout that it's wrong to hate anyone--even Hitler.

For Atticus, racists are good people with a "blind spot." Gladwell rightly points out that these "blind spots" are a little more dangerous than Atticus would have us believe, leading to the death of over 100 people by lynching between 1930 and 1935 alone.

Part of the problem is the narrative's point of view--which is both a strength and a weakness. Told from the perspective of 6-year-old Scout (8 by the end of the novel), it becomes difficult to determine whether the unquestioned racism within the novel's narrative is a reflection of the author's or the character's prejudices.

As several critics have pointed out, when Scout, Dill and Jem watch the court case from the balcony where Maycomb's Black citizens are required to sit, they don't question that people immediately give up seats for them, nor do they question segregation itself. Perhaps this is a failure of the novel itself, but by highlighting Scout's biases, it also stands as a searing indictment of a society that so distorts the vision and moral compass of its children.

At the same time, it's Scout's voice that in part gives the novel its power. Her perspective as a child highlights the contradictions, hypocrisy and gross injustices of her world. And, in the best tradition of literature that is geared toward young readers, the children aren't passive witnesses to a brutal history but active participants who, despite the limitations of their world, make choices to reject and defy the cultural norms and racist divisions which plague their society.

In one of the novel's most poignant scenes, Scout stops a lynch mob from attacking her father and killing Tom. Not understanding that the mob led by Mr. Cunningham is there to lynch Tom Robinson, Scout attempts to engage Cunningham (although she kicks him first) in a "polite" conversation, as she has been taught to do.

The "polite" manners that Scout has been taught stand in stark contrast to the brutal violence of the lynch mob. At the same time, her ability to intervene, reminding Mr. Cunningham of his humanity as a father and a friend, chips away at the depersonalization of the mob mentality. While it's somewhat unrealistic, the young, white child saves the day with her innocence. For young readers, it's a reminder that choices matter, that even children have agency, and that resistance is justified, necessary and at times victorious.

IN SCENES like this, we can understand why this novel rates so high among "books that make a difference" in people's lives. Though it's true, as Gladwell argues that, the novel ultimately reveals "the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism," to leave it at that misses the point.

To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly not a radical novel, nor was Harper Lee a revolutionary (nor is, for that matter, Malcolm Gladwell). Nonetheless, any novel that elicits such debates is worth reading and discussing. As a teacher, I believe the novel provides a starting point to discuss larger questions of racism and the civil rights movement, to learn about the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till and even the Jena Six. Teach it alongside Richard Wright's Black Boy or Native Son, and the discussion becomes even more interesting.

In 1960, in Alabama, when Mockingbird was published, there was a choice. Either you were on the side of the growing civil rights movement, or with the bigots and segregationists. Whatever its limitations, with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee clearly wrote a novel that was unabashedly on the side of civil rights. For that alone, it should be celebrated.

That the 50th anniversary of the novel is being celebrated with the first Black president in office has been commented on quite effusively. But there are other questions that remain: Why is it that 50 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird is still taught in segregated schools?

Two years ago in Monroeville, Ala., Harper Lee's hometown on which the fictional Maycomb is based, parents of junior high school students initiated a lawsuit in an attempt to stop racist treatment of their children. In a town that is 53 percent white and 44 percent Black, this particular school was 78 percent Black.

Rather than simply celebrating, perhaps the novel would be better commemorated by the launching of a new movement against segregation and for equal, quality public education for all. To honor Atticus as a lawyer who was willing to risk his life in the pursuit of justice and equality, let's fight to liberate Lynne Stewart who has essentially been given a death sentence for defending her client to the best of her ability. Rather than re-enacting the trial of Tom Robinson in the courthouse of Monroeville, perhaps we could work to free the thousands of Tom Robinsons who sit in jail cells and on death rows all over this country.

The best way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird isn't through endless re-enactments. It's by taking the very best the book has to offer and turning that into momentum for a fight for social justice. The novel celebrates the heroic struggles of people who fought despite almost certain failure.

As Atticus points out in one of his many aphorisms, "courage...is when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway, and you see it through no matter what." If Tom Robinson, the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, Scout and Harper Lee have taught us anything, it's that there's a desperate need for a new world to be won.

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